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Why 1923 was the Catholic boom year for the Archdiocese of LA


In 1923, a sign was placed in the hills above Los Angeles hoping to attract buyers to a new real estate development. Though the sign was only meant to be temporary, 100 years later it has become a symbol of both a bygone era and a representation of something that has endured through constantly changing times.

That was the Hollywood sign.

This year, many LA-area landmarks and institutions are turning 100: the Hollywood sign, the LA Memorial Coliseum, the Biltmore hotel, El Cholo restaurant.

Also 100 years ago: The then-Diocese of Los Angeles-San Diego established 18 parishes — the most of any year before or since.

So what was happening in the Los Angeles area in the early 1920s that not only brought these historic landmarks, but also necessitated then-Bishop John Cantwell to establish a whopping 18 parishes?

In short, LA was growing by leaps and bounds.

In 1920, Los Angeles had overtaken San Francisco to be the most populated city in California. In 1916, there were 49,107 Catholics residing in the city, according to federal census data. By 1926, that number jumped 132% to 114,211 Catholics in Los Angeles alone, not counting surrounding areas.

There were two major reasons for this, according to Father Michael Engh, SJ, chancellor at Loyola Marymount University and a former history professor. The first was LA and its Chamber of Commerce were heavily promoting the area for its sunny weather, affordable land, and plentiful jobs.

Entire industries were flocking to the region or being created. Movies. Oil. Aerospace. With more jobs came more people. With more people came new construction. With new construction came more infrastructure.

“It’s the American dream,” Engh said. “Get a job, get a home, raise your families here. Great environment, great weather.”

Parishioners at Our Lady of Guadalupe (Hammel) in Los Angeles sing during the parish’s 50th anniversary in 1973. (Tidings Archives)

The second reason was the Mexican Revolution. With strife, battles, and chaos waging south of the border, many Mexican citizens poured into LA dreaming of a better life of better-paying jobs, housing, and education for their children.

With anti-Catholic sentiment also raging in Mexico, streams of priests, nuns, and religious also fled to the U.S., with many ending up in Los Angeles.

So with an increasing Spanish-speaking population, and priests and nuns available to serve that community, that also required more churches.

“So economic growth, enormous influx of people, railroad transportation,” Engh said. “And then this great flood from Mexico coming up as well. So the diocese was growing by leaps and bounds along with Los Angeles and Southern California.”

Then Engh exclaimed, “I had forgotten just how dynamic the period actually was.”

Celebrating 100

For several of the 18 parishes celebrating their centennial this year, the festivities came in all manners and measures.

At Mother of Sorrows Church in South Los Angeles, the commemoration actually began last year, with a different celebration each month. Those events included a Mass with Archbishop José H. Gomez, a centennial logo contest, and raffles of religious articles.

For Father Brian Chung, the pastor at Mother of Sorrows, the blessings have come for a parish he said is poor financially, but rich in spirit.

“Despite all our struggles, in many ways we’re never shy about expressing our faith,” Chung said.

At St. Bernard Church in Bellflower, the parish didn’t know the exact date when it was established, so it set its big celebration for Aug. 20, the feast day for its namesake saint. The problem is that day turned out to be the exact time the historic Hurricane Hilary was set to touch down in Southern California.

Thankfully, the outdoor event went on windy and wet, but with canopies and hearts full of grace.

“Everybody enjoyed it,” said St. Bernard pastor Father Toribio Gutierrez. “It was a lot of people out in the rain. We enjoyed a lot of food, music, and dance.”

As part of its 100th anniversary, St. Bernard is also planning a door-to-door ministry to welcome the neighborhood to the parish with an upcoming town hall in December.

“We are going to start going door to door for all the neighbors to come and to know our community and to let them know that we are here and all the ministries for serving them,” Gutierrez said.

Msgr. Daniel Sullivan, left, who was pastor at Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills for 24 years, speaks to parishioners and students in 1972. (Tidings Archives)

As the only Catholic parish in Inglewood, St. John Chrysostom Church kept things simple by having one big reception following Mass with the archbishop, replete with mariachis, food, and a packed house with about 1,000 parishioners.

“To me, it was important to not only celebrate as a parish, but to celebrate as a parish community,” said Father Alexis Ibarra, administrator at St. John Chrysostom. “We had a whole ministry fair. We figured what better moment than our anniversary to invite more people to join the ministries and to serve the community in a larger sense.”

For Father Peter Irving III, who has been the pastor at Holy Innocents Church in Long Beach for 17 years, he knows a thing or two about longevity. So when it came time to celebrate Holy Innocents’ 100th anniversary, the parish tried to celebrate all the things that make it special.

First, they honored the Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles — and especially its foundress, Venerable Maria Luisa Josefa, who escaped Mexico as part of the Cristero War and later taught at Holy Innocents — with several talks and book signings about the order’s history.

The parish also had several Eucharistic processions, including one that led to an abortion clinic, which falls in line with the church’s pro-life work. Since 2008, as part of its expectant mothers outreach and providing material and spiritual support, Irving estimated they’ve saved 1,603 babies.

Holy Innocents is taking its celebrations all the way to the absolute end of 2023, with a special Mass on its feast day, Dec. 28, followed by a grand gala on Dec. 29.

“I take zero credit for all of that because it’s all a gift,” Irving said. “Also, we have really good people. Very generous, wonderful people.”

At Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills, its centennial celebration came with another piece of good news: The parish was designated as a historical landmark by the City Council. 

Along with a huge Mass and gala celebrated on Aug. 13 and attended by the mayor, police chief, council members and former California Gov. Gray Davis, parishioners received a commemorative book highlighting the parish’s rich history.

Good Shepherd’s pastor, Father Ed Benioff, said that while the parish has a history with entertainers and being located in a wealthy city, the church is for everyone.

“Our first 50 years, we had a lot of entertainers here so it was truly the parish of the entertainment stars,” Benioff said. “But I would say [in] the last 50 years, entertainment people now have multiple homes and they don’t necessarily live in Beverly Hills anymore. It’s kind of just more of the common person.

“I think the misconception would be just a bunch of rich well-dressed snobs. That’s not the case. People are very down to earth. Very warm and friendly.”

Ascension Church in Los Angeles celebrates Mass in 1990. (Tidings Archives)

The next 100 years?

As celebrations for the 18 parishes come to a close, several of the pastors couldn’t help but think about what the next 100 years might bring, both for their parishes and the overall Church.

“I hope the parish will be alive and will also be useful,” said St. Bernard pastor Gutierrez. “Not just a parish to give the parishioners maintenance, but to make them disciples and send them out to talk about the good news to other people.”

Gutierrez is proud of the improvements made to his parish that he hopes will endure for another century.

“There are a lot of changes and improvements that the community considered to be needed in order to make the church look alive, not only to be alive,” Gutierrez said.

Father Chung, the pastor at Mother of Sorrows, pointed to his parish’s weekly food distribution and helping those less fortunate as where he’d like the Church to head going forward.

“We try to be something not just for ourselves, but for other people as well,” Chung said. 

“So hopefully in the next 100 years, we maintain who we are as Catholics, but yet reach out to our more vulnerable brothers and sisters so that we can be a place of hope and faith toward people.”

For Father Alexis Ibarra, administrator at St. John Chrysostom, it’s important to remember the individual moments of faith that have occurred at each parish over the past 100 years, and to focus on creating many more in the next century.

“We must leave it better than we found it,” Ibarra said. “We’re building on the first 100 years, so for the next 100 years to continue that tradition of Catholic values, family values, upholding the dignity of human life, and keep spreading the Gospel.

“Archbishop says to imagine how many baptisms and how many first Communions, how many first reconciliations, how many confirmations, weddings, how many funerals, how many people have received the Eucharist week after week, day after day in those 100 years, and then those to come. That to me is not only historic, but that’s the grace, that’s the blessing.”

Nativity Church in El Monte is pictured during its 75th anniversary in 1998. (Tidings Archives)

Centennial celebrations

Here are the 18 parishes celebrating their 100th anniversary in 2023:

Ascension Church in South Los Angeles

Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills

Holy Innocents Church in Long Beach

Mother of Sorrows Church in South Los Angeles

Nativity Church in El Monte

Our Lady Help of Christians Church in Northeast LA

Our Lady of Guadalupe (Hammel) in East Los Angeles

Our Lady of Mount Lebanon in Los Angeles

Precious Blood Church in Los Angeles

Resurrection Church in Boyle Heights

Santa Teresita Church in Northeast LA

St. Agatha Church in Jefferson Park

St. Bernard Church in Bellflower

St. Gregory Nazianzen Church in Koreatown

St. John Chrysostom Church in Inglewood

St. Kevin Church in Los Angeles

St. Mark Church in Venice

Church of the Transfiguration in Leimert Park



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