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Parish of La Placita is ‘a Pentecost’ community

In a sense, the Claretian story in the United States begins at La Placita. For many years, until 1890, La Placita’s pastor was Fr. Peter Verdaguer, a priest of the Brownsville, Texas, vicariate who had known the order’s founder, St. Anthony Claret, in Catalonia, Spain.

By 1902 Verdaguer was bishop of Brownsville and eager to have Claret’s men preach missions in remote corners of his diocese. The Spanish Claretians responded, and from those beginnings, Claretians spread out.

“They were circuit riders,” said Claretian Fr. Ron Alves, today doing community organizing in Long Beach, Calif. Alves, who studied dairy science at college before joining the order, said, “Those early missioners rode for 12 hours to say Masses. They fasted all day.”

Soon the Claretians were operating Mission San Gabriel in the Los Angeles area and by 1910, La Placita. (Until 1978, they also staffed the historic San Fernando Mission in San Antonio.) The first private landowners in California, the Dominguez family, gave the congregation their historic home as a seminary, and by 1920 the U.S. Claretians had international missions in Colombia, Costa Rica, Panama and the Canal Zone.

Today Claretian Fr. Dennis Gallo is pastor at La Placita. He, Fr. Steve Niskanen and Arnold Abelardo, a transitional deacon in the congregation, talked to NCR about parish life, Claretian life and Claret.

Abelardo, raised in the Philippines and about to be ordained for the U.S. Western Province, worked in Manila’s slums as a lay Claretian. “My encounter with the Claretians was seeing them engaged with the poor and the squatters. The spirit and charism of Claret is his identification with ordinary people.”

Another distinction he said, was that with diocesan priests, “it was ‘Whatever Father said.’ The Claretians said, ‘What do you think? What do you want us to do?’ That inspired me.”

Until last July, Gallo was pastor at St. Gabriel Mission in San Gabriel, Calif. The essential multicultural parish, it serves Latinos, Vietnamese, Filipinos and a variety of European cultures.

“How to meld our multicultural com-munities reflects the real challenge of the church today,” Gallo said. “Truly a gift but also a challenge.” In addition to training lay evangelizers and developing small group communities, the parish comes together at liturgies, he said, through song and responses in the various languages. “It’s really a Pentecost,” Gallo said.

Explained Abelardo, “English is not the standard language, and that’s not a problem. [In the small groups] there will be a Vietnamese who is bilingual in Spanish, a Filipino bilingual, Latinos who speak Spanglish. So you can have trilingual liturgies, you do it through songs, through, ‘Let us pray to the Lord, oremus.’ You listen to the people in each language.”

At La Placita, Niskanen and Gallo agree that one of the biggest challenges is to respond to the needs of those seeking refuge and a place of welcome. And to build up the parish presence in nearby public housing, where they’ve already established an outreach and a Tuesday Mass.

For Latino immigrants coming into the United States, La Placita is the mecca. Once they’ve connected, many never leave -- even if they move away. On Sundays they come in by train. Said Gallo, “They come from all over; their culture is respected and valued. This is their parish, their home.”

Back in Long Beach, Alves is circuit riding that city, getting churches to organize, and people to speak out about their needs.

What catches people’s attention? Replied Alves, with a knowing smile, “letting Long Beach people know the streetlights have 100 watt bulbs… everywhere except in the poor people’s neighborhoods. If the poor people’s streetlights work, they only have 75 watt bulbs.”

-- Arthur Jones

National Catholic Reporter, February 28, 2003