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In this lush suburb, they ‘beat the bushes’ for people to serve

By Arthur Jones
NCR Staff
South Pasadena, Calif.

Holy Family Church is a Christmas story about Sunday families and Monday families, and angels on the altar.

More than half the 24,600 people in the 3.4 square miles of South Pasadena are registered at Holy Family, and two-thirds of those are usually at Mass on Sunday.

Every Monday, the 300 homeless or needy families come to the church for a week’s supply of food from the Giving Bank. Tuesday through Friday, 60 homeless turn up -- probably only 10 percent from South Pasadena -- for a take-away meal.

What may not be usual in some inner-city settings is happening here in a neighborhood where homes range from $250,00O to $1 million.

This place is the opposite of the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) syndrome. Here poor people are invited in, places are designed for them, they are essential to the life and future of this parish.

On the second Sunday of Advent, there were 600 computer-paper Christmas angels on the altar. These are staffer Pat Babb’s computer-print-out angels, and each angel carries the name and birthdate of a boy or girl from among the 600 Monday-family children under 16 years.

The almost 3,700 registered Sunday families and singles ensure that each child has an age-appropriate gift, and much else besides, for Christmas.

Holy Family is a gift that keeps on giving. Some 15 percent of the parish family is elderly shut-ins. Each week, 2 dozen teenagers take turns in teams videotaping the 9.30 a.m. Sunday mass and seeing their work broadcast on three local cable channels to 18 cities.

And how many other parishes have a full-time gerontologist on staff? This parish’s handbook is a yellow-and-blue three-ring binder crammed with activities and ministries. What’s not in it, yet, is the culmination of the dream.

South Pasadena, founded 1888, is what a lot of Catholic neighborhoods were like 50 years and more ago: Half the people in public office are Catholic; half the people in business; and probably many of the cops and mail carriers. The July 4th parade is mostly Catholic.

In South Pasadena, Holy Family is identity.

To some extent, it has always been that way, said Julie Smith (née Shaw) who grew up in the parish, attended its school and returned as an adult with husband, Marty, to raise their five children in it.

Smith’s own involvement -- 20 years ago she was doing religious ed, a job she did for 14 years, and now she’s directing community services -- provides insights into Holy Family’s sharpened focus. So does the parish building plan -- they go hand-in-hand.

When Smith took over parish social outreach, about the time the new pastor arrived in 1980, “there were 1,200 families on the books then,” she said, and “nearly 4,000 now.”

“Masses have always been packed -- now there are more of them -- and the parish has always been blessed with great leadership and priests. Sometimes I see [previous pastor] Msgr. Thomas McGovern or Fr. John Berry [who was in residence] and they say: ‘It’s grown so.’ I tell them, ‘It’s all your fault -- you started the ball rolling.’ ”

If they prepared the turf, Msgr. Clement Connolly, pastor for almost a decade-and-a-half, has spread its sward in a dozen ways.

“We never dreamed monsignor was the visionary he is,” said Smith. “He engulfed and internalized Holy Family and was off like a flash. The word among the staff is: Don’t give him any more new ideas.”

There are enough to be going on with.

When Smith took over the social outreach, she said, “we beat bushes to find people who needed help. The police and postal service employees were offering to do food drives.” They do it annually, for gradually the word spread around.

“People know we’re here now,” said Smith, and the other churches, some of which have small or emergency programs, share information and assistance.

“One church had a socks drive; schools have collected shoes -- new and used -- for us,” said Smith, whose parish title covers activities from Giving Bank to video ministry to vacation Bible school to parish environment.

Soon, the numbers coming to the old Victorian house at the corner of Rollin and Oak were parking their old cars on the street or standing in line on the sidewalk.

The parish seniors, the bulk of the Giving Bank volunteers, were humping 3,000 bags of groceries a week down and up the basement stairs.

Four years ago, with the parish crying for meeting room and the Giving Bank, the parish borrowed $3 million (“We had no parish reserves,” said Connolly) and bought the First Church Christ Scientist on the opposite corner.

The handsome, low roofed, brick-clad structure, now the St. Joseph’s Center and Giving Bank site (it has a large parking lot) complements Holy Family’s own Spanish baroque church: two very different architectural gems set in grass and trees on city neighborhood streets.

In Holy Family Church’s entrance is a scale model of the parish plan. The old empty convent is gone; the Victorian house replaced by a light, bright pastoral center -- with a simple chapel in its basement. Redoing the 300-student school is next.

And thereby hangs a tale: What do the neighbors say about poor people coming in and the buildings going up?

Connolly backs into the answer this way. “The genesis of the parish vision was gradual. The people, in building it, said the cornerstone was the Giving Bank. Not the youth center first, not the school first. The Giving Bank is such a fundamental, substantial, essential part of our mission, building the other without it being first would be taking the heart out of the vision.”

For six or seven months, he said, the parish vision was discussed in a hive full of meetings and committees: “one draft, not acceptable, second, third draft. All to design the church community for the future, to position a church for next millennium.”

And the neighbors?

To anyone who came in the early stages of planning and said, “We do not want you to have a Giving Bank, and if you give it up maybe we won’t oppose you so much,” Connolly replied, “We won’t give up our Giving Bank. It is an essential statement of who we are and the gospel we’re anxious to live.”

“I wouldn’t be too hard on people,” he added quickly. “We had some opposition. I think a lot of it comes from fear -- I become a little bit bizarre myself when I’m afraid. When you threaten me I can do things that are out of character, because I’m afraid.

“The more we communicated,” he said, “the more we saw the common interest -- that the church is the community, and the community is the church. A common interest in building Kingdom in the community -- not offending it but enriching it.”

“The more we tried to say that,” said Connolly, “the more, -- by and large -- the concern disappeared.”

The vision sees further, though. There’s Connolly’s own dream.

If the paper Christmas angels represent the now -- immediate symbols of the soul of the parish vision -- the eight townhouse apartments nearby are the hope.

Three apartments are occupied by the priests, three rented to tenants, one is a chapel and the other a common room. There, one day, muses Connolly, might live the entire parish leadership team: men and women, clerical and lay, in community.

It would be a leadership community, in Connolly’s words, “vulnerable enough to need one another and rich enough in God’s grace to believe that when we’re together, we are better.”

In the parish vision, “at least we have created an option for that model,” said Connolly. “Most parishes are rectories -- offices and rectory. This is a model through which I think we are trying to ask: ‘What kind of leadership would we look for in this church for the future?’

“It may be beyond my time here,” he added. Wistfully. Meantime, the turkeys and toys have been bagged and distributed, and the angels have flown away to enjoy them.

National Catholic Reporter, December 25, 1998