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CANOGA PARISH BLENDS FLOCK OF MANY COLORS.

Byline: Anne Burke Daily News Staff Writer

The Vietnamese-language Masses are solemn, the Spanish ones raucous, and the English services a little bit of both.

With weeks of preparation culminating in Easter services today, the Rev. Jim Gehl says of his broadly multilingual flock at St. Joseph the Worker Catholic Church in Canoga Park: Viva la difference.

``I like to use the image of `Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,' '' Gehl said. ``The church needs to be like Joseph's coat. We're one church family made up of a variety of different languages and ethnicities.''

Today, as Christians worldwide celebrate the resurrection of Christ and spiritual rebirth, parishioners at the church known by its English-speaking contingent as ``St. Jo's'' will open its doors to an artists' palette of faces from Latin America, Vietnam, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and many other countries as well as America.

``It's really been beautiful. It's a wonderful community feeling,'' said longtime parishioner Jean Costanzo of Canoga Park, who helped with St. Joseph Holy Week activities by ironing baptismal robes for St. Joseph's new initiates.

``The word catholic means universal. That's the way it was intended to be,'' added parishioner Wesley Holroyd of Canoga Park, who sat in a St. Joseph's pew last week below a towering gold mosaic of the risen Christ.

St. Joseph can't offer services in the first language of every parishioner, but in the mid-1980s, it expanded to Spanish and Vietnamese in addition to English.

Today, for example, the commemoration of the Resurrection will be celebrated at the 1,200-seat church with four Masses in English, two in Spanish and one in Vietnamese. About 60 percent of church attendees speak English, while 30 percent speak Spanish and the rest Vietnamese, Gehl said.

``We believe that at the root of it all, people have a right and a need to worship their God in their native tongue,'' said Gehl, himself a St. Joseph parishioner since the late 1950s, when the congregation was mostly white.

Multilingual services have been around in Catholic churches since 1969, when priests started celebrating the Mass in the vernacular.

Now, of the 284 parishes in the Los Angeles Roman Catholic Archdiocese, more than 200 offer Mass in at least one language other than English, said the Rev. Gregory Coiro, archdiocese spokesman.

Not all churches or denominations have managed to adapt. Last month, the First Presbyterian Church of San Fernando, beset by dwindling membership, dissolved, making way for an African Methodist Episcopal Church.

At St. Joseph, Gehl shares pulpit duties with the Rev. Dario Miranda from Mexico and the Rev. Chanh Nguyen from Vietnam.

Each of the ``language communities,'' as Gehl calls them, bring to St. Joseph a bit of the flavor and traditions of Catholicism as they practiced it in the old country.

Last week, a red-robed Miranda planned to lead Latino parishioners on a traditional Good Friday procession through streets surrounding the block-long church, stopping at the 16 stations along the way, each marked by a small altar or cross.

Later Friday afternoon, the parishioners staged a Passion play depicting Christ's condemnation to death and ultimately his body being taken down from the cross, all in Spanish and brought alive with the costumes of Christ, Mary, the Roman soldiers and other characters.

``Traditionally, Hispanics come from a more painful experience - oppression, political corruption, poverty. Because of that, the Hispanic spirituality identifies very much with the suffering, the Passion,'' Miranda said.

Spanish-speaking parishioner Carmen Toribio of Canoga Park planned to join the procession with several other family members.

``It's been a tradition with us. It's something that we all like doing,'' said Toribio, who knows Easter as ``La Pascua.''

The Vietnamese bring traditions of their own, incorporating chantlike expressions into the homily and maintaining a solemn and austere posture as they sit in pews surrounding the church's central communion altar.

``We're very silent and more ritual oriented,'' Nguyen said. ``And we like to have some kind of traditional chants.''

But it's not always easy adapting to the ways of Western Catholics, especially for South Vietnamese refugees still shaken by the war, Nguyen said.

For example, the baptismal dousing in St. Joseph's knee-deep, marble font is a bit much for those used to a light sprinkling on the forehead, Nguyen said.

``For us, just a little bit is enough,'' Nguyen said. ``But because we're here, we'll do it.'

Although the three language communities often attend separate services, they come together for a single service spoken in three languages at Thanksgiving and several other times during the year.

Easter is one of those times. The church was expected to be overflowing with English-speaking parishioners, Vietnamese and Latinos for a baptism of 17 initiates Saturday evening, as part of St. Joseph's Easter vigil.

Tina Hunter of Canoga Park was excited about becoming a baptized member of a church that embraces so many different cultures.

``I like the feeling of community,'' she said.

But it would have been hard to match the excitement level at the Dumur home in Reseda, home to four school-age cousins who were to be baptized Saturday.

Mom and guardian Lisa Dumur was busy last week shopping for white communion-style dresses, and white gloves and tights for the two girls - her daughter Natalie, 7, and niece Virginia Hernandez, 11 - and dark pants and dress shoes for the boys David, 13, and Michael Hernandez, 10.

``The kids are completely excited because it's like they're being born again,'' Lisa Dumur said. ``This is bigger for them than a birthday party.''

CAPTION(S):

Photo

Photo: ``We're one church family made up of a variety of different languages and ethnicities.''

- The Rev. Jim Gehl

at St. Joseph the Worker Catholic Church

Joe Binoya/Special to the Daily News
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No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Mar 30, 1997
Words:954
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