Final Days of a Barrio Parish 

A small Catholic church in West Oakland celebrates its last masses before closing down for good.

The air was thick with the aroma of scented candles. Along the walls, the Messiah suffered and died over the course of thirteen brightly colored plaster statuettes. Oaken rafters converged high above the pews, white lilies illuminated the altar, and a wooden Jesus hung twenty feet in the air, his face dull with exhaustion. A Mexican-American man in his thirties knelt alone in the back, his hands clutched in silent supplication. After ten minutes, he stood up. He wore a raggedy beige sweatshirt; his workboots were smeared with drywall dust. He took his place at the door and murmured buenos dias to mothers pushing strollers. Mass was starting.

These are the last days of the Church of St. Andrew-St. Joseph, a West Oakland parish that dates back to 1892. Last month, the bishop of the Oakland diocese announced he was closing the church as part of a larger plan to fold small neighborhood parishes into the Cathedral of Christ the Light, the grand new center of Catholic worship under construction on the shore of Lake Merritt. Where once low-income parishioners walked to church and worshiped with a community of three hundred neighbors, soon they will drive or take the bus to the bishop's personal church and genuflect among fifteen hundred strangers. By the end of the summer, this church will be gone. "There is always sorrow when any family must set out from a place they have grown to love, a place filled with fond memories, to take up a new home," Bishop Allen Vigneron wrote in a letter to the church in March. "It was so for Abraham, our Father-in-faith, and it cannot be otherwise for you. However, we can be confident that just as the Lord God gave Abraham the strength for his pilgrimage, he will give to you the graces needed to face the challenges that lie ahead."

Last Sunday, parishioners shook their heads and grumbled to one another just before services started. At the corner of Brockhurst and San Pablo, two institutions are locked in a struggle to define the neighborhood. One is the park on the west side of San Pablo, a small triangle of garbage and benches where drug dealers, prostitutes, and the homeless pass the time and ply their wares. The other is the grayish-pink chapel of St. Andrew across the street, where worshipers say they have slowly chased out the hookers and made the neighborhood a little safer. It hasn't been easy, they say; when AC Transit installed a bus stop in front of the chapel, dealers began huddling under its shelter, and worshipers step over needles and condoms on Sunday mornings. Without the church, they worry, nothing will stop West Oakland's hard-boiled life from spreading.

"This parish has always been very vocal as far as keeping the prostitutes off the streets," said Steven Fajardo, a retired police chief who stood near the entrance with his daughter. "The past pastor was very active in trying to help the women — not prosecute them, but to help them. ... We have a center for homeless here, we have a soup kitchen that's generated out of this area. And all of that helps keep the community a little better, I think. ... My wife said this morning, 'What's a community without a bank? What's a community without a school? What's a community without a church?' If they pluck this out of here, there's nothing for miles and miles around."

Fajardo has attended St. Andrew for twenty years, but it took the birth of his daughter for him to realize that this church was home. Everyone has stories like his, he said. His friends baptized their children and watched them confirmed; they got married or buried their parents here. A lot of memories have burrowed into the joists and crossbeams. "It's more than accepting change," he said. "It's fighting for what we believe is something worth fighting for, that should stay. If they take this church out of the community, Oakland's going to lose a lot."

Unfortunately, says diocese spokesman Mark Wiesner, St. Andrew's just can't pay for itself anymore. The building is old, he says, and the congregation is too poor to keep it from falling apart. "As with many small parishes, they were struggling to maintain their physical plant," Wiesner says. "The small community simply didn't have those kinds of resources, and weren't able to raise those resources." It's been a hard choice to make, he added, one that took months of soul-searching and discussion. But the bishop is determined to make this small congregation the heart and soul of the new cathedral. If demographics are any indication, the future of American Catholicism will be Latin, and the Cathedral of Christ the Light will reflect this, using the three hundred parishioners of St. Andrew to establish a Spanish-speaking presence in the diocese's headquarters. "The bishop has chosen them to be part of the founding community of the new cathedral," Wiesner says. "He's met with them, he's shaken their hands, he knows their hopes and dreams. So he knows who they are. ... We're baptized into the church as a whole, not a particular site."

Father John Direen, St. Andrew's priest, strode down the aisles and flicked holy water at the congregation. This was the second mass he celebrated today; a few dozen elderly black women come for the English mass, followed by three hundred mostly Latino mothers at eleven. A small band sang Spanish hymns off-key; the organ warbled uncertainly, and the bass player thrummed a few notes under the melody. As Fajardo's wife gave the first reading, a young boy led his brother to the marble font of holy water between the pews. He heaved his brother just high enough to reach the bowl; over and over, he showed the boy how to dip his fingers and make the sign of the cross on his forehead, while his mother occasionally glanced over her shoulder. Young men dressed in leather jackets and gold chains snuck in to stand at the back. They didn't feel comfortable sitting among the congregation, but something compelled them to come each Sunday.

Throughout the service, children sat on the linoleum floor and played with action figures. Sobbing, cranky infants drowned out the Spanish litany, but no one minded. In its place, life was happening; neighbors chatted with each other or smiled when their eyes met on the way to the altar for communion. Everyone was dressed in jumpsuits, work clothes, and sneakers. This was their church. They were comfortable here.

One attendee summed up the mood. "The cathedral is going to be fancy," he said. "We're not fancy people."

According to Sandra Martinez, who has attended this church all her life, the parishioners are planning one last appeal, a silent march to the diocese office sometime this month. But in the end, they say, they'll put their trust in God. "All we have is hope," she says.

The band broke into another off-key hymn, which was half-heartedly taken up by a few parishioners until, for a single stanza, everyone sang together. Te ofrecemos, Padre nuestro, they chanted. Este vino y este pan. Junto con ellos te damos el trabajo y el dolor, la dicha de ser tus hijos. We offer you, our Father, this wine and this bread. Together with them we give the work and the pain, the happiness of being your children.


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