A recent Christmas card from the Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles prompted memories of teaching theology there during the early ’90s. Holy Apostles Seminary conducted a Master of Arts program there, and I had the privilege of teaching contemporary moral issues and bioethics in its curriculum. Father Francis J. Lescoe, Rector of the Seminary, led the project of structuring the academic program at the request of the Sisters, who needed an accredited graduate degree for their professional teaching responsibilities.
The Sisters are headquartered in beautiful Alhambra (San Martino is but a few steps away; Pasadena, the site of the annual Rose Bowl, lies in the vicinity). The religious community also operates St. Teresita, a state-of-the-art hospital in Duarte. The hospital, which I once visited, serves the San Gabriel Valley. The Sisters give high priority to their presence in its corridors.
Having taught summers in Alhambra during the ’90s, I readily admit that I miss the ongoing experience, which had to cease for my part when I was privileged to add a full-time pastorate to my editorial obligations and seminary lectures. (Every diocesan priest has his heart focused on a pastorate.)
The weather in southern California was, of course, idyllic. The intellectual opportunities were legion. (Just imagine visiting some of the missions almost daily. San Fernando is especially rich in historical data; I could not help but keep returning to it.) And the Sisters, who are widely revered in the area, are appreciative of sound liturgy, which I have always loved. Hence, I welcomed the opportunity to celebrate their community Mass each morning.
One of the incidents I experienced on my various pilgrimages in and around Los Angeles happened at La Placita, the primordial “mission” of Los Angeles (originally named Nuestra Señora Reina de Los Angelos, “Our Lady, Queen of Angels”). La Placita was not one of the major missions chartered by the King of Spain, but an “outpost chapel” or asistencia, meant to bypass, for reasons of need, the lengthy, formal process of acquiring a royal charter.
I first visited the old mission church of La Placita with a group of Sisters. As we crossed the surrounding courtyard, a small crowd warmly greeted the Carmelite Sisters in Spanish, and a security guard did the same, while opening a side door of the chapel for us. Scores of people were inside, praying before the Blessed Sacrament enthroned. There were mothers with their children, as well as entire families; most were Hispanics. Toward the front, I saw a young mother with an infant. One of the Sisters asked the infant’s age. “Six days,” she replied in Spanish. Two other small children were kneeling with her. This scene, I wrote at the time, “is the real Los Angeles. Not Hollywood, but La Placita. Not Universal Studios, but La Placita.” (Transcript, 14 Aug. 1992; Faith Perspectives)
The beautiful scene at La Placita has never left my memory. I remember it vividly every time I kneel before the Blessed Sacrament in the monstrance, every time I preach about the Eucharist, every time I write about the Mass and Eucharistic Devotion. The reason, I suppose, is that while much of southern California is so artificial, so unreal; nonetheless, within the very heart of Los Angeles, a short distance from famed Olvera Street (where “L.A.” began), the old mission church is still standing, not as a museum, but as a chapel of faith, where ordinary, poor people of faith gather regularly to pray before Christ present in the Eucharist. These are the real people; La Placita is a place where the transformation of the world is happening.
During another teaching summer in Los Angeles, I took time to visit the celebrated Santa Monica Pier, as well as the beach there, and, of course, Hollywood (which I had visited previously for some television shows about theology and the saints). Hollywood is not far from La Placita – in miles. But in spirit, the distance beggars the mind. The challenge for the Carmelite Sisters and the Church there continues to be that of closing the distance between. It is a challenge we all face in the Church, everywhere, daily.
Recall how the late Pulitzer-Prize winning Catholic historian Paul Horgan once explained this process of “closing the distance in between” in his short story, The Devil in the Desert. He depicted an aged circuit-riding priest traversing the great Southwest day after day, and quite alone. As he rode the trails, he used to imagine a “great triangle” between God in heaven and “the little ranch toward which he rode,” a triangle whose distance between himself and God grew shorter and shorter until he arrived with God’s word and grace.
The old priest knew so well that “without God the richest life in the world was more arid than desert,” but with God, “the poorest life was… complete in a harmony that composed all things.” (Moments of Truth, Doubleday, Image, 1968).
Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of The Catholic Transcript, and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.