Looking back on...Our lady of perpetual help church

DOWNEY - In 1907, a petition began to circulate around the newly established community of Downey.However, unlike other formal written requests, this petition was not political in nature, but rather religious. For the nearly 100 early Catholic settlers who sent the letter, a positive response would be the first step needed to establish a parish in the thriving city. By December the settlers had their answer as Bishop Thomas Conaty announced that mass would be said in Downey every Sunday, a rare occurrence for Catholics living in a developing Los Angeles County. As a result of the earnest petition and hardworking parishioners, Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church would steadily grow from a small mission parish to a large Catholic community, giving birth to five subsequent parishes in the area. The 100-year-old church now stands as one of Downey's oldest houses of faith. Before services were regularly held in the city, Catholics living in Downey during the late 1800s had to travel outside city borders every week to attend mass in Los Angeles and San Gabriel. Occasionally, Franciscan fathers would come to Downey to celebrate mass for Catholic families, but the majority of parishioners would journey to St. Joseph's Church in Los Angeles after it was erected in 1888. In 1908, after Bishop Conaty arranged for services in Downey every week, Rev. P.J. McGrath of St. Aloysious Church was assigned responsibility for the Catholic population in Downey. He would travel to the city every Sunday. Soon after Fr. McGrath began conducting services, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Monterey and Los Angeles purchased property from Downey Land and Improvement Association described as "a triangular lot bounded on the east by Crawford Street (which is now Downey Avenue), on the south by Fifth St. and on the west by New Street. In 1909, a small frame church was built facing Fifth St. where Our Lady of Perpetual Help's rectory and parking lot are located today. This original building was named in honor of St. Anthony and served as the church and later the parish hall for 43 years. St. Anthony's boundaries stretched from the Los Angeles River on the west to the San Gabriel River on the east, and from just south of Slauson Ave. on the north, to Imperial Highway on the south. For years, Catholics from all across the region attended St. Anthony's Church each week, and as the parish's membership grew, the small mission church quickly became a large parent church, sponsoring and establishing churches in surrounding cities. The church even took a new name in the early 1920s when the Redemptorist fathers who were assigned to the parish changed it to Our Lady of Perpetual Help. In 1927, Our Lady of Perpetual Help oversaw the establishment of Our Lady of the Rosary in Paramount, which was called Clearwater at the time. Later, Our Lady of Perpetual Help was sectioned off to establish St. Gertrude Church in Bell Gardens in 1938, St. Mariana de Paredes in 1950 in Pico Rivera, Bellflower's St. Dominic Savio Church in 1954, and, finally, St. Raymond's in Downey in 1956. All of these churches are still open today. By the late 1920s, Downey's population was around 5,500 with an estimated 75 Catholic families. The parish was expanding and in the opinion of Mr. and Mrs. Edmond Morris Smith it was time for a new church building. In 1929, local industrialist E.M. Smith of EMSCO Aircraft and his wife, Mimmie, approached the pastor, Fr. John J. O'Brien, and proposed to build a new church as a memorial to their mothers and as a gift to the Diocese of Los Angeles. After the architects released a drawing of the new church, the Downey Live Wire reported that "the Catholic church will be Italian Romanesque of the Transition period" with traces of Gothic influence "evident in the pointed arches and windows." By 1931, the new church, which seated about 450 people, was completed and furnished at a cost of nearly $100,000. Ten years later, Fr. Patrick Carey was appointed pastor of the growing parish, where he would serve for more than 30 years. One of his goals was to establish a school for the parish's children. Prior to this time, Catholic students either attended St. Matthias in Huntington Park or the local public schools, but on Dec. 17, 1947, Our Lady of Perpetual Help purchased the 3.5 acre site on Downey Ave. After the Sisters of Notre Dame of Cleveland agreed to staff the school, it opened in 1948 with 124 students in three classrooms. Today, Our Lady of Perpetual Help School has more than 300 K-8 students, a larger staff and Consultative School Board made up of school parents, parishioners, alumnae, faculty and community members. In 1951, the church was remodeled to increase its seating capacity. In an engineering feat, the church was cut through its width at the front of the nave and the sanctuary was moved 47 feet south on railroad tracks. A 65 by 47 foot addition was added between the two sections, almost doubling the seating capacity. After the 1987 Whittier-Narrows Earthquake damaged the aging church, the congregation was divided over whether to remodel the 56-year-old building or to raze it and construct a new sanctuary. However, the church was simply reinforced and modified. Just last year, Our Lady of Perpetual Help celebrated its 100th anniversary as a Catholic community in Downey. It now stands as a symbol of the strength, patience and resolve of our city's forefathers. When these men and women moved to Downey to live and work, it's evident that they not only brought their skills and talents, but they also brought an enduring faith, which can still be seen today.

********** Published: March 5, 2010 - Volume 8 - Issue 46