Fontana California started out as a collection of orange groves and chicken and goat farms. With famous Route 66 running through it, it really started to grow during World War II when the first steel mill west of the Mississippi River was built here. It is now developing fast, with 200,000 people, 70% Hispanic, 7% Asian and 1% Native American. There are also many Anglos and African-Americans. Our parish of St. Mary’s reflects those numbers very well. The steel mill is now gone, turned into Fontana Speedway, on the NASCAR circuit. There are many trucking/freight companies that operate out of here now, too.
The parish was founded in 1939 and used a 125 seat church until 1999 when the site was moved to its present location at the foot of the small Fontana Mountains. A metal warehouse was purchased and erected to seat 1,100 parishioners. The original house on the land became the parish house and office. Fourteen years later, we still have no other buildings even though we have over 3,500 families. So all of our catechism classes (we have 500 children in First Communion class and 120 for Confirmation), our RCIA, and our many ministries all vie for space in the four open rooms at the back of church, the parish office, garage and even the kitchen.
The church is open every day from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. with an almost constant stream of visitors to our cozy Blessed Sacrament chapel. It has three kneelers and two chairs, all well worn. And the fresh flowers that keep appearing on the altar there and in front of our saints, especially Our Lady of Guadalupe, mean it always smells good in that corner.
Columbans have been here since 2001 when Fathers Bob Clark and Bernie Toal came. Then Fr. Gerry O’Shaughnessy came from Peru to take over and was joined by Fathers Brendan O’Sullivan and John Waunarny. I came last January. We see it very much as a part of Columban mission in the United States. It is lower middle class, with many, many Spanish speaking migrants, lots of migrants from the Philippines, and a good mix of lots of interesting people from all over including Christian refugees from recent violence in Egypt.
Our parishioners are very active in the life of the church and have learned to be very independent, to get things done that need to be done. For example, we have 90 catechists, all volunteers. Until recently, all maintenance was done voluntarily. In fact, much of the maintenance is still done voluntarily. Marriage groups, youth groups, prayer groups, altar servers, ushers, lectors, Eucharistic ministers (some in English, some in Spanish) all finance themselves independently through fund raisers all during the year. The parish budget is around $300,000 a year.
Our Pan de Vida (Bread of Life) ministry is alive. We give out over 200 boxes of food to families in need every two weeks. On one visit, our volunteers found a family of four, three of them young teenagers, with their mother living in a camper-type trailer, no bedrooms, or any rooms, only a little sink and bathroom and floor to sleep on. The father, from Central America, simply disappeared on his journey back through Mexico. It is probable that he ran into foul play. Their roof leaked, and the fl oor was sagging. Our Knights of Columbus did some repairs, but the family needed more of a house. So the Saturday before Thanksgiving we held our fi rst ever Walk-a-Thon to raise funds to get them into a better place. Over 125 parishioners, many of our youth, came out with sponsors. We hiked over one of our little mountains to the next parish and back, about seven miles, and raised over $7,000. With the proceeds, we purchased a 40ft. house trailer and equipped it with some furniture. Since Christmas that family now has a living room and a bedroom.
Even though the present allpurpose building is as cozy as folks can make it, we really need a church proper. Then we can turn our existing building into eight or ten much needed rooms for classes and meetings and a social hall with kitchen. Right now all of our cooking and eating is done outside under canvas awnings. We just purchased two acres of land beside the church to build our new church. Unfortunately, that used up just about all of our savings, and now we are starting over. The diocese has come up with a very simple steel frame church design that is earthquake resistant and economical to maintain. We’re hoping to use it for our new 1,200 seat church! We’re pretty sure that once it has been built, our fi ve weekend Masses will not be nearly enough. They’re already standing in the aisles at some of them. The new church and modifi cations will “only” cost about $3.5 million, very reasonable by today’s standards.
This article originally appeared in the May 2013 Columban Mission Magazine.