ST. MONICA — Few people have the same connection to St. Monica’s Catholic Church as Lydia Saenz.
She was baptized there, received her first communion there and went through the rite of confirmation at the campus on the corner of Seventh Street and California Avenue.
Saenz even met her husband of over four decades, Ronald, while they were both students at St. Monica’s Catholic High School.
The two conversed during lunch breaks because it was against the rules for boys and girls to speak in the hallways in between classes, she said.
“The parish is a quilt, and we are part of that quilt,” Saenz said.
The loving couple, like many of the 9,000 households that comprise St. Monica’s congregation, will gather together this weekend to kick off a year of celebration to commemorate the church’s 125th anniversary in Santa Monica.
St. Monica’s got its start July 28, 1877 in the home of Judge M.C. Morgan. Mass was held every other week, officiated by Pastor Peter Verdaguer who had to travel into town by cart to attend.
All the while, parishioners raised funds in hopes of creating a separate building for prayer.
The small congregation moved into a chapel on Third Street between Santa Monica Boulevard and Arizona Avenue in 1883, and would stay there until the church Santa Monica knows today was completed in 1925.
That church cost a then-impossible sum of $340,000 by devout Catholic Albert Martin. Martin integrated some of the newest building techniques of the time with steel-reinforced concrete and masonry, which he had developed.
The building far exceeded the amount of space needed by the congregation, and people questioned then-Pastor Nicholas Conneally about his reasoning, said Msgr. Lloyd Torgerson, the pastor of St. Monica’s for the past 24 years.
“He said, ‘A generation at another time will thank us for this,’” Torgerson said. “Here we are, 125 years later, and we’re giving great thanks because they laid a foundation of faith, buildings and structures, and we are recipients of that.”
To celebrate the forethought of leaders past and the successes of the present, St. Monica’s will kick off its celebration June 4 with a Eucharist at 5 p.m. that will include special prayers and recognition of volunteers that have been instrumental to the parish, wrote Dale Sieverding in an e-mail.
A night of dinner and entertainment, open to the whole community, will follow.
Sieverding came to St. Monica’s one and a half years ago from a church in Florida to take on the position of director of music and liturgy, and is spearheading the celebration.
He will also help coordinate ongoing events throughout the year, including St. Monica Day at the Santa Monica Pier on Aug. 27, and one Sunday in October devoted to serving the needy, homeless and hungry.
“There will be a number of other events throughout the year, some of which are still in the planning stages to celebrate well this milestone in our history,” Sieverding said.
As St. Monica’s celebrates its present by honoring its past, the parish will also look to the future, Torgerson said.
The congregation is in the midst of a gargantuan effort to raise $27 million to rehabilitate and upgrade aging facilities such as offices, the gym and buildings for after school programs.
It’s already amassed $22.5 million, and hopes to begin work on the parking lot in the summer.
“We’re nearing the end of a campaign that is really helping to transform our parish plant,” Torgerson said. “We still need support for that.”
With those additions, St. Monica’s congregation might show the same wisdom as that of Conneally’s in laying a groundwork for the next 100 years.
The church will continue its central mission to form loving disciples with a desire to transform the world, Torgerson said.
“We’re grateful for our blessings, and we turn around and do our best to change this world and make a difference,” Torgerson said. “That’s right at the heart of what we’re about.”
That dynamism creates the glue that has held parishioners together through boom times as well as the devastation caused by the 1994 Northridge earthquake, which laid low the historic parish, or the sexual abuse scandals that rocked the Catholic Church.
“Our Church of St. Monica’s has flourished and grown,” Torgerson said. “We recognize the struggles of our time, recognize the mistakes that have been made in our church, the world and in the lives of all of us. We will do our best to live safely in the Gospel.”
That steady view and community-based approach to the church is part of what has helped integrate St. Monica’s into the fabric of the town it grew up with.
“It’s part of what Santa Monica is,” Saenz said. “There’s City Hall, the [Santa Monica] Pier and St. Monica’s.”