On Ash Wednesday a few weeks ago, a steady stream of people came through the arched gateway of Our Lady of Guadalupe, headed down the sunlit center aisle, paused before the altar and received the cross of dark ashes on their foreheads. Babies whose skin had never been marked with soot, abuelas who had been coming here for fifty years, and some who had recently arrived from Central America. Tony and Sarah Lopez sat outside the church on the low rock wall near a statue of the patron saint, pointing down Ninth Street to where you could actually see the front yard of their house. "It's my father's house," Sarah said. "He bought it in the 1940s. He used to open the church in the morning, and close it at night. My mother used to bring him breakfast sometimes here, and dinner."
Sarah grew up on Eleventh Street, having come to Riverside when she was very small. Her father, Felix Vasquez, left Mexico to work for the Southern Pacific Railroad in the early 1900s, and as the family moved from Illinois west toward California, they would sometimes sleep in boxcars. But they stayed in Riverside. Sarah was a teenager when Our Lady held its first mass in 1929, before the roof was even on the building. She was 19, a soloist in the choir, singing in Latin, when Tony Lopez, who'd come from Guanajuato, Mexico, when he was only 2, who lived on Fourteenth Street, became entranced. (They hadn't met at Irving School when they were children because, as Sarah put it, "You went to look at girls! I went to study!") But when he heard her voice that day, during a concert, he said simply, "I felt something."
They were married at that altar, only a few feet away from where they now sit with shoulders touching. "Seventy-four years in August," Sarah said. Tony added, "I walked up here for thirty, forty years. I rang the bells to call the people to Mass. When someone died, I rang the bells to tell the people. A family asked me, 'Why do you ring the bell when someone dies?'" He gestured as if pulling down a rope, hard, and then laughed. "I said, 'They should have come when I rang the bells on Sunday!'"
Robert Loya stopped to greet them, his forehead marked now. "I probably spent 50 percent of my life here, at Our Lady," he said, looking up at the bell tower. His father came in the early 1900s as well, and he remembered the small yellow house which used to stand nearby. For 30 years, the Loyas -- including brothers Robert, Henry and Prax -- were in charge of La Gran Fiesta Ranchera, which helped raise the money to buy that land for "new hall" years ago. He took me up into bell tower, where someone can actually stand in the wood-skeleton structure and see the rope dangling down to hand level, the bell's thick-flared edges high above. He has rung this bell, too.
Coming out into the sunshine, blinking under the first ever smudge of darkness on her forehead, four-month-old Nathalie Martinez is in the arms of her father, Danny Martinez, born on the Eastside, accompanied by his mother, Leticia Vargas, who was born in Mexico. Jasmin Perez, 18 months old, is with her mother Ana Ramirez and grandmother Julia Pinelda, both born in El Salvador. The Lopezes' daughter, Theresa, arrives now, noting that for all these decades, new arrivals and natives of California worship together here.
Back in the 1890s, Saint Francis de Sales, in downtown Riverside, was the sole church for the entire parish area, and baptismal records show that 175 English-speaking families and 450 Spanish-speaking families attended. From the Eastside, which had strict residential boundaries then for Mexican-American and black residents, families would walk downtown in large groups for mass. By 1925, parishioners received permission from the diocese in Los Angeles to raise money for a "mission church," and by 1929, that first mass was held outside the not-completed building, the two bell towers still only wood-framed.
On March 1, 2013, Pope Benedict spent his last day in Rome as pontiff, and a helicopter flew him from St. Peter's to retirement at Castel Gandolfo. But the very next night, twenty people knelt and sang and prayed all the Stations of the Cross on a Friday in Lent at Our Lady. Their voices murmured the prayers in order as they moved about the sanctuary following the light of a white candle. Maria Fuentes headed Las Guadalupanas, which used to have around 30 members but now holds steady at ten women. They host the Blessing of the Sick and other masses, but Friday they are here, facing Christ at each of the moments depicted on the paintings. Their voices rise in sweet minor melancholy for each song, and they move onto the next illustration, kneel briefly, stand again, and continue on the journey.
And last Friday, just after the morning Mass, the women of the Altar Society -- led by the current president, Rose Calhoun, accompanied by past president Sarah Lopez, moved about the sanctuary completing the other vital part of keeping a church like Our Lady of Guadalupe alive. They cleaned the floors, restored the arrangement of the silver accompaniments on the altar, and checked the pews and the sacraments. Calhoun, who arrived in Riverside in the 1950s from Montgomery, Alabama, is a devout Catholic who has worshipped here since, and now she leads the rituals which are often overlooked. Tony Lopez happened to walk down the street with his wife, and so the women of the Altar Society fussed over him while they tended to the sacred, and the everyday, in the sunlight that shone through the stained glass windows donated by the old families of Riverside who wanted their own mission, their own Masses, their own devotion on Ninth Street and Park Avenue.
(This story will be part of the More Dreamers of the Golden Dream, an exhibition opening April 26 at the Riverside Art Museum.)
Top image: Robert Loya and others on Ash Wednesday. Photo by Douglas McCulloh.