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A Sacred Gem: San Secondo d'Asti Church in Guasti, CA

Coming out of the Ontario Airport, travelers can see just beyond the railroad tracks a vast stone building with arched windows and the skeletal remains of a wooden roof. Nearby are smaller buildings wrapped incongruously in shiny white plastic, wrapped tight, even the chimneys, like some piece of modern art. Lemon trees full of bright yellow fruit stand here and there, the only survivors of what were once backyards.

I've been seeing that place in the distance for several years, and recently when I dropped off my daughter at the airport, I drove north across the tracks on Haven Avenue and turned left onto Guasti Road. I remembered it immediately - my father taught me to drive amid the acres of vineyards that still covered some of Rancho Cucamonga and Mira Loma and Guasti back in the 1970s.

But now Guasti is a startling contradiction in landscape, a convergence that happens over and over in Southern California. The road heads through CentreLake, an industrial park of buildings with white walls and blue glass that house for-profit colleges and businesses. And then, you see the Guasti Post Office, and an old brick schoolhouse, and across from there, one of the loveliest churches I've ever seen. Anywhere in the world.

San Secondo d'Asti is a Catholic church as beautiful as any of the famous missions of California. Visit it and decide. Coming upon it by accident that day was a gift, and now I have gone back three times.

Once, it was the center of life for hundreds of Italians from the Piedmont region, in the mountains of northern Italy. The surrounding land was planted in vineyards, grapes famous for sacramental wines, communion wines, and a world-famous dark red port. The Italian Vineyard Company was the largest vineyard in the world in 1917, with 5,000 acres of grapevines which produced five millions gallons of wine a year, vintages sent all over the world.

Photograph by Douglas McCulloh
Photograph by Douglas McCulloh

Secondo Guasti had bought the first acres of sandy earth in what is now Rancho Cucamonga in 1900. An immigrant from the Piedmont mountains, he came to Los Angeles first, and when he saw this flat plain below the San Gorgonio range, he believed grapes would thrive. He built an entire world here, with a town named for himself. Guasti had a school, firehouse, post office, hundreds of homes for workers, its own narrow gauge railroad that ran twenty-two miles along the vineyards so that workers could send the harvest to the huge stone packing houses where barrels of wine were produced and stored.

In 1924, Guasti and his wife decided to build this church, to replicate a 17th century church from his native village in Asti, Italy, for the residents of his town. He brought woodworkers and stonemasons from Mexico and Italy to work for two years. It feels as if those two countries are alive in the stone courtyard lined with rock walls, in the garden where white statues and roses are vivid against the surreal backdrop of a huge electrical tower.

And inside, the sanctuary is cool and dark, and the visitor may well imagine being in mountainous Italy. The carved wooden beams hold chandeliers like I've never seen, copper reliefs decorate the brown plastered walls, and the stained-glass windows show the martyred St. Secundus, beheaded in Asti, Italy during Hadrian's rule.

You might imagine that this church is like a silent museum, then, an isolated spot of history. But no. Each time I came, the sanctuary and grounds were bustling with worshippers. In fact, this church register lists 900 families, and many people finished praying and told me their stories.

One afternoon, I went with my father, who remembers Guasti from the 1950s, when most of the Italian workers had been replaced by Mexican immigrants who lived in small wooden houses throughout the area. My father's brother-in-law sold televisions to these men, who tended the vineyards, and my father told one parishioner the story in the parking lot. That man comes daily from his nearby job to pray at lunch - he has done so for 30 years, he says. Inside, a young woman finished lunchtime prayers as well. Jesenia was born in La Puente, moved to Riverside, had a young son, and was trying to get her life on track by attending the nearby college. But she said her spiritual life had dimmed until she found San Secondo one day while walking, and now she comes every day, and attends Mass with her family on the weekends. "No other church feels like this," she told me, gazing around the dark wooden pews.

Phyllis Schabow | Photograph by Douglas McCulloh
Phyllis Schabow | Photograph by Douglas McCulloh

Yesterday, an elderly woman was leaving the sanctuary, her hair draped with a small black lace scarf. Her life was like the much more wonderful version of a James M. Cain novel. Phyllis Schabow was born in Chicago, came to California at 18, and was working in a coffee shop at Lake Gregory when a group of firemen came in. Off-duty, they all wore red sweatshirts and blue jeans. Her manager told her she had to treat firemen well, and to serve them free breakfasts. She did. Just after they left, one more man came in, wearing the same outfit. She served him a free breakfast, and he must have thought she had an instant crush. He was not a fireman. His attire was a coincidence. She married him shortly afterward, and in the parking lot of San Secondo, she laughed and said, "What if he'd been wearing a green sweatshirt!"

Photograph by Douglas McCulloh
Photograph by Douglas McCulloh

He'd been born five miles from her birthplace, in a different Chicago neighborhood, and raised by a Czech grandmother, "baptized at Saint Procopius," she said, and so when the couple retired fourteen years ago and moved to Fontana, they were looking for a traditional Catholic church.

"There are rumors about this church!" she said. "It's extremely strong in faith. People come all the way from Palmdale, from Los Angeles, from miles away for the 6:30 Latin Mass on Saturday." Schabow sings in the Latin Mass Choir on those Saturdays, and comes to 8 a.m. Mass every weekday without fail.

In the sanctuary as she spoke were lunchtime worshippers, and a group of developmentally disabled young adults, Latino and Vietnamese and white. People of every hue went inside to pray. In the rear, a large group of children were playing after a religious class. The parking lot always holds cars.

But Guasti has an actual population of one. One man. Father Louis Marx, who has lived here since 1997.

As Schabow told me, "Nobody who comes to this church is a resident. Father Marx is the only resident of Guasti - he's the mayor, the fire captain, he's everything."

The post office is still there, in a modular building, the sign reading "Historic Guasti." But the beautiful stone buildings are empty, the others wrapped in protective white, because while a developer bought the remnants of the town, and is planning a restaurant/retail complex, along with some homes, the economic downturn means the business future of Guasti is on hold.

But its faith feels strong as ever.

Susan Straight's latest novel is "Take One Candle Light a Room."  Both she and photographer Doug McCulloh are natives of Riverside, and their stories appear on KCET every other Wednesday, all which can be read here.  She is Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at UCRiverside.

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