The case of the missing altar
There’s no trace of Belgian marble that graced a long-shuttered church
For decades, Don Farrell helped solve cases for the Los Angeles Police Department. Now, the retired officer has a new mystery on his hands.
Farrell, a Cypress resident, belongs to a grassroots group known as the Comite del Amor, which last year bought the historic St. Isidore Catholic Church in nearby Los Alamitos. The group aims to restore the building to its look of more than half a century ago when it served as a hub for the community.
But Farrell and his team need to track down one missing piece of the puzzle.
“Originally, back in the ’30s, there was this beautiful Belgian marble altar that was up there at the front and then the original Belgian marble communion rail,” said Farrell, who first attended St. Isidore services as a teenager. “But that was all taken out, and nobody knows where it is.... So it’s almost like a mystery.”
The original church was built in 1926 but the building was damaged by an earthquake and was replaced nearly a decade later by the existing chapel. St. Isidore served as the primary Catholic church for the area until it closed in 1960, after St. Hedwig Catholic Church was built nearby, according to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange.
So what happened to the altar?
Upon St. Isidore’s closing, its furnishings, including pews and bells, were relocated. But Ryan Lilyengren, a spokesman for the diocese, said he had found nothing on file about where the altar went.
Seal Beach resident Rebecca Cagle said she was married at the Reagan Street church in 1954. She had been a parishioner at St. Isidore since childhood, and her mother brought her and her sister to clean the church’s interior every week, she said.
Among the items she dusted was the altar, which she called the most ornate of any in the area. Black and white photos of the altar triggered old memories.
“It was beautiful,” Cagle said. “It seems to me like it had some artwork on it of angels carved in there. And so did the [communion] railing.”
Daniel Aguilar, a longtime parishioner at St. Isidore, believes the altar came to the church as a gift from a churchgoer named Paulita, who ran a grocery store down the block. Paulita imported the marble piece from Belgium, the country of origin for many Los Alamitos residents at the time, Aguilar said.
“She bought the thing and had it imported, had it set up,” said Aguilar, who still lives in the city and attended St. Isidore until it closed. “A lot of the parishioners who were handy with tools set it up. I was in Korea in ’52, and it was before that when they put it in.”
Father Bill Krekelberg, the diocese’s archivist, said any transaction involving the altar and communion rail probably would have been up to St. Hedwig’s pastor.
“The pastor there at the time was Msgr. [Desmond] Quinn, who has long passed away,” Krekelberg said. “He probably would have been the only one who knew what they did with that.”
St. Isidore reopened in 1972, but because the aging building needed structural repairs, the diocese shuttered the facility in 1999.
Soon after, the Comite del Amor formed to preserve the property — now known as the St. Isidore Historical Plaza — and in 2007, it signed a six-year agreement with the diocese to lease the three buildings on the site. Last year, the group bought the property from the diocese.
Now, Farrell’s group raises funds to pay off the mortgage and to support planned renovations, which range from painting the exterior to installing heating and air-conditioning. St. Isidore has hosted a Cinco de Mayo festival, and future offerings include summer concerts and Picnic at the Plaza gatherings with live music and food trucks.
Farrell said his group wants to restore the building to what it was like when it opened in 1935.
“Right now, this is what it was in the ’70s,” he said of the chapel’s current layout. “As we continue to restore it, we want to make it like it was in the ’30s.”
Farrell has a hunch that the church’s altar is still somewhere within the county.
“We’re still trying to figure out whether it went to a new church they were building or whether it was auctioned off or whether it’s sitting in a warehouse somewhere gathering dust,” he said. “That’s part of the detective work that we’re trying to do.”
Lilyengren said the diocese maintains no warehouse, but that it does donate to churches in need of furnishings, often in Mexico.
Krekelberg said it was conceivable that the altar was donated to a poorer church or even cut up for a different use.
Regardless, St. Isidore now has a new altar, one that community members apparently built in the 1970s. If the church’s supporters manage to track down the old marble installation, Farrell said, his committee plans to find room for its replacement elsewhere on the premises.
IN LOS ALAMITOS, St. Isidore Catholic Church is being looked after by the Comite del Amor, which plans to restore it to its 1930s form.
GROOMSMAN DANIEL AGUILAR poses in an undated image with bridesmaid Lola Martinez before the altar once found in St. Isidore Catholic Church.