The case of the miss­ing al­tar

There’s no trace of Bel­gian mar­ble that graced a long-shut­tered church

Los Angeles Times - - THE STATE - By Michael Miller michael.miller@la­times.com

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.

Scott Smeltzer Daily Pi­lot

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.

Don Far­rell

GROOMS­MAN DANIEL AGUILAR poses in an un­dated im­age with brides­maid Lola Martinez be­fore the al­tar once found in St. Isi­dore Catholic Church.

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