Diocesan News

Church Fire Can’t Stop Parish Life in Corona

Our Lady of Sorrows mass
Father Edward Smith celebrates Mass in Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Academy auditorium in a makeshift worship space Jan. 11. This was the first weekend of Masses at the parish since a Jan. 4 fire caused damage to the
church building in Corona. (Photo by Marie Elena Giossi)

On the first weekend after fire burned through the choir loft and roof of Our Lady of Sorrows Church, Corona, the parish family was busier than ever – keeping the regular Mass schedule, volunteering where needed and helping each other move forward.

Signs posted around the church grounds direct parishioners to Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Academy, where daily and weekend Masses are being held in the auditorium. A statue of the parish patroness sits on stage beside a makeshift altar table and lectern.

The auditorium and balcony were standing-room-only for most of the 12 weekend Masses celebrated Jan. 10-11. On Sunday, overflow crowds were directed to a 500-seater heated tent in the parking lot, where Mass aired live on four large screens and extraordinary ministers distributed the Eucharist.

Thousands Turned Out

Parishioners came by the thousands just as they had the previous Sunday, Jan. 4, when Masses were cancelled due to an early morning fire. About 20 people were in church preparing for Mass when an usher saw a spark in the choir loft around 5:45 a.m.

Firefighters contained the blaze, which was likely caused by an electrical issue. The sanctuary was spared but structural engineers have restricted access to the building while assessing the extent of the damages. The cost and timeframe for repairs have yet to be determined.

Shock, fear and confusion were among the emotions felt by the community, who stood and prayed outside the church in the hours following the fire.

“It was terrible,” said Msgr. Thomas Healy, pastor, with tears in his eyes. “This church is really a place of refuge. It’s home to people who have very little. They come here and feel safe and welcome. They love their church. And I love the parish.”

“We’re blessed with good, good people,” he added, noting his gratitude for the parish family and also diocesan officials, who responded quickly and have helped guide him through these difficult days.

Our Lady of Sorrows statue
A parishioner places flowers at the statue of Our Lady of Sorrows in the school auditorium where Masses are being celebrated. (Photo by Marie Elena Giossi)

Msgr. Healy, 74, who’s served the parish for 24 years, is getting ready to retire in June. Father Raymond Roden has been named his successor.

“I’m supposed to be retired and playing golf. I don’t play golf,” he said, laughing.

He is heartbroken to see the church in this condition but said it is important to laugh and “see the bright side of things.”

If the fire had started an hour earlier, no one would have been in church to call 911. An hour later and 600 people would have been scrambling to escape.

“Thank God nobody was hurt,” he said, “but at the same time, this is our church and it’s a symbol of so much for this community. …

“We’re strong and we’re organized and we’re going to do whatever has to be done,” said the monsignor.

That was evident as Sunday’s services were conducted as seamlessly as possible.

Fifteen-year-old Sebastian Nieto arrived at 5:30 a.m. to greet parishioners at the auditorium doors and regulate foot traffic for the 6 a.m. Mass. He planned to stay until the ninth and final Mass of the day at 3 p.m.

Fire damage in the choir loft. (Photo by Marie Elena Giossi)
Fire damage in the choir loft. (Photo by Marie Elena Giossi)

“I was devastated when I heard about the fire,” he said. “The whole parish is devastated. Most of these people have been coming to this church since they came to America.”

Our Lady of Sorrows is the spiritual home of more than 12,000 people, mostly poor and working-class immigrant families from Latin America.

Nieto said this church and its priests are always available and present to community residents. “I’m here today to return the favor,” he said.

He was one of nearly 150 volunteers and members of parish ministries who worked to facilitate the day’s services, answering questions and guiding people where they needed to go.

“Without volunteers, we couldn’t do this,” said Leibniz Scottborgh, parish youth director, who coordinated the volunteers while overseeing operations.

The biggest challenge, Scottborgh said, is helping people understand and cope with the temporary arrangement for Masses. Fortunately, he noted, the religious education program, which includes 1,700 children and 200 catechists, was unaffected.

“People feel like everything has changed,” said Scottborgh, who assured parishioners that while the worship space was different, their reason for gathering was still the same.

“Humans are adjustable and we’re adjusting to the circumstances,” said parishioner Milagros Fernandez. “We are all shoulder-to-shoulder. It doesn’t matter who’s Dominican or Ecuadorian. We are all in this together.”

‘We Are Church’

Our Lady of Sorrows mass
The overflow crowds in Corona were directed to a tent where Mass was televised to accommodate the large crowds. (Photo by Marie Elena Giossi)

“The church building is broken but here we are,” said Father Roden at the 8:30 a.m. English Mass in the auditorium. “This is church because we are church. The church is the people.”

Reflecting on the rebuilding process, which is anticipated to take many months, he said, “To start over, to build up – that’s what it means to be Church. We’re always starting over. We’re always beginning. … We never quite get there. We’re always on the way.”

For now, people are making do with what means they have available.

Members of the English-speaking Rosary Group, which usually meets in the chapel after 8:30 a.m. Mass, gathered instead inside a parishioner’s SUV parked outside church, where they prayed for the speedy restoration of their worship space.

“We thank God we have each other,” said Marilyn Johnson, a member of the Rosary Group.

“I came last week and saw the fire engines. It was upsetting. And to come today and see how organized things are, I know we’re going to persevere. Nothing is going to stop us.”

Johnson praised Msgr. Healy’s commitment to the community and was also comforted by the presence of her future pastor, Father Roden.

“He reminded us that the church is the people, not the building,” she said. “Sure enough, the way they have this set up shows he’s right.”