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100 years of serving heart of Chula Vista

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CHULA VISTA — In February 1921, Bishop John J. Cantwell of the Diocese of Monterey-Los Angeles met with a group of Catholics from the southernmost part of his diocese.

The delegation appealed to him for the creation of a new Catholic parish in San Diego’s South Bay. He granted their request by establishing St. Rose of Lima Parish, which would become the first Catholic church in Chula Vista.

This year, the parish will mark its 100th birthday.

Its centennial celebration, themed “Honoring the Past, Embracing the Future,” kicked off this past August with a drive-by event and a livestreamed outdoor Mass.

At the drive-by on Aug. 28, parish families pulled up to the church in their cars to receive a centennial gift bag that included a novena book, rosary, holy water, prayer cards and more. The following evening, the parish observed the feast day of St. Rose of Lima with a Mass celebrated by Auxiliary Bishop John Dolan, who had been the parish’s pastor from 2002 to 2014.

The yearlong celebration is expected to conclude with a 100th anniversary Mass on Aug. 28, 2021, when the parish once again will celebrate its namesake’s feast day.

Planning for the centennial began in November 2019, with the intention of hosting an entire year’s worth of commemorative events. But the COVID-19 pandemic and restrictions on public gatherings forced the parish to scale down its plans and to come up with alternative proposals.

The first major centennial-themed event since the kick-off, a drive-in bingo night, will be held on Friday, Jan. 29. At the socially-distanced event, parishioners will participate from the safety of their cars and watch as the winning numbers are displayed on a large projection screen.

Father Miguel Campos, pastor of St. Rose of Lima Parish, acknowledges feeling “like our hands are being tied” by the pandemic. But he still sees the centennial as “a time of grace,” during which present-day parishioners can reflect on their forebears’ accomplishments, on the many sacraments that have been celebrated, and on how the parish has been “a blessing” to Chula Vista over the past century.

Narciso Guzmán, 62, first encountered the parish 35 years ago when he sang at a Spanish-language Mass there as part of a visiting choir. He has been a parishioner and director of the Spanish choir there ever since.

“When I came the first day, I fell in love with the community,” he said.

Even as the pandemic has altered the parish’s centennial plans, Guzmán takes a positive view of the situation.

“To me, it’s not a disappointment. To me, it’s more like a challenge,” he said, noting that the parish can still achieve its goal of celebrating this milestone, even if that celebration takes a different form than first envisioned.

Currently, one centennial-themed event is planned for every month from January through August, except February. However, those plans remain tentative in light of the pandemic. Highlights include a Mass honoring the Knights of Columbus in March, the release of a “Taste of St. Rose” recipe book in May, and a 5K/10K run in August.

Gretchen Peters Schaar, 59, grew up as a member of one of St. Rose of Lima Parish’s founding families. Her grandmother, who was among the group that petitioned Bishop Cantwell for a new parish, would take the trolley from Chula Vista to National City every Sunday – with three children in tow – to attend Mass at the nearest Catholic church.

“The early parishioners wanted something so badly that they did what they could to make it happen,” she said.

An abandoned church building, relocated from Palm City to the corner of Third Avenue and Alvarado Street in Chula Vista, served as the first worship space for St. Rose of Lima Parish. Transported by horse-drawn carriage, the church arrived at its new location in May 1921.

That first church building, which had a seating capacity of 120, was dedicated on Sept. 18, 1921. In time, it would be replaced by a larger church (seating capacity of 450) constructed on the corner of Third Avenue and H Street and dedicated on Nov. 26, 1950. The current St. Rose of Lima Church, which seats 875, was dedicated at the same site on Dec. 20, 1965.

The first church was razed in August 1965, and the second became the parish hall. The parish opened St. Rose of Lima School on Sept. 13, 1948.

Both Deacon John Gabbard, who joined the parish in 1983 and has served it as a deacon for six years, and Joseph Advento, a parishioner for 18 years and head of the parish’s centennial committee, noted the parish’s influence within the Chula Vista community.

“I think the 100-year anniversary is significant because, as the city has grown and been thriving, the parish has been an integral part of that,” Deacon Gabbard said.

Advento expressed hope that the centennial celebration might “educate our parishioners in the history of St. Rose of Lima’s growth and how it helped shape our community and the city.”

Bishop Dolan said the parish’s prime location has enabled it to become “a spiritual anchor for the downtown Chula Vista area.” Owing perhaps to the vibrancy of the parish school, he said, the parish has “a perfect blend” of age groups, from children through seniors.

Over the past century, St. Rose of Lima Parish has grown from around 20 to more than 5,000 families.

“The celebration of 100 years of St. Rose of Lima is really a celebration of a vibrant Catholic community,” said Bishop Dolan. “It started, and it’s still strong, and it ain’t going away. I think that’s pretty awesome.”

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