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Slow down? 100-year-old parish steps it up

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LA MESA — St. Martin of Tours Parish is turning 100.

The theme for its centennial celebration is “Immensely Grateful for a Century of Blessings.”

Certainly, one of those blessings is the fact that the 100th anniversary happened to fall in 2021, rather than 2020, when the most stringent of COVID-19 safety protocols were still in place.

“It’s indeed a prayer answered for us to be able to celebrate (this milestone) in person,” said Father Elmer Mandac, pastor.

The La Mesa parish will welcome Bishop Robert McElroy at 10 a.m., Sunday, Nov. 7, to preside at its centennial anniversary Mass.

Over the past century, St. Martin of Tours Parish has grown into what Father Mandac describes as a “very alive, very vibrant” community with about 1,800 registered families.

It is also a parish community dedicated to social justice. The parish has operated a food pantry for more than four decades and, more recently, has been active in the fair trade movement and in efforts to promote environmental sustainability.

“Over the past decade, St. Martin of Tours Academy and Parish has focused its commitment towards fair trade principles and (Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment) ‘Laudato Si’ by taking care of the earth and the poor,” said Anne Pacheco, a parish leader in these efforts.

This work has earned national recognition.

In 2014, St. Martin of Tours Academy became the first Catholic elementary school in the country to be designated a “Fair Trade School” by Fair Trade Campaigns, a grassroots movement dedicated to increasing the availability of these products. In 2015, the parish was named a “Fair Trade Congregation.”

Spiritual life for Catholics in La Mesa was very different before the founding of St. Martin of Tours Parish. With only about 50 Catholic families in the area, the community wasn’t deemed large enough to warrant a full-time priest. So, Catholics gathered in private homes where, on special occasions, a visiting priest would celebrate Mass.

In those early days, La Mesa Catholics who desired to attend Mass regularly had to travel by train or other means to the nearest Catholic churches in San Diego and El Cajon.

This changed in 1920, when the first regularly scheduled Sunday Masses in La Mesa were celebrated in the main hall of a local undertaking parlor.

A small lot at the corner of Normal Street and La Mesa Boulevard was purchased, and construction began on a permanent church in 1921. The community was able to celebrate Christmas Mass that year in the new church.

La Mesa received an influx of war workers, service personnel, and their families during World War II. St. Martin added extra Masses to accommodate the growing number of parishioners. Catholic men’s and women’s groups were organized. For parish youth, a comprehensive catechism program was organized.

By 1948, the parish was in need of larger facilities. Around 1,000 faithful were seeking to attend Mass every Sunday in a church that measured only 70 by 40 feet. Even with four Sunday Masses, it was almost impossible to obtain a seat in church.

So, the parish relocated once again. The existing church on Normal Street was uprooted and transported to a new site on El Cajon Boulevard. It was then cut in two and expanded to twice the original length. The exterior of the church underwent extensive alterations.

Construction on St. Martin of Tours Academy commenced in fall of 1950; the school welcomed its first students the following September. The parish hall was completed in October 1952.

With the population of La Mesa continuing to increase, eventually a still larger church was needed. The parish broke ground on its current church in June 1964. It was completed in time for Christmas Mass 1965 and dedicated on Feb. 13, 1966.

Today, the previous church building is known as Barry Hall, named after Father Dennis Barry, who was pastor during the construction of the current church.

Father Mandac credits the parish’s strong sense of community with sustaining it for the past century.

Jim and JoEllen LaRue have been members of the St. Martin of Tours community for 44 years.

In an interview recorded to mark the centennial, Jim recalled that they had joined the parish after having previously been members of another St. Martin of Tours Parish in Maryland.

After relocating to Southern California, he said, “We had visited about four or five other parishes (and) just decided when we met the people here (at St. Martin’s) that this was a place where … we would like to be.”

“St. Martin’s is warm and welcoming. That’s really what attracted us to the place,” added JoEllen, who said the couple “nestled right in” at the parish and “got involved in everything” there.

“We’re still happy here, after 44 years,” she said. “I wouldn’t move anywhere. They’ll have to carry me out.”

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