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Pastor retiring from ‘soul of San Diego’

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SAN DIEGO — For Father Peter Escalante, serving as pastor of Mission San Diego de Alcalá has been “a real privilege.”

But all good things must come to an end.

On March 1, his 70th birthday, Father Escalante will not only step down as pastor, but also will retire from active priestly ministry.

He described his almost seven years at Mission San Diego as “a memory that I will continue to savor” in retirement. In the years ahead, he plans “to stay active” by celebrating Masses at various parishes and “being whatever help I can to the bishop and to the diocese.”

Under his leadership, Mission San Diego marked its 250th anniversary and also navigated the COVID-19 pandemic.

A thriving parish as well as a historical landmark and tourist attraction, Mission San Diego was founded in 1769 by St. Junipero Serra, a Franciscan friar, as the first of California’s 21 Spanish missions.

Following two years of planning and preparation, the iconic parish celebrated its 250th anniversary in 2019 with a full year of events. Father Escalante noted that the parish sought “to highlight various aspects of the mission’s rich history,” including the role of the local Native American population.

Deacon Andy Orosco of the Diocese of San Bernardino, a Kumeyaay from the San Pasqual Band of Mission Indians, was brought onboard as a Native American consultant. Father Escalante said the deacon’s presence served as “a real bridge to the Native American community,” many of whose members have negative feelings about the Mission Era.

Father Escalante said the anniversary year was “a wonderful experience” and “a memorable celebration.”

Less wonderful, albeit still memorable, was the emergence of a novel coronavirus early the following year.

“The pandemic certainly made parish life a challenge,” Father Escalante said.

He shared that, during the lockdown phase when the celebration of public Masses was suspended, parishioners were invited to send in photos of themselves and their families. These were printed out and affixed to the pews of the mission church.

“The entire church was filled with pictures. … We left them up for several months,” recalled Father Escalante, who said the photos made everyone at the parish feel “very connected during that time when there was such isolation.”

The parish’s priests were able to look out upon the pictures as they recorded Masses for their quarantined parishioners. Meanwhile, those parishioners saw them on video, while the opening hymn was sung.

Once outdoor liturgies were permitted, said Father Escalante, “our beautiful courtyard proved to be a very suitable setting for Masses.”

A lifelong San Diegan, Father Escalante said it was during his seminary years that he first came to appreciate the mission and its history.

“I think (Mission San Diego) holds a special place in the hearts of all of us,” said Father Escalante, who describes the iconic church as “the soul of San Diego.”

He recalled that he often took walks around the mission grounds as pastor. In his first years at the parish, he said he was continually discovering new statues and shrines, which are “sprinkled throughout the property.”

The historic church itself is his favorite spot on the grounds, of course, but another favorite is a Marian shrine on the west end of the campus.

“When you come on the grounds here, you’re immediately struck by the history and the beauty of the surroundings,” he said. “And then, when you ponder what has gone on here for some 250 years, it’s very inspiring and edifying.”

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