Drive west along Highway 126 west of Santa Clarita on a Sunday morning into the town of Piru. Take a right to East Center Street, and you’ll think half the town must be gathered for Mass.
In reality, it’s about 200 mask-wearing, socially distanced, hands-sanitized parishioners who assemble outdoors for the 8:30 a.m. Spanish Mass, plus another hundred or so for the 10 a.m. English Mass, at San Salvador Mission, a tiny Catholic outpost in northeast Ventura County.
Their church, since last summer, is the garden and patio area outside the actual church building that seats around 250, but only 75 maximum in these pandemic-induced times where indoor gatherings are prohibited. So the outdoor space allows more to gather, safely, to listen to the word of God and partake of the Eucharist.
Most of all, it enables the working-class parish community of some 1,000 Catholics — more than half of Piru’s official population of 1,800 — to stay connected, even if it is only masked face to masked face. It is preferable, parishioners say, to Zoom, email, or telephone.
“To me, the Mass is all about Christ,” said Ricardo Barbera, a semi-retired construction project manager who has attended San Salvador for nearly 30 years. “And that means connecting with people, which we can do when we’re outside.”
Elma Ponce, San Salvador’s longtime sacristan whose enthusiasm for her parish and ministry belies her 87 years, says parishioners “love attending Mass outside.”
“When we were able to come together last year after having to watch Mass on livestream and not being able to receive Communion, it was very emotional for a lot of us. And our garden is so beautiful.”
The faithful of San Salvador, in fact, are so pleased with their outdoor arrangement that they aren’t sure they want to return to indoor Masses, said Father Bernard “Barney” Gatlin, the retired priest who has served at San Salvador for the past 13 years.
“We’re happy being outside,” said Father Gatlin, who presides at all three weekend Masses, including a Saturday vigil in Spanish. “The only problem has been the Santa Ana winds that required us to clean up leaves every day, but that’s behind us. We’ve acquired space heaters and so we’re reasonably comfortable outdoors. And if it rains, people will bring umbrellas….”
The above comes from a Feb. 3 story in Angelus News.