The Our Lady of Guadalupe Chapel at Holy Trinity Church in Covina is a center of bustling activity as Dia de los Muertos fast approaches.
Molds for the traditional sugar skulls and their accessories — feathers, sequins, bright foil, colored sugars — are stacking up, and the Rev. Steve DeMuth is collecting candles, photos and other personal mementoes for the children’s and the adult’s ofrendas or altars, to commemorate the Mexican celebration.
Marigolds and sweet treats were added to the altars by Oct. 26 when an “All Hallows Eve Scary Prayer” service included acting out the Witch of Endor (Samuel I) and Valley of the Dry Bones (Ezekiel) passages from the Bible, “and we will discuss what makes us scared and where we can find our security and our hope,” said DeMuth during an October interview.
“We’ll also go over the altars and everyone will explain what is what and why they brought what they brought. People are coming in costume and we will have a fiesta in the parish hall after the evening prayer service,” added DeMuth, who leads the congregation’s relatively new Spanish-language ministry.
The chapel was dedicated August 17 to formalize the move of the Spanish-language congregation from St. Martha’s Mission in West Covina to Holy Trinity after the two congregations were blended.
That day began with prayers at St. Martha’s, the delicate removal of the Our Lady of Guadalupe image and a caravan of cars traveling several miles to Covina Park where the congregation, friends, guests and a mariachi band waited to begin the formal procession — bearing the Virgin’s image — along Badillo Street to the chapel for its dedication.
“That was quite an event,” recalled the Rev. Mark Stuart, priest-in-charge-under-special-circumstances at Holy Trinity.
“We were thrilled even though it was a very hot August day. It was packed, with people in the streets. It was wonderful, and the thing was, it made a real statement to the community. We were very visible and I think that’s something where the Episcopal Church is not always visible. It was nice to meet in the park, to have the mariachis and to march down Badillo Street. It really made a statement to the community.”
Waiting at the chapel were more worshippers from Holy Trinity and other local congregations, DeMuth recalled.
“Over 100 people packed the chapel and were sitting on benches outside. The mariachis were outside the window too, so the people all felt tied together. What’s really great is that other churches in the area came to support us,” he added.
As the procession arrived at the chapel, the image was hung on the eastern wall. DeMuth, who will preach in Spanish each week in the chapel, called for reverent devotion to “all who enter this Chapel and all who seek for help from Our Lady of Guadalupe.”
Stuart announced: “I name, dedicate, and bless this sacred chapel under the patronage of Our Lady of Guadalupe in the name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
Describing his feelings at the moment the image was placed on the chapel wall, Eduardo Peniche, formerly a member of St. Martha’s, said, “Although the people at Holy Trinity were friendly and welcoming, I felt I had lost my church until I helped to carry our Lady of Guadalupe in the procession. When I saw her on the wall of our new chapel, I felt inside this is now ‘home.’”
Jose Alvarez commented on the “honor and privilege” of helping to carry the image. “I felt for the first time that I truly was a part of the diversity of the Holy Trinity family — that I belonged. I was joyful.”
Chapel refitting brings congregations together
The chapel, formerly used infrequently for children’s services, was refurbished after the two congregations became one with their first united service on Easter Day, according to Stuart.
“We were blessed to have that space available,” said Stuart, who arrived at Holy Trinity in February and faced “multiple levels of transition.”
DeMuth, a transitional deacon who expects to be ordained to the priesthood in January, arrived in June. The Rev. Bill Peyton, a non-stipendiary priest from the Old Catholic Church who was just licensed to officiate in the diocese, recently joined the ministry.
The three have worked diligently to make everyone “family” and to ready the chapel for its dedication, repurposing as much as possible for use there, Stuart said.
Most of the chapel furnishings were brought from St. Martha’s, including pews and the altar rails. A baptismal font, prie dieu (prayer desk) and other furnishings were handcrafted by St. Martha’s parishioner Russell Weaver in 1984 and had been used there ever since.
Volunteer work crews cleaned, re-tiled, and painted the chapel and refinished the pews, the cross and prie dieu to match. An ambry was converted into a tabernacle; a cross, chalices, vestments, and candlesticks from St. Martha’s also were repurposed for use in the chapel, Stuart said.
Cremated remains from the St. Martha’s columbarium were carefully moved and are now housed in a new space at Holy Trinity, DeMuth said. “We worked really hard to integrate everything,” he said.
Dual ministries, one fellowship
The two congregations enjoy one another so much they meet simultaneously, at 10:15 a.m. on Sunday mornings. “That way we end at the same time and come together for fellowship,” DeMuth said. “We’re working on making us all one family.”
He intends for every space, nook and cranny of the chapel to be filled with photos and memories “of the great cloud of witnesses” during the triduum of celebrations — All Souls, All Saints and Dia de los Muertos — in celebration of the space.
“I’m having a blast,” said DeMuth, a former restaurant and catering manager who hails from Wisconsin, while improving his Spanish-language sermonizing, learning about the culture and finding opportunities for bilingual services.
“We had a Dia de los Patrias, a celebration of all the independences of Latin America and the Spanish congregation did the hospitality and shared their culture, food, and music. We did a whole program,” he said. “They loved doing it so much and people loved eating so much, we’re going to do that some more.”
A bilingual Blessing of the Animals in observance of St. Francis Day was “wonderful. Everyone was excited by the music, the energy we created together, by the children, who were brilliant when we asked them why we blessed the animals,” he added.
“The chapel is just gorgeous,” said Lorraine Salem, a 50-year member of the English-speaking congregation from St. Martha’s. She said a majority of the congregation — both English- and Spanish-speaking, moved to Holy Trinity together because they wanted to stay together.
“The move was a rough one. It was a very emotional move for me, but the transition was smooth as silk,” said Salem, 79, of Walnut. “The people of Holy Trinity welcomed us with open arms … and we already knew some of the people there.”
But she added that, “As far as I’m concerned this is where I’m supposed to be. This is where the Lord is and I’ll go on from there. It was a good move. We came as a family and that’s the beauty of it.”
Average Sunday attendance for the English-speaking congregation is about 125; for the Spanish language service it’s about 20 and growing. Some new members have responded to a sidewalk sign announcing the services, DeMuth said.
“We’re starting to get our own rhythm,” he said. “The congregation is showing signs of growth.”