The landmark Church of the Epiphany in East Los Angeles has been called a monument to the Chicano Rights Movement, and if its stones could talk they would tell of ground-breaking political and social activism, of grape boycotts and visits by United Farm Workers organizer Cesar Chavez and other leaders; of mariachi masses and folklorico dancers; of buzzing youth activities, community action, the birth of La Raza, papeles picados and ojo de Dios (God’s eye) sacred signs of devotion.
But time and deferred maintenance have taken a toll on the Lincoln Heights parish hall, one of the city’s longest surviving religious structures. Granted historic-cultural monument status in 2005, many of its huge stones now lie, catalogued, plastic-wrapped and sequentially numbered “as stone by stone they’re taking apart the outer wall,” said Brother Tom Carey, Franciscan monk and vicar of the congregation.
“What happened is, one hundred years of water had begun to erode the bottom portion of the sandstone, scooping out the stone and so the wall, because it had no support, was separating from the rest of the building,” he said.
“There was a huge crack in the wall. You could see daylight through it,” he added.
“You could have literally kicked it out with your feet. It was much weaker than anyone knew. All it would have taken was some extraordinary event, like the 4.6 earthquake they had in Santa Barbara. Any kind of moderate shaking would have brought it down,” added Carey, who became vicar in 2010.
Home to the second oldest Episcopal congregation within the city of Los Angeles, the Romanesque Revival-style parish hall was designed by Ernest Coxhead. St. Athanasius, now at the heart of the diocese’s Cathedral Center, is its oldest congregation, dating from 1864.
Coxhead designed many Episcopal churches of the period, and the 1886 building served as the parish church until 1913, when the cornerstone was laid for a new church designed by Arthur Benton, best known for designing Riverside’s Mission Inn.
With the construction of the new English Gothic Revival church, the original building became the parish hall.
Inside the 100-year-old church at 2808 Altura, Carey knows he has his work — to jump-start the congregation and to help raise money to preserve the buildings — cut out for him.
Enter the Epiphany Conservation Trust, a nonprofit entity established by Bishop J. Jon Bruno to raise funds for much-needed restoration projects such as stone facade repair, structural foundation work, repair of windows and the building envelope, a heating and ventilation system, flooring, and other general repairs to be overseen by Escher GuneWardena Architecture of Los Angeles.
Ironically, Carey met the architects through Lydia Lopez, who joined the church in 1968 after she met its clergy on a picket line.
“We were protesting the imprisonment of Chicano students for walking out of East L.A. schools because of poor conditions in the schools,” Lopez recalled recently. “I met the priests on the picket line and I was very curious because that kind of stuff — well, we didn’t do that in the church where I was raised.”
That encounter led her to Epiphany “and it became home to me. I needed a place as a Christian, I needed a place as a Chicana, and Epiphany was the place that brought all that together and it became home to me,” she said.
“I loved the service, the mariachi mass, the banners. It was a wonderful celebration and I thought, if this was the Episcopal Church, I want to be a part of it.”
The Rev. Roger Wood was one of the priests on the picket line that day.
“The Chicano movement was just beginning,” recalled Wood, now retired. “It was the beginning of an organized effort to change institutional realities both in education and the police department and all through society.
“There was no such thing as Hispanic ministry in the diocese at that time. It was why they brought John Luce in, to take up where [former rector] Nicholas Kouletsis left off.”
Then, as now, the church was affected by changing demographics. Lincoln Heights had begun as a mostly Anglo suburb of L.A., and gradually became “an Italian community with some Mexican Americans around,” recalled Wood, who succeeded Luce as rector and oversaw the changeover from Anglo to Spanish-speaking congregations.
Kouletsis had started many neighborhood programs, and laid the groundwork for reaching deeper into the Mexican American community.
Born and raised in Sierra Madre, Wood had served a church in Provo, Utah, just prior to arriving in East L.A. “I had to learn a lot about the place, geographically and culturally.”
He recalled meeting Bishop Eric Bloy for the first time “at a demonstration downtown, in connection with a protest over someone who was killed by the police. It was a whole new experience after just arriving from Provo.”
A church with three flags
Frances Kearney Gomez, 85, remembers staying up all night one night as she and Lydia Lopez made the traditional woven ojos de Dios or God’s eye sacred art.
Her heart was set on Epiphany after attending a community meeting there because “they had three flags, an Episcopal flag, an American flag, and a Mexican flag,” she recalled. “That was very controversial at the time, and it got my attention.”
So much so that she returned with her six children and husband, who was first generation Mexican-American. Epiphany was a church that honored his culture and ancestry, which was important for their children, she said.
“It was a very vibrant place, engaging people, spreading the church’s feeling, the people’s feeling through the church — it was an education for a lot of people.”
For example, an arts program overseen by the late Virginia Ram, the church’s program director, involved late vestry member and artist Nancy Von Lauderback Tovar, “who made banners and we would go to different churches and take the culture of the church, the parishioners, and put on Mexican dances, and food — it was an education for a lot of people.”
She also remembers the startup of La Raza, a protest newspaper, in the church basement, and attending visits by many dignitaries — as when Cesar Chavez visited, along with many grape pickers, “who were not only of Mexican ancestry, but Filipinos also.
“He [Chavez] came and spoke from the pulpit. I can’t remember the year, but Lydia Lopez was president of the United Neighborhoods Organization.”
And she recalled visits by Mayor Tom Bradley and Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie in 1981, along with El Teatro Campesino and many others.
“Those were very formative years, and there are so many, many names associated with the church, people who came because they believed in what the church was doing, the outreach to the community,” she said during a recent telephone interview from her home.
She still attends Epiphany although “we’re at a different point now,” she said.
“This restoration is going to be a real enlightenment for the church. It’s going to go forward. We just have to go forward. Once the parish hall’s open, more people will want to rent the facility, but they’ll be exposed to the church too, and our enrollment will grow. That’s what I’m hoping for.”
The restoration project absolutely must be completed, she added. “I’m a native Angeleno. We always tear things down and get rid of things. We bulldoze this and that, we don’t preserve much, just gobble everything commercially and not preserve enough of the history. And Epiphany is too important to let that happen. The church has a role and we will go forward.”
Legacy of service continues
Inside the church on a recent day, Carey rejoiced over the arrival of new “stacking” chairs and accomplishments thus far, including a completely remodeled parish hall with a commercial kitchen. That work has largely been funded through diocesan grants.
He has also discovered that the church needs seismic retrofitting, the bolting of the building to its foundation, and the bolting of the roof to the building. The soaring ceiling and gleaming wooden arches are intact, but last year four of the stained glass windows on the church’s south side were removed and placed in storage to prevent their falling out, Carey said.
“Those are just placeholders,” he says of the current windows with their vibrant red and orange and turquoise and lime and jade-colored messages of ‘La Paz, Hope and Joy.”
“It’s Plexiglass, but it won’t last forever,” he said. “The architects put the appliqués up. They’re very nice. Before it was just plain white and it looked like the building was missing teeth.”
He tallies a final cost for restoration and renewal at about $2 million.
True to its history, the church continues to serve the community, offering Sunday services in both Spanish and English. It serves about 120 families at a free food bank on the second and fourth Fridays of the month.
Its building issues aside, the church will continue its legacy of community outreach, with enrichment classes for high school students, and a summer arts program. Plans are in the works to establish a charter school for kindergartners and first graders in August 2013, and a month later, beginning English as Second Language classes.
“This place is very much alive now,” Carey said. “We’re planning to reach out to second- and third-generation Latinos who maybe want to worship in English now.
“These buildings are important,” he added, “because they call us back to who we actually are. We are a people as Americans who demand our rights and we have a history of that and we are at our finest when we’re doing that. That’s how the country began and it’s how it has renewed itself, over and over again, by saying we want a place.
“So, the places where that happened, places like Epiphany, they call us. That’s our identity. That’s who we are.”