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Blog: Restoring Monrovia's 106-Year-Old Cobblestone Church

Mitch Albom's book "Have a Little Faith" explores building community when times are hard. Monrovia's history includes examples of people coming together during floods, fires, and roof leaks.

Spring and Easter offer us physical signs of new life and invisible signs of renewal. We experience fragility in the changes of nature and permanence in our collective memories. We see things through new eyes, with new hope, and become again an optimist people. Such is the story of Monrovia’s 106 year old cobblestone church. 

On Monday, April 30, 2012, a project of renewal began on the roof of a landmark steeple church. The parish campaign, Over our Heads, Under our Roof – will raise $250,000 to replace the slate roof of the historic church. Devoted parishioners have sold churros, held garage sales, made pledges and gifts, and raised ½ of the funds needed to meet their goal. In the midst of our cultural experiences, economic crises, and challenges from mother nature, it is refreshing to reflect
on the miracle of this humble structure and the community it serves. 

We can forget (for a moment) that approximately $40 million dollars in damage occurred from high winds in and around the San Gabriel Valley in December 2011. My brother had to crawl out a broken glass window in the middle of the night when a 100 year old oak tree fell on the Sierra Madre bedroom where he was sleeping.

It is our generation’s version of the 1914 floods that happened after two great rainstorms caused the San Gabriel River to leap its banks. Neighbors spontaneously helping neighbors. It is a wake-up call to gather our resources and spring into community action and renewal. The Great Fire of 1924 which burned for more than two weeks asked hundreds of men to respond to the fire line – historians recall that volunteers were “seized from the streets.”   When in dire need, community action by conscription.   

The lyric to Albert Hammond’s 1972 song was “seems it never rains in Southern California.”  Two months of rainfall in the spring of 1938 brought flooding to Monrovia that proved otherwise.  One can imagine how difficult recovery would be for communities that were nearly 10 years into the Great Depression.      

http://www.flickr.com/photos/monroviapubliclibrary/page32/ 

Built between 1904-1905, the church was dedicated on August 12, 1906 with “a great concourse of witnesses, both Protestant and Catholic, representing members of the faith and families from many surrounding cities and towns.” 
Immaculate Conception Church, Seventy Five Years Booklet  (December 8, 1979). 

The beginning of baseball season makes me feel this way – like a great concourse of witnesses. My neighborhood feels this way too – paying attention to each other, sharing summer avocados, lending a hand to someone who is in ill health, coordinating Goodwill drives, inviting each other to donate blood, collecting canned food or books to support the Foothill Unity food bank. 

The church that survived the wind, rain, floods, fires, depression, and eventual growth in city population expanded in 1955 with a new wing coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the laying of the cornerstone. Parishioners today who attended the parish as children in 1955 recalled that the pews were crowded as more and more families built homes and the City of Monrovia grew. 

When the roof leaked in 2011, a parish committee was formed to investigate materials, contractors, and the process of replacing or repairing the very steep roof. The devotion in the citizens of Monrovia to historic structures and the faithfulness of the natural stone slate that endured for 106 years encouraged us to plan our project again with slate tiles. It is definitely more expensive to do what we feel is the right thing. 

I sometimes find myself lost in prayer in the church – thinking of all of the families that have gathered, prayed, celebrated, and shared the Eucharist inside the cobblestone and granite. There are nearly 70 ministries – some with barely a few members yet devoutly faithful. There are parishioners who have gathered to meditate in the church for more than 20 years. There are generations of stories of birth, marriage, death, and renewal. 

A fire in 1918 destroyed the parish records. Thankfully, perhaps anxiously, we are collecting oral histories, articles, and photographs from parish families, historians,  authors and archives. I'm developing a sturdy summer reading wish list too, hanks to the Monrovia Library's history and heritage web blog. 

In the next 10-12 weeks, weather permitting, we will light candles for the young men who will wear harnesses on the steep roof and be pressed into service for a cause greater than themselves – renewing a historic structure. 

Next:  A Mother’s Day Tale of Faith:   Simona Martinez Bradbury

Summer reading:  http://mplheritage.blogspot.com/

(1)   Monrovia Centennial Review, 1886-1986 by Peter Ostrye, 1985.

(2)   Monrovia-Duarte Community Book, Charles F. Davis, editor-in-chief, 1957.

(3)   History of Monrovia by John L. Wiley, 1927.

(4)   History of Monrovia and Duarte, Charles F. Davis, editor, Duarte chapter  

       by Mr. and Mrs. E.B. Norman, 1938. 

(5)  The Monrovia Blue Book, Charles F. Davis, 1943.

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