With all the news coverage relating to changes in high ranking Vatican offices, it's easy to forget about those who are really the heart of the Church's mission--parish priests. These are the men who sacrifice their whole lives to the Lord without frills or recognition. These are the men who spend hours in confessionals, who drop all that they are doing to rush to the hospital for a sick call--even at all hours of the night. They devote themselves totally to nourishing the Body of Christ.
I want to take the time here to highlight one such priest and the amazing things he has accompished--Fr. George Peter Irving.
For the past 13 years, Fr. Peter has served as the pastor of a church in Wilmington, CA, St. Peter and St. Paul Catholic Church. The parish is the second oldest in the entire Los Angeles diocese. When he arrived, the parish was in dire straights. Tucked away in the middle of a downtrodden, hispanic neighborhood near the LA Harbor, the church stood like a tombstone in a forgotten graveyard.
At one time, it had been a vibrant community and a beautiful church. Yet, with the passing of the years attendance at Mass went into sharp decline. As gang violence increased, iron bars went up not only on houses, but also around the Lord's house. The gates may have protected the church, but they also seemed to define a barrier between the community and the Lord they came to worship.
By the time Fr. Peter arrived in 1993, the church was virtually in total disrepair. Dark, dreary and empty--the physical condition of the church in many ways represented the spiritual state of the community. The confirmation program puttered along with only a handful of students. The financial state of the parish was miserable. The baptistry had been turned into a makeshift closet and the bells in the ancient steeple had been gone for decades.
But Fr. Peter had a vision. For one thing, he started a youth program, which involved door-to-door evangelization. He walked through the government projects and befriended the gang bangers. He passed out holy cards. He knew names, faces and families. It wasn't safe. His family and friends feared for his life. But at 11pm at night, he was back out there night after night. He found other youth who assisted him in his ministry.
One year after he arrived, the Bishop came to confirm 200 young people.
And it wasn't just young people who came back to the parish--it was their families as well. Empty Masses became packed until there wasn't even standing room. Confessional lines began to meander outside the church doors.
He also painted the church and started a massive restoration project. With careful planning, Fr. Peter stretched every dollar he received. Every pew was carefully restored. So was the marble, the altar, the statues, the stations, etc. Those old bells were restored and sounded once again. Children were once again baptized in the baptistry.
In a bold move, he removed the gates around the church. People warned him that kids would vandalize the church. He told them they knew better and that even if they did, it could always be fixed. But there was never a need to--no one did the church any harm. (Though graffiti marked just about everything else in the neighborhood.) He replaced the gates with benches, planted new grass, and suddenly the church looked like a miraculous preserve of sorts.
If you build it, they will come. They did, and in droves. Since Father Peter has arrived, the collection has tripled.
Fr. Peter then laid out another careful plan--"On the Verge of a Miracle"--to build a parish center. The poor hispanic community went on to raise over a million dollars to build the parish hall they never had but desperately needed. And this was no concrete box--this was a beautiful hall, which included all kinds of high-tech features you would never expect to find in Wilmington. Fr. Peter found a way to stretch every penny. Moreover, the hall was carefully designed to look as though it had always been there, matching the church's design perfectly.
The hall is also home to Saint Joseph's Bookstore, one of the best Catholic bookstores in all of southern California. The selection there is truly overwhelming. You can find there just about any Ratzinger title you can think of, as well as church documents, writings of saints and doctors, as well as other contemporary theologians and authors such as Henri De Lubac, Jean Cardinal Danielou, Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, Yves Congar, John Saward, Scott Hahn, Aidan Nichols, Mike Aquilina, Benedict Groeschel, Romano Guardini, etc. The great theology in the bookstore should give you an idea of the caliber of Fr. Peter's preaching.
I could go on and on about how wonderful St. Peter and St. Paul Church has become. I could tell you about the beautiful John Paul II park, built in the corner of what was once an abandoned lot next to the church parking lot. I could tell you about how Fr. Peter taught the bilingual community a good bit of Latin, so that they could pray together. I could tell you about the brand new adoration chapel, which brings in worshippers at all hours of the day and night--in fact, the local news stations did a piece on how remarkable it was. And we haven't even discussed the amazing state of the parish school.
To recount everything that has happened would truly take a full length book. Suffice it to say, Fr. Peter has transformed the community. People now talk about how violent Wilmington used to be. They can't remember a time when there was no adoration chapel, or hall, or confessional lines out the door. The church website has tons of pictures and stories--you can even see a month by month photo chronicle of the building of the hall (to right of the photo albums you will find arrows which take you to the "next" page--scroll right).
This week, Fr. Peter leaves the parish for a new assignment. Last Saturday the parish came out to thank him--people waited 3 hours in a line that stretched around the church, through the parking lot and into the hall, just to shake his hand and take picture with him. There were many tears and sad faces. Some of the people in line were members of that first confirmation class who brought their kids--kids who Fr. Peter had baptized--to be blessed by him one more time. Others were more recent "re-verts" to the faith. Even some gang bangers came to say goodbye with tears in their eyes.
Frankly, I think it's a shame that priests get moved like this. In fact, Fr. Peter's wonderful associate pastor, Fr. Roberto, is also moving this week. I don't think pastors should be "transferred" like managers of a franchise fast food chain. They are spiritual fathers--and fathers are not simply to be transferred after a term limit. Regardless, Fr. Peter has shown how Catholics can realize impossible dreams for their parish in Christ. What an inspiration.
One more thing, Fr. Peter is my uncle. I am so proud of all that he has accomplished at Sts. Peter and Paul. I can't tell you how sad it is to watch him leave this community. But I also look forward to watching him do it all over again at the next place he is headed. I'll keep you updated.
Please keep him in your prayers this week and in the future. Sts. Peter and Paul, pray for us.