Tuesday, June 27, 2006

A Priest Who Transformed A Parish

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.

24 comments:

St Pio said...

It may be hard to believe but I know exactly what you mean. My parish priest, Fr. PAUL Weinberger, has a carbon copy priestly biography. I don't know why Fr. PETER got moved, but Fr. PAUL got moved because our bishop here in Dallas didn't like father teaching the people Latin, and he especially didn't like father celebrating the Novus Ordo in Latin.

Arieh said...

Michael,

What an uplifting story. I agree with you about the priest shuffle, it needs to end. It seems that once you develop a good relationship with your parish priest they are gone. It can be heart wrenching.

Claire said...

It is so encouraging to hear stories like this, of holy priests who make a difference in the lives of parishoners. While it is certainly hard for the parish to have such a treasure leave them, just think of how much good he will be able to do at another parish! Hopefully all the good things at Sts. Peter and Paul will continue, as they should with a parish life built around the Eucharist rather than merely a charismatic pastor.

Anonymous said...

It truly is amazing how much one person can do when he is a faithful instrument of God. I'm sure Sts. Peter and Paul will miss him terribly, but I'm sure his new assignment can't help but be transformed by his presence.

Our Lord is generous to us beyond what we deserve for giving us such good men for priests!


Thank you Fr. Peter! And thank you Michael for being counter-cultural against a media who only wishes to show us the priests who have failed in their vocation by showing us a priest who has been and still is a great success story of God's handiwork!

Diane said...

Thanks for sharing the story. God Bless Fr. Peter!

Michael, I am wondering if you have had a chance to read "Pastors and Stability of Office" which was an article on Homiletic and Pastoral Review on the very subject of moving pastors and how it can be harmful. Mark Pilon raises interesting points.

Here is a link

God Bless and I enjoy listening to you on the radio. Best wishes!

DigiHairshirt said...

What a marvelous story! The best way to honor Fr. Peter is to visit his church. Fortunately, I live in Southern California (the O.C.) nd I will make a "pilgrimage," as it were, to this church. A miracle such as this cannot be missed!

Clayton said...

I've been to the parish several times. It's an oasis in Los Angeles. What a gift to have a priest after Christ's own heart.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

An inspiring story. Thanks for the illustration of Paul's words, "the Gospel is the power of God unto salvation".

Barb, sfo said...

It is so wonderful in this age of "media bashing church" to see such a beautifully written tribute to the good that one man of God can do, when he has his heart, mind and spirit set on serving the Lord. I will pray for the parish and their new leader as well as your uncle's success in his new ministry.

Anonymous said...

I wish every pastor in the country could read this, instead of whining about how overworked they are.

God bless Fr. Peter and may He grant us many more priests like him!

Anonymous said...

I hope and pray and BEG Our Lord to send us a holy parish priest who will love God and souls, a priest who will foster adoration and teach the truths of the faith.

I hope this parish gets another true priest like Fr. Peter to continue on the foundation he has set and not one that will tear it to pieces.

Joey MG said...

Great story!! Very inspirational.

Br. Chris Gaffrey, ofm said...

This is great story and makes you realize what one person can do with just a little commitment and a lot of faith. By the way, I know it seems difficult to have priests transfered from place to place, but it is precisely because they, as spiritual fathers, are helpers of the bishop, that their ministry must extend beyond just one parish. As you said, Fr. Peter will probably be able to help out the next place he's at just as much as he helped Sts. Peter and Paul Parish.

Clara said...

I've met Fr. Peter--I think I met you through him and his sisters (one being your mother), actually. He really is a wonderful priest, and I'm sure he'll transform his new parish, too--especially since he'll be teamed with the Carmelites in Alhambra, who teach there. Ss Peter & Paul is an amazing place; I remember driving through Wilmington getting there and wondering what a church in such an area would be like, but it's like an oasis in the archdiocese.

Nick Senger said...

What a great story. I heard this on the radio yesterday and had to sit in my car in the parking lot to hear the whole thing. It was worth it. Well written and inspiring.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for such a positive story about a very positive priest. May God send us more like him, and may God bless those he has left behind with another priest in the mold of Father Peter.
Being a part of LA Archdiocese, one can only wonder, How soon do the dancing girls arrive?

Daniel Oropeza said...

It is sad for a parish we a realy exceptional preist leaves a parish. I am not totaly against this policy of our Bishop here in Los Angeles of moving priest every eight years. Prior to Bishop Mahoney issueing this new policy once a priest was installed as pastor he remained there until retirement. The Bishop wanted the faithful to experience more of the priest of the Dioceses and for the priest to experience more of the faithful. This policy has positives and negatives but overall more positive. The Los Angeles Times recently ran a story of a beloved priest from one of the most affluent parishes in the Dioceses (Palisades) who was the sent to a parish in South Central Los Angeles. Many of the parishioners from his old parish followed this priest and have contributed greatly to improvemnets in this new parish. The parishoner in both parishes have come know each other bring together two vastly different communities together in love and faith. Theses affluent catholics have personaly met thier poor nieghbors and come to thier aid realizing we are one faith community.

Anonymous said...

I'll offer up a reason why great priests get moved. Rather than be attached to this wonderful and holy priest, people need to be attached to Christ. A church can become a "cult of personality" where people begin to associate goodness with a single person rather than Jesus. Don't get me wrong, I LOVE a good priest, but if you're in the parish who is stuck with a lukewarm priest, you are Fr. Peter is sent to your parish...

Anonymous said...

Hi, I am an intern at a Publishing house based in New York www.Lifetimemedia.com , and here we are working on a book which highlights the work done by catholic priest for the community. I was wondering if we could get the contact details of Fr. George Peter Irving, we'd like to know whether would he be interested to be a part of this project. You may email me at hmerchant@lifetimemedia.com

Christina's Corner of the Web said...

That was a wonderful article! I am one of those that was confirmed in Fr. Peter's parish by the bishop in 1996. He baptized my brother and I when we first came to the parish in 1994 to attend Sts. Peter and Paul School. Many families were helped by him, and he continues to touch so many lives.

Anonymous said...

For those of you looking for Fr. Peter.....He's in a parish at Long Beach, CA called Holy Innocents, and he's been put in the SAME situation as when he first arrived at St.s Peter and Paul. I am actually a close friend of Fr. Peter. The reason why Fr. Peter never gets moved, IS BECAUSE HE GETS THINGS DONE. THe cardinal always grants his extensions so that he could complete whatever tasks he feels he needs to. If anyone goes to visit him, tell him "Van" sent you!

God Bless

VanCamp Iakopo

Mercedes said...

I have met Fr. Peter many many years ago when he was @ Our Lady of Assumption church in Boyle Heights... I remember you Michael, your sisters and your mom and dad and I beleive you have a younger brother too... you must have been like 13 years old. It is really good to know that you are a well rounded man. GOD BLESS YOU && your Family..

Anonymous said...

Father Peter left St. Peter and Paul and came to us here in long beach Holy Innocents...And I thank God that he was sent here to us..He is a great Father and has done so many things for our parish... We are so lucky to have him now...

The vazquez family

JSM said...
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