smm_church_historyOn Porciuncula Sunday, August 2, 1931, The Most Reverend Thomas K. Gorman, first Bishop of Reno, Ne­vada, blessed and dedicated the beautiful church of St. Mary Magdalen Parish·. Rev. Francis C. Ott was named the founding pastor. At this occasion Bishop Gorman celebrated, with many clergy con-celebrating, the Pontifical Mass. Rev. Edward R. Kirk delivered the sermon, highlighting the Feast of Porciuncula Sunday. He said in part, “today with the Porciuncula Indulgences, our mind goes back in history to that little valley of origin, near Assisi … and the presence of a life-size statue of St. Francis of Assisi pointing to that way …” These comments bring us to full awareness of the privilge that this church possesses on the Westside of Los Angeles.

Along Pico Street Road, St. Mary Magdalen was built at a location of a crossroad to the Westside of the Los Angeles Basin. Records reveal that La Cienega once was a wagon trail and passage that led to Lake La Brea. Water supply was scarce in the area. In the westerly outskirts of the Los Angeles Basin, many ranchos were located throughout the area, including Ranches Malion, San Vicente, Boca de Santa Maria, Santa Monica, San Jose de Buenos Ayres, Rodeo de la Aguas, Rincon de Los Reyes, Ballona, Centinela, and La Cienega. It was all farmland. In 1886, when Santa Monica’s parish was established, her borders reached from the ocean on the west to La Cienega in the east, south of Pico Street Road from its junction with Washington Street Road to the ranch house formerly of Sanchez, to the northeast corner of the Centinela Ranch. Now this area is divided amongst 33 parishes of which St. Mary Magdalen is one. Soon the area farmland gave way to housing developments.

During the tenures of Bishops George Montgomery (1896-1903) and Thomas Conaty (1903-1915), the population of Los Angeles doubled and more than 100 parishes, schools, and hospitals were built. It was Bishop John J. Cantwell who received permission to divide the 90,000 square mile Diocese of Monterey-Los Angeles, when Pope Pius XI created the Diocese of Los Angeles-San Diego. Bishop Cantwell (1917-1947) became the first Archbishop of Los Angeles, and subsequently held the longest term as Ordinary — 30 years. It was under his tenure that St. Mary Magdalen became a parish.

At the beginning of the 20th century Los Angeles was already a rapidly growing and vital city. The 1930 Census Report indicates a city population of 1,231,730 and a county population of 967,827 or a total Los Angeles population of 2,199,557. The surrounding parish churches east of La Cienega, Holy Spirit (1927), Cathedral Chapel (1927), Christ the King (1926), Blessed Sacrament (1904), and neighboring villages of Culver City with St. Augustine (1919), Beverly Hills with Good Shepherd (1923), West Hollywood with St. Victor (1906), were all built prior to 1930. At that time the trend of Italian and Irish Catholic families moving westward indicated the need of another bigger church in that area. A plan was conceived to acquire ten lots of land for a bigger church, a school, and a convent. Architects M.L. Barker and G. Lawrence Ott were commissioned to conceive a plan for the project. The plan was to build a temporary church to be used until enough Catholic families moved into the neighbor­hood and would need a bigger church.

The rectory was constructed as a solid, beautifully designed structure worthy of a bigger church. Rev. Francis C. Ott was appointed as the founding pastor of St. Mary Magdalen parish. He borrowed $30,000 at a 3% interest for the mortgage prior to the time of the Depression in 1929.

Because of the Depression, it soon became apparent that weekly offerings barely covered the mortgage and interest payments. Rev. Edward R. Kirk alluded in his homily at the dedication Pontifical Mass on August 2, 1931 when he said and commended the parishioners, “for doing pioneer work in self-denial and self-sacrifice for this beautiful monument to the living God.” While the parishioners built hope for that grandeur of a future church, no one could foresee the doom and gloom brought on by the Great Depression.

And then came WWII and further interruption of family lives. New houses in the area were unoccupied. The flow of Italian and Irish families moving into this area stopped. Soon Bishop John Cantwell realized the impact of these uncontrollable events and shelved the plan of building a bigger church under the name of St. Mary Magdalen. Bishop John Cantwell saw the need for a smaller parish church further westward and three miles down Pico Boulevard, St. Timothy’s Parish (1943) was established. Despite the fact that the church of St. Mary Magdalen was built as a temporary structure, many parishioners have expressed a love for its simple interior, giving a feeling of surrounding simplicity for prayer and meditation.

As a result of the resettlement of Jewish families, who emigrated from Europe prior to and during the war as a result of persecutions, the neighborhood in and around the vicinity of St. Mary Magdalen became a dominant extended Jewish neighborhood. Jewish families came via New York to Los Angeles and moved into many of the unoccupied homes in the area. Because of this, the number of registered families at St. Mary Magdalen had a limited trend of growth. However, in 1967, the borders of St. Mary Magdalen were enlarged because of the closing of the Catholic parish of St. Peter at San Vicente and Burton Way. Cardinal J. Francis A. Mcintyre ceded the parish of St. Peter to the Maronite Eastern Rite Church which subsequently became a Bishop’s Rectory.

Parishioners of St. Peter were integrated into the surrounding parishes of Good Shep­herd Church, St. Victor’s Church, St. Mary Magdalen Church, and St Am­brose Church.

In 1932 Reverend Fr. Ott was transferred to the newly established diocese of San Diego at that time. Soon after his transfer, Fr. Ott was named second pastor of Blessed Sacrament Church in San Diego. It is not officially known whether the shelved plan for a bigger St. Mary Magdalen Church was realized in San Diego. However, it was during his time as pastor that architect G. Laurence Ott, brother of Fr. Francis Ott (not the father) built the church. Reverend Monsignor Ott died on June 21, 1985 in a convalescent home in San Diego.

After Rev. Fr. Francis C. Ott left St. Mary Magdalen parish, a popular Irish priest, Reverend John Patrick Conlan, became the pastor of this still very new parish. Soon after, he was elevated to The Right Reverend. Under his tenure a $125,000 building program was undertaken. Architects John and Anthony Kauzor were commissioned in 1946 for the sketching of the plan and John Haddock was the general contractor. Bishop Joseph T. Mc Gucken dedicated the school and a convent on January 9, 1948. The school provided eight classrooms and accommodated 400 students. The convent provided rooms for 17 Sisters. Thirteen Sisters of the Presentation were in residence and administered the school at that time. In 1970 Sisters of the Holy Faith came from Ireland and with the competent leadership of the school principal, Sr. M.Loretto O’Leary, assumed the administration of the school.

Longtime parishioners remember the Right Reverend John Patrick Conlan as an outgoing priest with an inborn task to save people’s souls. It was said that he would go over to the intersection of La Cienega and Pico Boulevard on Sunday mornings and ask people if they’d already gone to church. If they said no, Father Conlan would invite them to come to St. Mary Magdalen Church. His popularity enabled him to bring forty non-Catholic members to the faith, of whom some loyal parishioners are still in the parish. His nephew Fr. James O’Grady was pastor of the Visitation parish and retired as Pastor Emeritus of Visitation Church in 1999. In 1956 the Right Reverend John P. Conlan was assigned to a parish in San Fernando Valley. He died on July 15, 1960.

Reverend Monsignor Morris was among 20 young Irish priests from several seminaries ordained together on June 4, 1911 at St. Patrick’s College in Carlow, Ireland. The California missionary and his brother volunteered for priestly duty in the far-flung Monterey-­Los Angeles Diocese. Msgr. Morris was named a domestic Prelate by Pope Pius XII in 1953. In 1955 he was named pastor of St. Mary Magdalen parish. A longtime parishioner Mary Lou Peters remembers that during his time as pastor, the wood paneling at the front altar was mounted on the wall with the intention of highlighting the life size crucifix. Msgr. Morris retired in 1965 as Pastor Emeritus, and after serving 56 years as priest in the Archdiocese, died at the St. Mary Magdalen rectory on November 27, 1967.

Between 1965 and 1967, no pastor was assigned to St. Mary Magdalen. Rev. Msgr. Burg was named administrator and Rev. Fr. John Folliard provided pastoral care to the parishioners. In 1967, Rev. Fr. John Folliard was appointed pastor of St. Cornelius parish in Long Beach. He was elevated to Monsignor and later retired as Pastor Emeritus of St. Cornelius parish.

Rev. Fr. Christopher Kennedy was born in County Roscommon, Ireland, and completed his seminary studies at St. Peter’s College in Wexford. He was ordained June 18, 1944 at Wexford. He volunteered his priestly services to the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and was assigned as assistant at St. Elizabeth, St. Victor, Sacred Heart, Holy Trinity, and St. Barnabas parishes as a young priest. In 1967 Rev. Fr. Christopher Kennedy was named pastor of St. Mary Magdalen. It was during his time as pastor that the parish implemented the required changes of Vatican II. Under his tenure an extensive renovation program was undertaken that included the turning around of the altar, now facing the congregation. The celebrant’s chair needed to be elevated and other changes were made to bring the church environment up to the code of compliance with Vatican II. Father Kennedy was a parishioner’s pastor and was always amongst the parishioners. His stature was that of a good shepherd. In 1978 Rev. Christopher Kennedy was assigned as pastor of St. Barnabas parish in Long Beach, where he was an associate before. Under Cardinal Timothy Manning he was elevated to Monsignor. He is now retired as Pastor Emeritus of St. Barn­abas parish in Long Beach.

In 1978 Rev. Fr. Patrick H. Sullivan was initially named administrator of St. Mary Magdalen. Prior to that time he was the school principal at Glendora High School. While Fr Sullivan was born in Chicago to a large family with name recognition, he was ordained for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. He completed his studies at St. John Seminary in Camarillo, California and was ordained in 1955. As pastor of St. Mary Magdalen he had to face two arson’s fires in the church. In spring 1988, the fire destroyed the sacristy and the front altar area was heavily damaged. During the five months renovation period Masses were celebrated in the parish hall. Again in July 1999 an arsonist set fire in the utility room and heavily damaged the attics of the chapel of St. Mary Magdalen’s shrine. Again costly renovation work was necessary. While Masses continued to be celebrated in the church, it was a great inconvenience for all parishioners. Father Sullivan was pastor for 25 years. He always supported the parish Holy Name and Altar and Rosary Societies with his presence. Father Sullivan was also a sage to the young priests from Nigeria, Uganda, and India, who were in residence at St. Mary Magdalen starting in 1996. They assisted with pastoral duties while attending local universities. Endings of stories are important in life, as Pastor Rev. Fr. Sullivan celebrated his last Mass on Holy Trinity Sunday, a few days before he entered St. John’s Hospital and never recovered from his ailment. Fr. Sullivan had a great devotion to the Blessed Mother. He had the calling to die on the Feast day of Our Lady of Carmel on July 16, 2003. With the passing of Fr. Sullivan, and due to the priest shortage and as a parish with a small number of registered parishioners, the end of the parish of St. Mary Magdalen was expected to come.

In the year 2003, after Rev. Fr. Sullivan’s death, Rev. Fr. Paul Sustayta, pastor of the neighboring parish of Holy Spirit was named the administrator of St. Mary Magdalen until the end of the year 2003. With his initiatives Fr. Paul Sustayta re-energized the parishioners and demonstrated that all parishioners should have hope for a revival of parish activities. Fr. Paul Sustayta undertook a special upgrade project and renovated the courtyard to a landscaped gathering place with a fountain and tile floor. With the 75th anniversary celebration new hope for a permanent revival is at hand. 75th Anniversary preparations un­covered a precious gift possessed by only St. Mary Magdalen Parish be­cause of its day of dedication on Porci­uncula Sunday, August 2, 1931. While there is no written evidence of Bishop John J. Cantwell’s deliberate choice of August 2nd as the day of dedication, the highlighting of the Porciuncula Indulgences in Rev. Edward R. Kirk’s homily suggests that St. Mary Magdalen’s church, intended as a temporary smaller structure to be later built over with a bigger structure, fits into the de­scription of the meaning of the word, literally “a little portion” and is similar to the little chapel of the origin of the history of Porciuncula.