For decades, St. Clement Catholic Church in Santa Monica has been part of a changing community that has required the church to reshape its approach more than once in order to remain a viable force. The church is at 3102 Third St.

As it celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2004, St. Clement proved it could successfully adapt to the changes in its congregation and still provide community members with tools to cope with everyday life.

The church honored this remarkable occasion with a community mass on May 8th last year, followed by a formal commemoration with Cardinal Roger Mahony, archbishop of Los Angeles on November 20th, according to Father Tomas A. Elis C., St. Clement Catholic Church pastor.

When Father Tomas became pastor three years ago, he saw how the cultural and language differences of his parishioners impacted their interactions with one another and worked to open communication much more between the original Anglo congregation and the now predominantly Hispanic one.

As many of the original Anglo congregation aged and the neighborhood became more Hispanic, the Anglos found themselves presented with a choice of whether to stay at a church they’d attended their whole life and work through the cultural differences, or find a new church home.

“When this transition happens, when you hear another language and there are different customs, people feel displaced,” Father Tomas says. He adds that he and members of the community have worked to make St. Clement a comfortable place to worship.

Masses offered in both English and Spanish have helped to bridge the divide. The church also has English and Spanish speakers on staff, and Sister Joyce Marie Gaspardo, C.S.J. acts as a liaison to the English speaking community.

“It’s important that the English-speaking community feels welcome and a part of the church,” Father Tomas says.

What was a beach and recreational area when St. Clement was founded, then evolved into an Anglo community with families, according to Father Tomas.

Slowly, many in the white community began to move away, and about 25 years ago the area saw a strong immigration from Mexico, especially from Oaxaca, and particularly to Venice, according to Father Tomas.

Now, as rents have gone up in Venice, the church has seen much of its congregation move to Hawthorne, Inglewood and other less expensive areas, but these members continue to attend mass at St. Clement.

Father Tomas points out one difference between an Anglo and a Hispanic congregation. “Even though the Mexican community leaves, they still come here on Sunday and have emotional ties to the church. They say, ‘When I came from Mexico I came here’ and feel a bond with St. Clement, whereas once an Anglo family moves, they usually don’t return for mass.”

He adds that classes for children are now all in Spanish and the Hispanic families still drive their kids back to St. Clement for these classes.

Besides masses that reach out to both cultures, St. Clement’s choir has had to discover ways to include both groups. Valerie Peterson, the choir director at St. Clement for the past eight years, spoke only some Spanish in the beginning, but with a choir that is 70 percent Latino her skills have evolved.

On Catholic holidays St. Clement presents a bilingual mass and the choir follows suit. Peterson says the choir sings one verse in English, then one verse in Spanish, or sings full songs in each language.

In the choir Peterson sees people who aren’t comfortable in the other language make the effort to accept each other’s differences. She believes these people wouldn’t make that effort if they weren’t a part of this church community.

Father Tomas says interfacing has increased communication and he’s seen some of the Spanish speakers lose their shyness of speaking English because they have gotten to know the Anglo parishioners, and some English speakers try some Spanish.

Father Tomas says a recent census predicts that in another ten years the area will be English-speaking and white once again, which will take St. Clement through another transition.

He says he has seen a slow increase in the white population and that the church baptized over 15 white babies last year.

He is also seeing a large group of young adults who are self-employed and lead very independent lives come to St. Clement to catch up on sacraments such as confirmation. Since all classes are in Spanish, St. Clement responds to this need by having Sister Joyce Marie Gaspardo give private classes to these young adults.

With a 100-year history in an evolving community, St. Clement continues to look for ways to grow.

Father Tomas would like to see younger folks look at church not only as a social outlet but as a spiritual place as well.

He says his main goal is to help both Hispanic and English speakers feel comfortable.

“We don’t have formal services and people say they feel relaxed,” he says. “We’re friendly and there’s a sense of community.”

Information, (310) 396-2679.

Julie Kirst can be reached at jkmailtalk@yahoo.com

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