By JEFF CLEMETSON
Clergy and parishioners of St. Martin of Tours Catholic Church had even more cause to be thankful at this year’s Mass of Thanksgiving on Nov. 7 as the church used the occasion to commemorate its centennial.
The St. Martin community filled the pews as well as outdoor seating areas with video monitors for the celebration, which was led by the Most Rev. Robert W. McElroy, bishop of the Diocese of San Diego. Community groups affiliated with the church set up tables in the courtyard, including St. Martin of Tours Academy, which had a milestone of its own — 70 years of educating local students.
“Celebrating 100 years is really remarkable occasion for us because we’ve been part of this great community,” said St. Martin of Tours Rev. Elmer Mandac. “It is a prayer answered for us because in the early part of the year we thought we would not be able to come together as a community because of COVID, but we prayed a lot and our prayers were answered because we were able to celebrate it and come together as a community and enjoy this remarkable moment in our life as a faith community in La Mesa.”
The roots of St. Martin of Tours’ life in La Mesa began even before the church was built when the small Catholic community in the city would gather to worship in private homes and trek to San Diego or El Cajon to celebrate Mass. In 1920, families in La Mesa were given permission to use the main hall of a local undertaker parlor to hold their first regular Mass gatherings.
By attracting Catholics not only from La Mesa but Lemon Grove and Encanto, the community grew enough to warrant constructing a permanent church. With funding from the wealthy Cavano family of Los Angeles, who funded many church projects of the time throughout Southern California, construction began in October of 1921 to build a church on a small lot at the corner of Normal Street and La Mesa Boulevard. The congregation celebrated Christmas Mass in the unfinished church mere weeks later. The church was completed in 1922, as well as a rectory.
In 1937, San Diego became its own diocese. With the war effort in full swing, the region exploded with growth that caused housing shortages and strained resources. St. Martin of Tours expanded the number of Masses, formed men’s and women’s groups and took other actions to deal with the influx of new community members, but it was not enough — the church needed more space.
In 1948, St. Martin of Tours purchased the lot off El Cajon Boulevard where it resides today to build an expanded church facility. According to the St. Martin of Tours’ “A Century of Blessings” webpage, church leaders decided to reuse materials form the old church to reduce building costs:
“First, the Normal Street church was moved to our current site on El Cajon Boulevard. In a spectacular feat of ‘moving’ engineering, the church was rolled from its former location and placed on the new site. It was then cut in two and expanded to twice the original length. To preserve the salient features of the former church, the interior structural design was left almost untouched. The exterior had to undergo extensive alterations to bring about the desired Early California Mission effect. Flying buttresses were retained and increased in number. The tower was completely redesigned to balance the enlarged nave. The church roof was given a mission tile cover and the tower was crowned by a tiled dome of soft blue and gold. The building presented a striking appearance on a commanding position over the junction of the two main boulevards of the city of La Mesa. In conjunction with the reconstruction of the church, work was rushed to prepare a new rectory on the grounds. With slight alterations, an existing building (a sanitarium) became a spacious rectory with ample accommodations for church group meetings and parish parties. This project took six months to complete. And so, once again, Christmas Mass, 1948 was celebrated in a ‘new’ church.”
In 1950, St. Martin of Tours expanded again with construction of the Academy, which was completed in 1951. The parish hall and school cafeteria were completed in 1952. Four additional classrooms were built for the school in 1956.
The St. Martin congregation continued to grow and by 1961, the church was fundraising for yet another expansion. Ground broke for the new church in 1964 and once again St. Martin of Tours celebrated Christmas Mass as its first gathering in the new building in 1965. The original church is still in use today and is known as Barry Hall.
Although there are no plans for major expansions or renovations in the near future, Rev. Mandac said he feels “blessed” by what St. Martin of Tours has accomplished over its century of serving La Mesa-area Catholics.
“What it means for us is it shows that the faith of this local community has grown over the years. This is just a tremendous blessing to all of us,” he said. “Because God loves us so much, he has given us the faith that has grown over the past 100 years.”
— Reach editor Jeff Clemetson at firstname.lastname@example.org.