Take It On Faith With The Evolution of Christmas in the Annual Number of “The Tidings,” Los Angeles, Christmas 1924, Part One

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The Tidings began in 1895 as a weekly newspaper for the southern portion of the Roman Catholic Church’s Archdiocese of Monterey and Los Angeles, but the dramatic subsequent growth of greater Los Angeles and Southern California broadly led to the creation of the
Archdiocese of Los Angeles and San Diego in 1922. The publication continued as the official organ of the two dioceses, which was led by Bishop John J. Cantwell, and this multi-part post’s featured artifact is the 1924 annual of the publication, which also embraced the Monterey-Fresno archdiocese.

The issue is nearly 200 pages and is packed with a great deal of information for the approximately 300,000 subscribers, one of whom may well have been Walter P. Temple, for whom Cantwell blessed both the mausoleum in El Campo Santo Cemetery (April 1921) and La Casa Nueva (December 1923). The Homestead is perhaps unique in that Bishop Thaddeus Amat blessed the cornerstone of St. Nicholas’ Chapel, erected by William and Nicolasa Workman, Temple’s grandparents, in May 1857, though that edifice was destroyed in the early 20th century and the mausoleum built on that spot.

One of the first pages of the publication comprises “Christmas Greetings” from Bishop Cantwell, who wrote:

The christmas Season, with its spirit of generosity and good cheer, comes to remind us of the infinite love of the Eternal Father, Who sent His Only-Begotten Son into this world to redeem and to save us. The Christmastide warns us, while busy with the cares of time, to take heed and to attune our ears to the music of the angelic chors, and to bow in adoration before the Divine Child, Who, in the weakness of humanity, two thousand years ago, was born in a stable on the Judean hillside . . .

The first Christmas was the beginning of Christ’s benedictions on the human family. Every day and hour is filled with the mercies of heaven. Holy Mass, the Sacraments and the Communion of the Saints are all precious gifts, making every day in the life of a Christian a Christmas Day.

May the Jesus of Bethlehem, of the Cenacle [site of The Last Supper], and of Calvary [where Jesus was crucified] grant to all of us the joys and the peace of a Happy Christmas, and years filled with spiritual blessings, and with such temporal graces as will bring us ever nearer to the feet of God.

John B. MacGinley, Bishop of Monterey-Fresno, added a brief holiday statement, noting that “Christmas is peculiarly the Feast of children. The Christ Child has made it so . . . It behooves us all then to forget we are grown up, and to become children again with all a child’s docility and spirit of reverence. Thus only can we have a real Merry Christmas, and thus only can we hope to be one day citizens of God’s kingdom.”

Another early article of note concerned the Holy Year of Jubilee of 1925 decreed by Pope Pius XI, who led the Church from 1922 to 1939, and which, as with its predecessors dating to 1300, was an “opportunity to obtain freedom from sin and cancellation of spiritual debts.” The history of jubilees was covered in the piece, with twenty-two of these including the previous one of 1900, and a Vatican history noted that “In the Holy Year 1925, Pius XI wished to direct the attention of the faithful to the prodigious work of the missions” throughout the world. It was added that “to gain the indulgence [the reduction of punishment for sins], the people were asked to pry (acording to the intention of the Pope) for peace among peoples.

The reprinting of Bishop Cantwell’s sermon given on 9 December at the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Newman Club in Berkeley including his reference to the fact that “this jubilee celebration comes in the Advent season, when our hearts are lifted to the hills of God where the mystery of our redemption was conceived, when our ears were attuned to catch the angels’ Christmas anthems ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of good-will.” There was also, the past June, the silver jubilee of the bishop’s ordination to the priesthood and The Tidings had a brief note about the commemoration of that event.

That news brief came in “The Year in the Diocese,” which also included summaries of such events of a year “of decided growth.” One notable happening was as a visit from a papal delegate, Rev. Pietro Fumasoni-Biondi, who presided over the reopening of St. Vibiana’s Cathedral, built in 1876 but expanded and remodeled with 3 February 1924 being the date of its reopening. Also mentioned was the enthronement of Bishop MacGinley at the cathedral at Fresno on the last day of July; new parishes opened in such locations as Glassell Park and Sawtelle in Los Angeles along with ones in Torrance, San Pedro, Los Alamitos, Long Beach, Lynwood, Venice and Alhambra. New schools were opened in Los Angeles, Huntington Park and Watts and newly opened churches included the impressive St. Vincent’s at Adams and Figueroa near U.S.C. and others in Los Angeles, as well as one at Puente.

In fact, there was a separate “Building Activity in the Diocese” feature, with a lengthy description and bird’s eye view of St. Vincent’s, designed by the prominent architect Albert C. Martin. Also given some prominent attention was the groundbreaking of the new St. Vincent’s Hospital on Third Street near Alvarado Street and a rendering by its designers John C. Austin and Frederic M. Ashley is also included. Other highlighted churches were St. Monica’s, a beautiful edifice by Martin in its namesake city (and where the funeral of Henry Workman, a great-grand nephew of William and Nicolasa Workman, was held earlier this year, and the ornate Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills, designed by James J. Donnellan.

Far afield, in the little farming town of Puente, was the newly completed St. Joseph’s Church, the second of that name. The summary noted that “the beautiful new St. Joseph’s Church, Puente, was dedicated with due solemnity on Sunday, Septmeber 21,” with the Rev. Monsignor John M. McCarthy officiating. It was added the McCarthy “delivered to pastor [Rev. Louis P. Genest] and parishioners a message of congratulation on the completion of their new house of worship.”

There were four priests as officiants and several others present, while the sermon was given by Rev. John M. Hegarty of St. Anthony’s Church in Long Beach. Representatives of the Sisters of the Holy Names from the Pomona academy, from the Knights of Columbus and others were mentioned and “scores of friends from neighboring parishes drove to Puente to witness the ceremony” but “the new church, while quite large enough for the parish, was inadequate to accommodate the large congregation who sought admission.”

Also praised was “the choir, under the able direction of Professor Benedict Bantly, [who] rendered with great success the ‘Mass of the Sacred Heart,’ by Turton.” Bantly, who was the music teacher at Puente Union High School, also provided private lessons for the Temple children when they were home at the Homestead from the various schools. The summary observed that “the day was a memorable one of the Catholics of the town, who are not only produ of their new church but also gratified that it is entirely clear of debt.”

Moreover, it continued that a year prior, former pastor, the Rev. B.J. Dolan, “suceeded in obtaining from the owner, Mrs. Clara Baldwin Stocker, the gift of one and one-half acres of land as a site for the new church.” The property was obtained by her father, Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, by foreclosure in 1879 on a loan to the Temple and Workman bank, so the new church was on what had been William Workman’s share of Rancho La Puente, even though the original townsite of Puente, established in 1885, was on the John Rowland portion of the ranch.

In a description of the editice it was noted that the style was Gothic, rather than the Spanish Colonial Revival which tended to be the norm for the era. Built by the Canadian Construction Company, which was reoganized and owned by the Bonnafoux brothers, the building’s exterior “is finished in selected colors and has a very pleasing appearance.” The walls were of concrete blocks, which were “properly cured to resist weight and ensure durability,” and also “centrally grooved to receive the cement and steel reinforcements.” The blocks were anchored with iron rods rooted in cement and a steel cable “binds the rows together” while also went “around the walls to the windows, doors and openings” so that “this reinforces the walls against spreading” in the event of an earthquake.

A photo shows the structure, which was built on the west side of Glendora Avenue just a short distance north of the high school and near what later became the city park, but the surrounding landscape shows how isolated it was at the time. A predominant feature above the entrance was a 9-foot diameter “rose petal” stained glass window that was not mentioned in the magazine, but which was contributed by Walter P. Temple. When the church was razed and the current St. Joseph’s built across the street, his son, Walter, Jr., hoped to save the window, but it fell to the bulldozer.

Other churches were mentioned, such as St. Joan of Arc in Belvedere Gardens (East Los Angeles,) St. Ambrose’s in Hollywood, Divine Savior in the Cypress Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, St. Columbkille’s in South Los Angeles, St. Gregory’s Chapel, now St. Gregory Nazianzen in the Koreatown area of the Angel City, and the modest St. Bernard’s in Bellflower. These, along with the Convent of the Good Shepherd in Los Angeles for delinquent girls referred by the Juvenile Court and parish schools at St. Vincent’s and Glendale’s Holy Family Church, among others, show the dramatic growth of the Church in the region during the period.

A very intresting article by Dr. Ulrich Schmidt on “Italian Christmas Customs” stated that:

The Christmas spirit and Christmas celebrations as they exist in the mystical atmosphere of the north, are not known to the southland, and to Italy. In the north, nature lends itself to the traditional ideas of Christmas, while in the south Christmas is celebrated under the shining blue of the Italian sky and the roses are still in blossom at the time of this beautiful feast.

Schmidt added that Christmas trees, left in pots, were only brought to Italy a few decades prior and, because of the expense of importing them, “in the summer time they are taken with great care out to the terraces and carefully tended” before being returned indoors and placed by windows for the holiday season.

More honored was the Yule log or ceppo di Natale, which “is generally a log of olive wood, garlanded by laurel leaves, which is blessed and placed in the fireplace of the dining room on Christmas Eve.” As church bells rung for midnight mass, the log was lighted “and the assembled household sings old Christmas carols while it burns” and the ashes were distributed to family members and held to be good luck for the New Year. Schmidt recorded that the log “is a pagan heritage from the time when the Yue log was burned to celebrate the time of the winter equinox.”

Gifts were not given at Christmas, these being handed out for New Year’s Day and, historically, St. Nicholas made his appearance on 6 December delivering sacks of nuts to children, while the good fairy Befana came on Epiphany, 6 January, “with great secrecy, and fills the stockings with gifts.” Two weeks prior, a fair was held in Rome where toys were sold, though, Schmidt reported that, “last year many of the dolls were dressed in the black shirts and black caps of the Fascisti” led by dictator Benito Mussolini, who seized power in Italy in 1922.

The religious observance of Christmas “is especially beautiful and solemn” with origins of services said to date to 354 A.D., after which the Basilica Liberiana, renamed the Santa Maria Maggiore, was designated the location “for this Christmas celebration.” St. Francis of Assisi began “the great devotion to the crib” in which “the Babe of Bethlehem” was born so Pope Pius XI, in 1923, “ordered that the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore be opened to the public for Midnight Mass.” Schmidt observed that, as a choir sang that “Venite Adoremus,” the carrying of the Holy Crib on the priests’ shoulders was such that “one could not but feel the spirit of St. Francis, and the very pulse-beat of the Holy Night of Bethlehem.”

We will continue with the next part of this post tomorrow, so check back to see more notable material from the 1924 annual number of The Tidings.

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