By Kelley Carlson
It sounds as if the bell at St. Leo’s Mission may be ringing again sometime soon.
Parishioners from the St. James and St. Leo Catholic Community are raising money to reconstruct a tower for the bronze bell, which has been silent since 2004. The original wooden tower, built in the 1960s, suffered from termite damage and was subsequently demolished; the bell has been in the back of St. Leo, covered with a canvas tarp.
“It has come up now because of the centennial (celebration),” said Dr. Anthony Corso, who attends St. James Parish. “There’s this whole idea of legacy and history ... to remind us what has been accomplished.”
The community is a part of Eden Gardens in Solana Beach, first settled in 1912 by a large number of migrant workers and laborers, many employed in North County. About 30 years later, a “substantial number” of residents expressed interest in establishing a church. A small barracks building from the Camp Callan Army base on the Torrey Pines Mesa was moved to a location near the present church site and used for services.
In 1959, the eastern portion of the church property was claimed in the construction of Interstate 5, resulting in the church’s displacement, according to a news release. Parishioners then took over a nearby concrete platform that contained the shell of a building initially planned for a community hall, and held fiestas to help raise money for a new structure, church volunteer Victor Tostado said. He added that Desi Arnaz of “I Love Lucy” fame, who had a summer home in Del Mar, often would play music at the site, and actors Pat O’Brien and Bing Crosby were also visitors.
While there was a push to develop a permanent church for St. Leo in the 1960s, there was also some controversy over having two Catholic churches less than a quarter-mile apart in the same community, according to Corso. St. James had relocated to Solana Beach from what is now the current library site in Del Mar, and there was debate whether the churches should be separate. In 1966, the diocese of San Diego decided that St. Leo was a cultural, religious church and should be preserved, and that it was important to the Mexican-American community, Corso said.
“St. Leo became a mission church under the pastorship of St. James, and the two parishes were joined under the title ‘St. James and St. Leo Catholic Community,’ ” he added.
That same year, parishioners at St. Leo built “every square inch” of their “modest, uncomplicated” church from the shell on the platform for a mere $2,000, according to Corso, winning a national religion architectural award in the process. The bell tower was constructed at that time; the bell would ring for occasions such as births, baptisms, marriages, quinceañeras, sacred Masses and funerals.
“There’s something important about bells ringing that creates a sense of community,” Corso said.
But in 2004, it was discovered that the tower had become termite-infested, and it was wobbly and rotted and needed to be torn down, he said.
A new tower will be constructed from steel, Corso said, and there will be “the same aesthetic quality of openness” as the previous structure. There has already been a preliminary review of the plans, Tostado said, and fundraising is under way, with a goal of $20,000.
“We’re about 10 percent there,” Tostado said.
Parishioners from both churches have been very generous, Corso added, but “we’re making a plea to the larger community.”
Some contributions were made during a blessing of the bell on July 23, held on the Patio of the Bells at St. James Parish. About 400 people attended Bishop Robert Brom’s Centennial Mass, and St. Leo’s Choir sang “La Golondrina.”
“Even with the tremendous transition out of the community, we find that people still return for special occasions — it shows where their beginnings are and has great importance,” Corso said.
He added that donations can be as little as $10, and a bronze plaque is planned where names can be added to it for $500 each.
People who are interested in contributing to the cause can call Amy Martinez, finance manager, at (858) 755-2545, ext. 103. Checks may be sent to Bell Tower Restoration, c/o St. James and St. Leo Catholic Community, Attn: Amy Martinez, 625 S. Nardo Ave., Solana Beach, CA 92075.