BRAWLEY — Our Lady of Perpetual Help — a Catholic church located on the east side of Brawley on B Street — is being torn down as new property owners bought the land as of July 16. Since then, word spread throughout the community within those closest to the church that demolition began last week, with the old church hall now half demolished to make way on the site for new construction and subsequent housing once completely torn down.
Though the OLPH Church has not been in use since October 15, 2017, by the Catholic Diocese of San Diego — of which all Imperial Valley Catholic churches are a part — the response from most Catholics on social media and those interviewed has been one of shock and sadness.
But while the sale and pending demolition may mark the end of OLPH, Father Ed Horning, pastor of the Catholic Communities of Brawley & Westmorland (CCBW) or Brawley Catholic, said it may not be the last Catholic church in Brawley to end if something is not done soon to help sagging finances.
According to Horning, each of the two existing Brawley parishes — Sacred Heart and St. Margaret Mary churches — operate on a $450,000 annual budget. With the closing of the most recent fiscal year, initial church finance estimates showed both churches in a deficit, with Sacred Heart close to $44,600 in the red and St. Margaret Mary at $64,609.
The financial sag is due in part to pandemic-time shutdowns not enabling the church to take in weekly collections, as donations to Brawley Catholic — including non-collection donations — have dropped to between 70- to- 80-percent.
This was, however, before calculating in the sale of the OLPH land, which has brought both parishes back into the black, according to the bulletin.
“It's certainly a possibility; we could lose another church,” Horning said.
Horning said one solution could be consolidating both parishes into one Catholic Church in Brawley.
“Think about it: Instead of $900,000 to run two churches we would need probably $600,000 to run one church, and we could maybe have more money to spend maybe on the youth, evangelization. So, we have to take that into consideration,” Horning said.
“So that's a possibility,” Horning said. “We have to do The Lord's will and not our own.”
Regarding the closing of OLPH, which was originally built as a mission to reach out to the rural areas of Brawley in 1956, Horning said between an insurance review July 7, 2016, and an engineer inspection September 15, 2016, the Diocese deemed the parish unsalvageable due to the cost of what it would take to make all necessary repairs and get the buildings up to present-day codes, to the tune of $750,000 to $1 million, which the Diocese could not afford.
Horning said the OLPH community needed be bringing in about $150,000 or more annually for regular upkeep, and for the past several years up to the closing in October 2017, it hadn’t met the mark, bringing in less than $70,000 a year.
The reports showed a variety of problems with OLPH, including mold, asbestos, non-handicapped accessible and other restroom issues, electrical and exit door problems, slippery tile and drainage issues, and a tilted, sagging and seismically unsafe bell tower.
“We understand that there is sadness, that's why we had the Liturgy to Let Down Tears for closure, for sharing, for feelings,” Horning said, “(but) if we don't support the two remaining churches that are left, another one is gonna get closed.”
The Liturgy to Let Down Tears was held at OLPH October 3, 2017, where, after holy scripture was shared in a candle lit vigil complete with prayer and singing, the OLPH community had the opportunity to share their stories, sadness, and vent their frustrations on an open mic.
After the official declaration of the stripping of parish-status by the Diocese October 15, 2017, a closing Mass of Thanksgiving was celebrated at OLPH Church November 18, as the last official service held at the church site.
“We don't evangelize just to fill our churches but we evangelize to bring about the kingdom of God,” Horning said, “and if we're doing the best we can evangelizing and we can only keep one of three churches open? Well then that's the will of God. You can only do the best you can.”
“Two weeks ago when I was told it was sold it was a very heartbreaking thing because a lot of us — my children and my grandchildren — and a lot of older people were raised in that area,” Robert Gallegos said. "They kept us in the dark. Father Ed kept us in the dark."
Even though the church was officially closed, and the building deemed unusable by the Diocese and unsafe by assessors, people were still gathering there for Catholic prayer fairly regularly, Gallegos said.
“The way they let us know is they locked all the doors of the church," he said. "We were using the hall to say the rosary, so they closed the hall; so we started praying the rosary outside, so they locked the gates; so a lot of us went to the front of the church and prayed the rosary there.”
“It was very sad that nobody came to tell us what they were going to do,” Gallegos said.