Our Lady of Peace: one American parish's successful formula

Our Lady of Peace: one American parish's successful formula

Arthur J. Brew

It is not often that a small Catholic church and its pastor are featured in the pages of the Wall Street Journal and a score of religious magazines and newspapers.

For 33 years, the Our Lady of Peace Shrine of Santa Clara, California, and its pastor, Monsignor John J. Sweeny, held a special place in the hearts and souls of thousands of West Coast Catholics and visitors from all over the country.

A small, nondescript church in the heart of the Silicon Valley, it has been one of the most popular and best-attended houses of worship in the state for decades. While Sunday Mass attendance is dropping precipitously all over the world, by as much as 70 per cent in some areas, it is usually standing room only for weekend Masses at Our Lady of Peace. On Ash Wednesday 2002, the overflow ran into the side hall and out onto the lawn in front and on the side of the church. Parking spilled over into a nearby hotel and restaurant parking lots.

Founded in 1961 in an area with more high-tech firms and commercial establishments than homes, it was a parish that no priest wanted. There were fewer than 800 households, and when Msgr Sweeny took over in 1969 it had a debt of over a half million dollars. Today, it has more than 2,200 households from all over northern California with nearly 4,000 persons attending weekend Masses.

It is an ethnically diverse congregation, with Filipinos, Chinese, Anglos, Hispanics, Vietnamese and Indians.

Msgr Sweeny, recently retired, set the tone for the parish which continues today under the Fathers of the Incarnate Word.

Our Lady of Peace is totally and unashamedly orthodox, with Perpetual Adoration keeping the church open for worshippers 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Confessionals are constantly manned for the long line of penitents.

Msgr Sweeny, a quiet, self-effacing man, always maintained that he had only one wish for his flock and that was to help them avoid sin and get to heaven. He and his brother, the late Fr Louis Sweeny, growing up in San Francisco, credited their faith to their parents whose devotion to the Rosary, family prayer and serious individual prayer inspired their priestly careers.

The two brothers were ordained on the same day in 1948 in St Mary's Cathedral in San Francisco. Before coming to Our Lady of Peace, Msgr Sweeny served in a number of parishes in San Francisco and Santa Clara County. Fr Louis also had assignments throughout the Bay Area and in the State's Central Valley before passing away several years ago. A third brother, Richard, is a retired schoolteacher.

Msgr Sweeny is currently in residence at a San Jose parish after being directed to retire by his bishop who wasn't moved by petitions signed by 6,000 persons opposing the change.

A fellow priest says Our Lady of Peace is better known throughout the country than most other parishes. "One might say that the 32-foot high statute of Our Blessed Mother overlooking the valley might be the reason, but they would be wrong. Msgr Sweeny had a three-part formula for running a successful parish that many pre-Vatican II priests once followed.

"First is the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, a devotion that takes place around the clock. Second, is devotion to Our Lady, and third, but not least, is loyalty to the teachings of the Church."

The number of people attending Mass far exceeds the number of those living within the parish boundaries. It is estimated that 65 per cent of the faithful who attend Mass there are from other churches - refugees from parishes where innovations and liturgical abuses abound. They are strongly attracted by the reverent liturgy of Our Lady of Peace which is also the only church in the diocese where a Traditional Latin Mass is celebrated once a month.

The 32-foot stainless steel statue of Our Lady near the front entrance to the church towers over two of the busiest intersections in the Silicon Valley and is seen by thousands of faithful who kneel in adoration before it all year round. The youthful Virgin stands with outstretched arms welcoming all who pass by, inviting them to prayer.

Blessed Sacrament

An airline executive on business from Utah happened to drive by the small Catholic church in the late afternoon on the way to his hotel. "I was astounded to see a huge, stainless steel statue of Our Blessed Mother high on a grassy knoll clearly visible to everyone passing in any direction. Adjacent to the Shrine was a simple, rectangular shaped church called Our Lady of Peace.

"I expected the door to be locked at this time of day, but instead I came upon a dozen or so people quietly praying in the pews.

"As I looked to the altar I saw the object of their adoration, the monstrance containing the exposed Blessed Sacrament centred above the altar on a pedestal with a drawn golden curtain. A tremendous sense of peace and joy filled me as I realised I had found a spiritual oasis - a parish that has engaged in Perpetual Adoration day and night for the past 30 years."

"Later," he continued, "I was fortunate enough to attend a Sunday Mass at this church. The services were continuous all morning with a packed cross-section of many nationalities who had driven miles from around the Bay area and beyond, as this church has no nearby residential neighbourhoods of any size.

"There was no shortage of priests to celebrate Mass or hear confessions. The liturgy itself contained no clowns, no dancers, no greeters, and no altar girls, not even lay Eucharistic ministers as their presence was not needed. From the reverent way the priests moved, to the visually inspiring art in the sanctuary, to the obvious devotion to Mary, this parish exuded a tremendous spiritual vibrancy and prayer."

With acknowledgement to 'Homiletic & Pastoral Review'. Reprinted with permission.

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