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OLA Church renovation becomes a reality

On Saturday, August 10, Claremont’s Our Lady of the Assumption Catholic Church held an emotional 10 a.m. dedication mass for its newly renovated facility, with Los Angeles Archbishop Jose H. Gomez presiding.

It will be the culmination of five years of planning and $5.1 million in expenditures.

“I’m just humbled by it,” said Father Charles Ramirez, who oversaw the project. “It’s going to be like ordination day for me because I’m seeing God’s hand in the life of OLA, and in my life, and many other people’s lives are going to be blessed by it.”

The church would have liked to be celebrating an expansion, or perhaps the opening of a new facility, but after nearly a decade of study the twin realities of local real estate prices and building regulations—specifically the increased parking requirements triggered by the expansion of any business or residential dwelling in the city of Claremont—convinced organizers that renovating the 68-year-old structure was the best way forward.

“We’re kind of landlocked,” Father Ramirez said. “In a way it might have been good to just knock down the whole church and start all over again. But people wouldn’t have it, of course.”

OLA has seen no major renovations since it was built in 1951. The refresh includes bringing the facility up to standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act and earthquake retrofit requirements. But work also includes amenities such as enhanced HVAC, lighting, sound, video and livestream capabilities as well as new flooring, pews, a complete remodel of the interior and new landscaping. The renovated church will seat approximately 575, an increase of about 50 from its previous capacity, Father Ramirez said.

“We gutted the whole church and started all over again, adding a variety of things to enhance the worship space and to be able to draw people in to feel a sense of God’s presence by what surrounds them and how they interact with each other,” Father Ramirez said. “It’s fabulous. It really is.”

“I brought some people in just to take a look and they just can’t believe it,” Father Ramirez said. “Some people start crying. They say, ‘We never thought it was going to be like this, ever. This is just beyond belief.’”

Father Ramirez said he and others have also been moved by the new 18-foot tall by 16-foot wide “reredos,” the large decoration located behind the altar, which were hand-carved by indigenous Peruvian craftspeople.  

“When I saw their work, I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “They had a crucified Christ resurrected up in this church about 13 feet tall, and it looked alive and welcoming. And I said, ‘I love that’”

A team of Italian artists worked on the concept with the Peruvian carvers to help them realize what Father Ramirez had envisioned for OLA’s Christ image.

In the end, they chose an 11-foot, eight-inch tall cross, with a six foot, eight inch “suffering Christ” with an arm span of six feet.

“It’s a Christ on the cross who hasn’t died yet, who is suffering for the sins of the world and you know, we’re all carrying our crosses,” Father Ramirez said. “I wanted people to see it and be drawn to prayer, and have a sense of compassion for Jesus on the cross for them, and draw them to prayer and to see Christ’s love for them through his suffering. It’s dramatic. It really grabs you as you walk in.”

Father Ramirez, 71, was ordained in 1987. He’s in his third stint at OLA, celebrating the 11th anniversary of his latest appointment July 1. He was born in Covina, grew up in Azusa, went to Damien High and graduated from Cal Poly Pomona.

The initial thought five years ago was the renovation would cost about $3.2 million.

“But things never turn out how you expected,” Father Ramirez said. “Things cost more, and prices go up over time. Maybe at the time we calculated it, it might have been that, but over time things increased.”

The $5.1 million project was funded by about 900 families who contributed to the campaign.

“At first, I didn’t want to ask,” Father Ramirez said. “I thought, gosh darn, I’m a priest. That’s not what I signed up for. But as pastor, sometimes you’ve got to do the asking. I raised about $3.1 million face-to-face with my parishioners.”

The church’s fundraising committee raised the remaining $2 million. OLA parishioners had been worshiping in a tent during construction.

“People were very accommodating, but the last month or so has been really tough, with temps up there near 100 degrees, and you’re in that tent and it’s tough,” Father Ramirez said. “But we did it.”

As the renovation took shape, Father Ramirez said he often thought of the Hispanic Catholics who started the parish in homes in the Arbol Verde neighborhood nearly 100 years ago.

“They came together and had fiestas and sold tamales to build Sacred Heart Chapel, and to build OLA,” he said. “And I was very conscious of those people who sacrificed and had the faith to go forward to leave a legacy for the future parishioners of OLA. And so I asked those people that went before us to pray for us. And also to thank them for starting the Catholic Church here in Claremont.”

Years ago, he was asked about his own legacy.

“And I said, ‘I just want to be a good pastor. I just want to listen to the people and try to help them with their needs the best I can. I’m not thinking about legacy,’” he said.

“And it looks like this is what it’s going to be.”

For more information about OLA and tomorrow’s dedication activities, go to olaclaremont.org.

—Mick Rhodes

mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com