A History of Mexican Americans in California:
St. Mary's Catholic Church
Captain Charles Weber, the founder of Stockton, donated two lots as a building site for the first Roman Catholic church in the San Joaquin Valley. The location on Washington and Hunter Streets was ideally suited because of its proximity to the Catholic population mostly Mexican, Spanish, Chilean, and French. The first church was a wooden structure. However, the present church, built of brick in the Gothic design, was formally consecrated in 1862, ten months after Archbishop Alemany, the state's first prelate, had dedicated the cornerstone. In 1870, an addition to the north of the building was completed. But the most impressive feature of the structure, the Gothic spire, was erected in 1893. The building was further remodeled between 1945 and 1949.
St. Mary's Church Parish is located adjacent to the church. The parish, a two-story brick building constructed in the Classic Revival style in 1905, served as a home for priests, who used the little cloister as a retreat and study.
Washington Park, across the street from the church, was used extensively for religious festivities. Mexican Catholics, for example, celebrated the "hanging of Judas" every Good Friday at Washington Park. "At an early hour," wrote an observer, "they would assemble dressed in various costumes to show their hatred to the traitor disciple." The park was destroyed in 1977 when the Crosstown Freeway was built, drastically altering the area around St. Mary's.
St. Mary's Church, inherently important as one of the leading religious institutions of the San Joaquin Valley since the mid-nineteenth century, has been significant as the center of the Cursillo Movement in California. Originating in Majorca, Spain in 1947 and brought to the United States a decade later, the Cursillo phenomenon has had a great impact on Mexican Americans throughout the southwest. Not only has it altered the traditional "Latin" approach to religion by encouraging male participation in the liturgy, but it has fostered greater social activism among Catholics. Established leaders like Cesar Chavez have become cursillistas, and new leaders have been pushed forward by the religious movement.
Participants in the Cursillo undertake three-day "retreats" where they experience religious renewal and dedication. They also learn group dynamics. While clerics often participate, the aim of the Cursillo is to stress greater responsibility among lay persons in the liturgy, as well as in secular activities of the Church.
The Cursillo Movement, for example, has joined Vatican II in promoting the use of the vernacular in religious services. While the retreats often resemble old-fashioned frontier revivals, the movement has encouraged preaching the social gospel. The acceptance of the emotional side of religion has offended the more conservative hierarchy, who never have embraced the Hispanic emphasis on ritual. Even more disturbing, however, is the Cursillo Movement's social activism. Only a few bishops like Bishop Donohue of Stockton have tolerated clerical involvement in the farm labor movement and other reform efforts. The hierarchy has been no more sympathetic to Cursillista lay persons active in social reform programs.
The Cursillo Movement began in Stockton in 1960. It was started by Julian Sepulveda and Zeke Rosas, prominent parishioners of St. Mary's Church, along with Father Alan McCoy. In the last decade, more than 6,000 persons have made a Cursillo. As in other parishes, women are invited to participate after their husbands have completed the course. Numerous young Catholics have been attracted by the social activist objectives of the St. Mary's Cursillo. The Council for the Spanish-Speaking is only one community organization that was established by Cursillistas in Stockton. It provides assistance to the elderly, operates a dining hall for the indigent, and offers health care to farmworkers. In addition, Cursillistas participate as deacons at Mass and other religious services. Anglo Catholics as well as Hispanics are involved in the movement. Many of the members are important citizens in the community who have learned leadership techniques in the Cursillo Movement and have applied t hem in the secular realm. For example, Max Benitez used his newly discovered leadership skills to successfully initiate a movement that resulted in changing height requirements for the Sheriff's Department.
The Cursillo Movement at St. Mary's has been so successful that teams of Stockton Cursillistas have visited parishes throughout California, giving three-day retreats. They have even traveled to the Philippines, to Mexico, and to Ireland for the same purpose. The movement has helped revitalize the Catholic Church in the Hispanic community.