Friday, November 24, 2000
Nun Breaks New Ground in Remote Parish

Faith: As director she teaches, leads prayers and makes home visits. But she can't perform Mass or weddings.

By SALLY ANN CONNELL, Los Angeles Times

NEW CUYAMA, Calif.--With her ready smile and fractured Spanish, Sister Mary Dorothea Quinn is doing what no woman in the history of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles has ever done: She's running a parish.

A severe shortage in priests has forced the nation's largest archdiocese to catch up with a national trend and appoint the 66-year-old nun as parish director in its most remote region, the dusty Cuyama River Valley in this far northeast corner of Santa Barbara County.

While Quinn cannot administer the sacraments, including matrimony, Holy Eucharist and anointing of the sick--duties reserved under church law for ordained priests, who drive in from other areas--she is tending to her flock of 75 active Catholics in an area so rural that birds of prey far outnumber people.

Between teaching religion classes, visiting the sick, distributing Thanksgiving food to the poor and chaperoning middle schoolers to Magic Mountain--a six-hour round trip--Quinn has had little time to dwell on the pioneering status of her position at Immaculate Conception Church.

Instead, like many others in this dusty valley of ranches between the Caliente Range and the Sierra Madre Mountains--her parish covers 250 square miles--Quinn spends most of her waking hours in her car, a teal Ford Escort.

"People out here are to be congratulated. They kept their faith," Quinn said, explaining that some church members have been flummoxed by the lack of regular schedules at the church. "They are the remarkable ones."

A series of elderly Franciscan priests tended to the parish before her arrival in September. The most recent leader was a young Franciscan brother who, because he was not ordained, served in the same capacity of parish director, unable to perform sacraments.

Although a woman serving in this role is a new development in the Los Angeles Archdiocese, women have headed parishes in places as diverse as the rural reaches of Michigan, the Outer Banks of North Carolina and San Bernardino County. Laymen also lead parishes.

"There is a shortage of priests, but there is an explosion in lay ministries within the church," said Father Thomas Rausch, chairman of the department of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University. "In private colleges like ours, we have far greater numbers of women than men. It is inevitable that they will run parishes."

Some observers say Quinn's appointment and position raise the question of why the Catholic Church won't allow women to be priests. But Quinn said she believes she is filling a need rather than making a political statement.

"I'm not a flaming liberal, not a feminist. I recognize there are certain injustices that religious women have experienced. But in the end, I see this as more of a sign that I can help these people.

"I think changes are coming in the church, but not in my lifetime. This is something I felt I could do in my lifetime," said Quinn, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet.

Isolated doesn't begin to describe the tiny concrete block church that Quinn oversees. Government statisticians put the known population of Santa Barbara's portion of the valley at 1,200, but there are farm workers spread across the region working the alfalfa, carrot and cattle ranches where the counties of Santa Barbara, Ventura, San Luis Obispo and Kern meet.

As wide as its real estate is, the parish is so poor that it must be subsidized by the archdiocese to stay afloat.

Quinn arrived in September and has been fully accepted by the predominantly Latino congregation. At a recent Spanish-language Mass, she received loud applause after reading a homily in mangled Spanish. Spanish-speaking parishioners such as Anastacia Gonzalez give the woman dubbed "La Monjita" ("the little nun") an A for effort.

"Before we felt lost," Gonzalez said. "There were times when the priests would not be able to make it to all the services. We would come and the church would not be open. Now, if they cannot make the Masses, she leads us in prayer."

Martha Yepez, an organizer for Catholic Charities, said Quinn has been instrumental in bringing public social services to all the residents of the valley.

"She goes out of her way to do home services. There was a time that a little boy needed to go to Bakersfield because he needed a follow-up for a broken arm. That's the biggest issue out here, transportation," Yepez said. "Sister Quinn realized the problem and drove him to Bakersfield."

Many Cuyama Valley residents feel like poor forgotten stepchildren of rich Santa Barbara County, with organizations like Head Start, county mental health services and others made available only recently through cooperation of Catholic Charities and government agencies.

Quinn joined the Sisters of St. Joseph when she was just 18, after growing up in San Francisco. Most of her career has been as a teacher or school administrator at places including St. Bernard's in Playa del Rey, Bishop Montgomery High School in Torrance and St. Mary's Academy in Inglewood.

After taking a year off from teaching to drive retired nuns to their doctors' appointments and to enjoy painting classes, Quinn saw a posting in the Sisters of St. Joseph newsletter for the Cuyama Valley job. She describes getting the same call from God that she felt back when she first decided to become a nun.

"I've never been anywhere this rural before, though," Quinn said. "I'm a city girl. People say I'm from the Bay Area. I'm from San Francisco."

The archdiocese believes there are as many as 200 Catholic families in the valley, though Quinn has met only 75 at the weekly Masses. Like the mission of any good parish priest, hers now is to bring in the rest of the faithful.

"I try to go out, at the very least, one day a week, sometimes more, and stop in as many houses as I can," she said. "I'm going to have little cardboard signs made up in Spanish that I can leave when people aren't in. I think there are more Catholics here."

Bishop Thomas Curry, leader of the Santa Barbara pastoral region, one of five in the archdiocese, believes that Quinn's background in education is perfect for his smallest parish.

"We're delighted to have her," Curry said. "I think, because of the remoteness of the place, it's hard to get a stable administration there. Like any diocesan employee, she'll get a new contract each year. But I hope to see her there for many years to come."

Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times