A 50th birthday is a major milestone, whether it’s the life of a person or a church parish. That’s why St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Irvine (SEAS) is celebrating with a variety of events that recognize its long history.
Events so far have included a special healing service and a visit from Bishop Timothy Freyer at the 10 a.m. Mass, on Nov. 7 that was followed by a reception and musical performance, according to Deacon Steve Greco, who has been part of the church for more than four decades. He describes the parish of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton as a diverse church community comprised of many cultures including Vietnamese, Korean and Hispanic.
“We have around 1,000 families registered here at SEAS,” said Father Paul Trinh. “Our parish accurately reflects the stimulating cultural diversity of Orange County.”
Since October 2016, SEAS has also played host to the Catholic Student Ministry at the University of California Irvine. At least twice a week, almost 200 students meet and worship at the SEAS campus with their chaplain, Father Francis Vu, S.J.
ST. ELIZABETH ANN SETON
Elizabeth Ann Seton was the first American-born saint, canonized in 1975 by Pope Paul VI. She was born in New York City in 1774 and was married at age 19. She had five children and following her husband’s death, she entered the Catholic Church. After many difficult years, Seton founded the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s, and then later St. Joseph’s Academy and Free School, which were the beginnings of Catholic education in America.
“She was very much an educator and we’re focused on that,” said Deacon Greco. “For us, catechesis and education are really important.”
In the 50-year history of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Irvine, 1994 stands out as a significant year.
“It was a very important year for the SEAS parish community,” said Fr. Trinh. “The new church, which had been designed in the shape and style reflecting the expression of Vatican II, was completed and dedicated. The parish hall, that had served as our worship center as well as for all parish activities was redesigned and the youth center added.”
But there was heartbreak too.
“Rev. Kenneth O’Keeffe, one of our pastors, died of Lou Gehrig’s Disease at age 50,” recalled Deacon Greco, which was very hard on the parish. Rev. Tom Pado was named to replace him—and recently retired in 2019, having served as pastor for almost 25 years.
THE CHALLENGE OF THE PANDEMIC
The Covid-19 pandemic presented another monumental challenge.
How did the church respond?
“We hustled,” said Fr. Trinh. “I was new to this parish, having just been assigned seven months before, and I was determined that our church family would not be deprived of the Sacraments. In the first days of the lockdown, I videoed Rev. Brandon Dang and myself on my iPhone, saying Mass and Adoration broadcasted via Facebook. The weekend Mass broadcasts are continuing for our homebound.”
When restrictions shifted, so did the church.
“When we were allowed to gather outdoors with appropriate spacing, we met for Mass on the patio at the front of the church,” said Fr. Trinh. “I created and adapted furnishings to fit our new space. I mounted a table on wheels, and that became our altar. I built a 10-foot-tall Crucifix on wheels, and two 8-foot-tall plywood screens from which we hung holy icons, also mounted on wheels, and these adorned our worship space. The screens also served as the private confessionals.”
During these challenging times, Fr. Trinh said the parish and staff took care of one another.
“Everyone’s efforts were notable,” he said. “The six staff members and volunteers have worked so hard to keep the people safe as they gather back for Masses and other spiritual and material needs.”
And the ministries never ceased their work.
“Our service ministries continued to assist the needy. Prayer and Bible Study ministries continued, but on Zoom,” F. Trinh added.
The pandemic also made it difficult to plan celebrations for the church’s 50th anniversary.
“It is because of the pandemic that we have compressed a year’s worth of jubilee activities into the final months of our anniversary year,” said Fr. Trinh. “But the function of planning a joyful jubilee has served as a vitalizing factor during the worst of the shutdown.”
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
Fr. Trinh envisions a flourishing future for St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. He hopes that parishioners can reconnect and are encouraged to “share their time, talents and treasures, for the good of the parish family.” He hopes to create more opportunities and spaces for devotions, prayers and gatherings; to strengthen the faith of adults, train new young leaders, care for all age groups; and to grow holistically in Mass attendance, devotions, learning our faith and practicing faith with various ministries.
The number of people who attend in-person Mass is not yet at the pre-pandemic levels but when they do return Fr. Trinh said there’s a feeling of celebration and reunion.
“As one parish member said, ‘You don’t realize how much you love something until you don’t have it anymore.’”