St. Peter's Church was set up as a mission church for the spiritual assistance of the Italian people in the spring of 1904 by Bishop Conaty.
The years between 1890 and 1910 witnessed the greatest mass migration of Italians to the United States. While most migrants settled in the Eastern and Midwestern States, many moved west, to California in particular.
Following the example of many Catholic Bishops on the Eastern coast, Bishop Conaty of Los Angeles, responded to the pastoral needs of the new migrants by establishing a church specifically for them, "to produce good Catholics according to Italian tradition," as he himself wrote in the document for the construction of St. Peter's Church.
The first church was a temporary frame structure built on North Spring Street. Father Tito Piacentini was the first pastor.
The parish books tell us that the first couple to be wed in the new church were Domenico Pagliassotti and Maddalena Aiasso on August 30, 1904, and the first child to be baptized was Antonio Zaro on September 4, 1904.
When Bishop Conaty established St. Peter's Church in 1904, he wanted it to be the church for all Italians in the Archdiocese. In technical terms that came to be used later on, it was to be a "national ethnic parish." And in fact, although it was originally located in an area that was known as "Little Italy" because largely populated by Italian migrants, Italians from all over Los Angeles considered it their church for worship and for communal celebrations.
Already in those years, however, the center of "Little Italy" was moving more towards the area of North Broadway and North Hill Street. A new location for the church was thought to be more convenient in order to serve the community. The choice fell on a large cemetery chapel along North Broadway which had been built as a memorial for a wealthy person, Andrew Briswalter, who had died in 1885. This cemetery chapel was dedicated and named St. Peter's Church on July 4, 1915 during the pastorship of Father A. Bucci, who had succeeded Father Piacentini from 1906 until 1918.
This early period of St. Peter's Church was characterized by a succession of many priests at the helm of the church, most of them serving only a couple of years or at most three years. The exception was Father A. Bucci, who was pastor for 12 years. Some of the oldest members of the community still remember him.
The Italians who settled in Los Angeles had migrated from the various regions of Italy: large contingents came from Piemonte in the north, from Lucca in Tuscany, from Ischia in Campania, from Bari in Puglia and from various provinces in Sicily.However, it soon became apparent that the largest regional group was made up of Pugliesi. Moreover, the migrants from Puglia, much more than other regional groups, brought with them a staunch attachment to the patron saints of their hometown; such as, San Vittoriano, San Trifone, Madonna di Costantinopoli, Madonna della Stella, San Giorgio, etc., as well as local religious traditions that they wanted to maintain even in the new land.
St. Peter's Church soon found their rallying point and became, as it were, the backbone of the parish organizational life. With the contribution from the community and the society officers and members that keep the traditions alive.
The early life of the Italian church was not an easy one; it went through rather difficult and rough times.
One obvious difficult situation was the already mentioned fact that the priests serving the community had very brief assignments. With many pastors following one after the other, it was difficult to establish a continuity of programs. Many Italians felt disenchanted.
Moreover, already in the late 1930s and early 1940s, the Italian population of the so called Little Italy began to dwindle, as many families moved away from North Broadway to Lincoln Heights, Glassell Park, El Sereno, Alhambra and Monterey Park. To attend St. Peter's Church they had to come from farther away. For many of them it was easier to go to mass in other churches that were closer.
A change for the better came about with the appointment as church pastor of Father Michael Cecere in 1943, just a few months after his ordination to the priesthood in the Claritian Order.
He was the ideal choice for the situation. Born in the region of Puglia and migrating here with his family when he was only 18-months old, he shared the feeling and aspirations of the many Pugliesi in the community. He realized that in order to call the Italians back to their parish, a new church was needed to serve as a rallying point. The old cemetery chapel had become totally inadequate.
He sounded the feelings of some prominent members of the community, who gave him wholehearted support. His idea was also endorsed by L'Italo-Americano, the community newspaper published by Cleto Baroni. The fund-raising campaign got soon under way on a promising note.
Right in the middle of these efforts, a terrible fire destroyed the old cemetery chapel/church. Now the building of a new church was a necessity, not just a luxury. In the meantime, religious services for the people were held in the old parish hall on North Broadway. parishioners
The laying of the cornerstone for the new church took place on July 21, 1946. Just nine months later, precisely on April 13, 1947, the dedication of the new St. Peter's Church, exactly as it stands today, was held with a solemn ceremony before a large crowd of exultant Italians.
Father Cecere remained two more years after the dedication of the Church. Two other Claritian priests served the church until the appointment as pastor of Father Salvatore Vita, a diocesan priest, in 1954.
Father Vita introduced three important changes.
First, he moved into an old building near the church making it the rectory and priest residence. Previously the priests of the Claritian Order preferred mostly to live in their religious house in the Placita (El Pueblo).
Secondly, he successfully urged the Archbishop of the diocese to make St. Peter's a full-fledged parish with its own local boundaries, although it continued to be the "church for all Italians of the Archdiocese."
Thirdly, after extinguishing the debt for the building of the church, he built a 300-person-capacity annex to the old parish hall, for large gatherings and banquets.
After six years of serving St. Peter's Church, Father Vita asked to be transferred. As successful as he had been, he grew tired of having to cope with many internal dissensions among the church societies.
Around this time, however, there surfaced another threat for the Italian church, and this from the outside, as it were.
Because of the population shift within the boundaries of St. Peter's parish and with the Italians moving out of the old neighborhood, the majority of the residents of the area consisted now of Chinese migrants and Spanish speaking people. For the latter, San Conrado mission was established in the vicinity of Dodger Stadium. But to meet the needs of the Chinese Catholics, the Chancery Office of the archdiocese contemplated the possibility of making St. Peter their parish church. Church authorities thought that an Italian parish was no longer needed, especially since church attendance was down on regular Sundays.
However, when the Italians came to know of the Church authorities' intention they reacted with considerable concern and resentment. It is reported that at a hush-hush meeting, a group of dedicated Pugliesi vowed that they would do anything to "keep the church Italian." They let their intention known to the diocesan authorities, and for the time being St. Peter was saved...
[The idea of making St. Peter's the church for the Chinese Catholics surfaced again in later years. In the summer of 1969, for instance, the Chancery Office offered then pastor Father Luigi Donanzan the church of Holy Rosary in Sun Valley Di Loretosuggesting that he could move there his activities on behalf of the Italian people. Father Donanzan naturally declined the offer. It is prophetically ironic that Holy Rosary became a Scalabrini parish in the late 1980s. But St. Peter's Church remained the Italian Church...]
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