For the South Bay region of Los Angeles County, the decade following the end of the Second World War was a time of unprecedented population growth, economic expansion, and suburban development. By the spring of 1955, the number of parishioners served by St. James Parish, established in Redondo Beach in 1892, had multiplied to the point that the need for a new parish had become clear. Accordingly, on May 1, 1955, a new parish was established to serve “one of California’s most scenic coastal areas,” comprised of southern Redondo Beach, southwest Torrance, and the northern half of the Palos Verdes Peninsula. The parish was placed under the patronage of St. Lawrence, a Roman deacon of legendary generosity who was martyred in the year 258. Msgr. Daniel P. Collins, a native of County Limerick and pastor of St. James since 1952, was entrusted with the foundation of the new parish.
The members of the new parish gathered to celebrate Sunday Mass for the first time on September 4, 1955, in the Knights of Columbus Hall on Avenue I. in a letter of welcome distributed at this Mass, and anonymous parishioner wrote: “We have awaited this wonderful day with a high degree of anticipation. For a new adventure looms before us – that of being members – charter members – in the founding of a new parish… We like the challenge of a new undertaking; and our diligent efforts will not go unrewarded.” This spirit of optimism was echoed in Msgr. Collins’ own remarks to his new parishioners: “We are confident that through your prayers and help, God’s glory will be extended in these parts and His blessing will come abundantly to a devoted and faithful flock.”
One of Msgr. Collins’ first actions was to organize the women of the new parish into fourteen neighborhood-based organizations known as “guilds.” Formed for the express purpose of “knitting together the women of the various sections [of the parish] to act in the best interests of the entire parish,” the guilds provided both a conduit for parish communication and a framework for organizing spiritual, educational, social, and charitable activities for parish families. Reflecting of the parish’s accomplishments during its early years, Msgr. Collins later remarked that “The guilds are what made it all possible.”
Shortly after the new parish was established, nine acres of sand dunes bordering on Tulita Avenue just north of Pacific Coast Highway were acquired for a parish campus, and the architectural firm of Comeau and Brooks was commissioned to develop a plan for the site and to design the first buildings.
A fundraising committee was recruited, and on Sunday, February 19, 1956, hundreds of volunteers fanned out across the parish with the goal of visiting every parish family and collecting a signed pledge card from each one. Each family was asked to pledge a minimum of one month’s wages, payable over a twenty month period. This initial pledge drive and a second one held in February of 1957, raised over $500,000, a remarkable sum in the mid-1950s for a newly established parish comprised of just 1,500 families.
The groundbreaking for the first buildings – a temporary church, a rectory, and a school, all designed in a “contemporary Mediterranean” style – took place on May 1, 1956. Before construction could begin, however, hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of earth, including a “minor mountain,” had to be moved and rearranged as part of the process of leveling the dunes, filling in the gaps and gullies, and compacting the earth to create a level building site. Msgr. Collins later remarked that the “minor” mountain “was not moved by faith alone. In this case, it took $100,000.”
The Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondolet, an order founded in France in 1650 and active in the United States since 1836, accepted Msgr. Collins’ invitation to establish a parish school. With the first phase of the school construction completed, on September 20, 1956, the school opened with six faculty members, including four Sisters, teaching 360 students in six classrooms – that’s sixty students per classroom!
Just three months later, on December 23, 1956, Mass was celebrated for the first time in the temporary parish church, which was large enough to accommodate 750 parishioners. Msgr. Collins moved into the parish rectory the following February. Later that year, on May 19, 1957, the Archbishop of Los Angeles, James Francis Cardinal McIntyre, made his first formal visit to the parish, officiating at the “solemn dedication and blessing” of the church, rectory, and school. In the weeks prior to the celebration, a handsome mosaic portrait of St. Lawrence, designed by renown mural artist Hugo Ballin, was installed on the façade of the church, and a sculptural group, the “Holy Family of the Workshop,” specially commissioned from sculptor Fred Humphrey, was enshrined on the parish grounds.
By September of 1958, the Sisters of St. Joseph had taken up residence in their new convent, and a four classroom addition to the parish school had been completed. The faculty and student body continued to grow, and by the 1961-1962 academic year, a faculty of eight sisters and nine laywomen were teaching 960 students in sixteen classrooms.
In the meantime, the parish, and the Catholic community of the South Bay, continued to grow by leaps and bounds. In September of 1957, Bishop Montgomery High School opened its doors to parish families. In January of 1960, Little Company of Mary Hospital began its service to parishioners and the larger community. And by the summer of 1961, the Catholic population of the Palos Verdes Peninsula had grown to the point that a new parish, under the patronage of St. John Fisher, was established for the area. The territorial boundaries of St. Lawrence Martyr Parish were adjusted, and 250 of its families became charter members of the new parish.
In August of 1965, a decade-old dream was realized when Mass was celebrated for the first time in the parish’s newly completed permanent church. Designed by prominent architect J. George Szeptycki, the church’s spacious interior and seating capacity of 1,200 were tangible evidence of the parish’s rapid growth during its first ten years. Incorporating both traditional and modern design elements and materials, the church, with its soaring twin towers and distinctive Spanish tile roof, instantly became a South Bay landmark.
With the much anticipated completion of its new parish church in the summer of 1965, one might say that the “pioneer era” of St. Lawrence Martyr Paris had come to a close. But, just as one era was ending, a new one was dawning, both for the parish and for the Church as a whole. The closing of the Second Vatican Council in December of 1965 marked the beginning of an unprecedented period of renewal, growth, and change during which every aspect of parish life would be transformed. Having established deep bonds as a community of faith during the parish’s first ten years, the parishioners of St. Lawrence Marty found themselves well prepared to meet the historic challenges that lay ahead.