Historical Notes from the Diocese Archives:
Taken from the Central California Catholic Life, Easter Edition
Throughout our rich and well documented Church history itinerant priests have been among us. Men whose priestly vocation found them traveling every corner of the world, taking the Word of God and ministry to the faithful wherever they were, regardless of circumstances or conditions. We have had such priests reaching out to the people of our Diocese of Fresno since its early association with the Diocese of Monterey, organized first in 1922, as the twelve county Diocese of Monterey-Fresno. Some of these missionaries traveled by and ministered from a Motor Chapel Car and a Chapel Trailer. This is their story.
THE ERA OF THE MOTOR CHAPEL CARS and TRAILERS 1928-1967
The Redemptorist priests, responsible for Fresno’s Saint Alphonsus Parish, had been concerned with the problem of those faithful living and working in the diocese rural areas, where there were no near churches, missions or stations, being faced with the impossible task of attending Mass and participating in necessary Sacraments. Transportation in the 1920s was not what it is today. There was no public transportation serving farming areas and the automobile was still a luxury relegated to the very few with the necessary means, so church attendance by the inhabitants was indeed rare. The Redemptorist Fathers’ primary concern had to do with the spiritual needs of the predominantly Catholic Spanish-speaking migrants, most of whom were seasonal workers moving frequently from one remote camp, section station or locale to another as the various crops matured and were harvested. The Fathers decided if the faithful could not come to the Church, then the Church would have to go to them. Most Reverend John B. MacGinley, Bishop of the Diocese of Monterey-Fresno shared the concern of the priests and agreed that a solution was needed.
The record is not clear as to the source of the idea of purchasing and equipping a car (truck) with living/meeting quarters and an altar area opening to the out of doors at the rear, but none the less such a vehicle was designed and then manufactured in 1928 on a White Bus Chassis Model #53 by the Los Angeles firm of Lauritzen Body Works. It should be noted that the White Company, impressed with the chassis adaptation, published in 1929 for national distribution a four page advertising brochure exclusively devoted to the Diocese Chapel Car, richly illustrated with photographs of the car. This publication and several photographs of the black chapel car are in the archives and by today’s standards one would call the ‘car’ a converted RV as can be seen from the photograph with this article. All sides of the black ‘Diocesan Motor Chapel Car’ bore either a quote from the Bible, one or two crests, the words “Santa Teresita Chapel Car” and more, each artistically rendered with gold paint. Following delivery to Fresno in early 1929, the ‘car’ was further equipped with an altar, linens, candleholders, vessels and other religious accoutrements. Some were provided in late 1928 through the generosity of the students of San Luis Obispo’s Mission School. Over time, replacement altars, linens, candleholders, etc. were hand-wrought gifts of mostly Mexican artisans, both migrants and residents of areas visited by the mobile chapel.
The Santa Teresita Chapel Car was blessed and consecrated by Bishop MacGinley on Washington’s Birthday February 22, 1929, just in time for the Lenten season. Reverend Leo Kulleck, C.Ss.R., newly assigned to Saint Alphonsus, eagerly accepted the assignment of driving the Chapel Car and ministering from or out of it. The Father’s fluency in Spanish and Portuguese would serve well in this new ministry, although the former was more essential than the latter. His first recorded official Chapel Car act was administering Holy Communion to thirty-four children at the Tagus Ranch Camp (near Tulare) on Easter Sunday, March 31, 1929. Near the end of the first year, Father Kulleck noted that he had ministered not only from the car’s rear altar, but in private homes, shanties, tents, barns and abandoned churches, most often in the San Joaquin Valley. He once commented that one of the challenges he and his ‘parishioners’ faced had to do with the absence of electricity in most all the sites he visited. Many candles were consumed shortly after sunset and all participants learned to function in near darkness, as small candles in large spaces did not give very adequate light. He further stated that conducting Mass in the open during a rain storm also presented its own set of problems, as it was a rarity when anyone had an umbrella to shelter the priest and Host during Communion. Some of the locales visited by Father Kulleck that first year included Cortez in the Ballico Area (near Livingston), Avila, Morro Bay, New Monterey, Castroville, Hornitos, Merced Falls, El Tejon and DeGeorgio Farms (Delano area?).
Father Kulleck, with the occasional assistance of other priests, predominantly ministered to the mostly Spanish-speaking migrant workers throughout the rural areas of the twelve counties of the Diocese of Monterey-Fresno, until he was reassigned to Seattle in 1938. However, this is not the end of the brief story of the Chapel Car.
Reverend Arthur Liebrenz, O.F.M., a Franciscan Order priest of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, began a ‘trailer ministry’ in 1939, which took him from Los Angeles to Merced visiting migrant camps in rural areas and also to more isolated locations never before frequented by a priest, as least in more recent times. He pulled his twenty-four foot converted house trailer, manufactured to his specifications in Michigan, with both automobiles and light duty trucks. We have no specific records of Father Liebrenz’s activities until 1947 when he began to focus his ministry on the spiritual needs of migrant workers living in the 57,155 square mile territory of the Diocese of Monterey-Fresno.
Coadjutor Bishop Aloysius J. Willinger, C.Ss.R., officially welcomed Franciscan Father Liebrenz and blessed yet a newer and much larger trailer, eventually known to many as the “Parish on Wheels,” on the Feast of Saint Francis, October 4, 1947. At a later time, Bishop Willinger appointed Father Liebrenz as a Vicar General, giving him the authority of the Bishop in matters of the spiritual life of the faithful whom the Franciscan met and served.
In the first eleven months of his ministry, Father Liebrenz conducted forty-four one-week missions (Sunday night to Sunday morning) in as many disparate locations. A Central California Register article appearing in the October 10, 1948 issue reported the number of missions, all of which were arranged through the Chancery Office. The paper also shared with readers a small taste of Father Liebrenz’ daily schedule: Mass between 4 and 5 A.M., followed by instruction for First Communion candidates and converts before they left for the fields. In the afternoons, Catechism classes for children returning to the camps from school. In the evenings, counseling and needed sacraments (baptisms and marriages). Father reported 120 baptisms, 150 marriages, and 160 First Communions for the first eleven months. The Padre of the Trailer Chapel frequently had with him fellow Franciscan Associates and, when he had this help, they operated two chapel trailers, reaching twice the number, as when working alone. Known associates were ten year veteran Reverend Rafael Martinez, O.F.M., followed by Reverends Ramon Varela, O.F.M., and Philip Maldonado, O.F.M., who ministered for five years. The three men left Mexico to join Father Liebrenz in his work. The work of the Franciscan ‘Apostles to the Farmworkers’ was not all spiritual, as their parishioners had many other needs.
The Fathers distributed blankets, medicines and food as their funds allowed. They further arranged medical care and provided transportation to clinics and hospitals. In the evenings, there was always time made to write letters home for illiterate and help them with the complexities of money-orders to send funds to families. Padre Arturo also once mentioned that evening counseling included discouraging drunkenness and the need to avoid gambling, especially to shun the professional gamblers, who often followed the migrants and preyed upon them.
The camps and outlying settlements visited were numerous, but a few of the regular and more unusual ones included in reports were in or near: Alisal (East today), California Orchard (Caliente or Delano?), Bear Creek (numerous areas with this name), Woodlake, Farmersville, Cutler, Dinuba, Reedley, Orange Cove, San Juan Bautista, McFarland, Livingston, Malaga, Coalinga, Huron, Salinas, Soledad, Gonzales, Figarden, Merced, Lindsay, Porterville, Fresno, Tagus Ranch, Bakersfield, Pinedale and many more. The Padre of the Trailer Chapel conducted his last recorded sacrament in the Merced area, a baptism, on August 31, 1967, returning to the Los Angeles parish of Saint Joseph, administered by his Franciscan Order, where he continued his ministry to the poor for more than a decade.
That last sacrament recorded the conclusion of the life of the Chapel Car and Trailer ministries, which together spanned an admirable thirty-nine years. Surely a sterling record, by any measure, and a lasting testimony of the commitment and sacrifice of the Redemptorist and Franciscan fathers in their itinerant ministry to Catholics of the rural areas of Central California, from the Pacific Ocean on the west to the Nevada border to the east.
(We invite readers to share family stories regarding the Chapel Cars/Trailers with archives staff. Chapel Car photographs are equally welcome. Contact the archives at