Mobile chapel takes Mass on the road in Fresno diocese

Nine-stop tour to rural communities has begun, diocese says it's to see ‘forgotten people’ and stop injustice

A Mass is celebrated out of a Catholic “chapel car” that was once used by clergy preaching in rural communities in the central San Joaquin Valley. (image: Diocese of Fresno/Special to The Bee)

Bishop Armando Ochoa begins the Mass outside a building that resembles a large red barn. He carries a hooked staff covered in animal fur and wears moccasins and a leather sash – a tribute to the nearby Tule River Tribe.

Bishop Ochoa

The recent service among old oak trees in Visalia’s Mooney Grove Park was one of nine stops on a yearlong “mobile Mass” tour to rural communities in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno.

The clothing and location are unusual for the bishop, who normally celebrates Mass in the large, ornate St. John’s Cathedral in downtown Fresno.

In Mooney Grove, he points out the beauty of a statue of a Native American warrior riding a horse and talks about how tribes in the central San Joaquin Valley have long considered the land here sacred – and that he does, too.

This gesture is a nice surprise for Johnny Luna, a Native American listening to the bishop’s homily.

A crozier, a hooked staff carried by a bishop, that was given to Bishop Armando Ochoa by the Tigua tribe in Arizona leans against a building in Visalia’s Mooney Grove Park after a Mass on Sept. 8.
(Carmen George/Fresno Bee)

“When he said that, I smiled,” Luna says.

He says it “felt good” to hear because Native American history is seldom discussed or recorded.

The mobile Masses highlight local history and struggles facing people who are “sometimes forgotten or hidden from view,” says Monsignor Raymond Dreiling, vicar general for the diocese.

It’s also a way for the diocese to celebrate its 50th anniversary by getting back to its missionary roots. Clergy once preached to rural communities via “chapel cars.”

Church leaders have revived that practice with a new mobile chapel – a retrofitted trailer pulled by a truck. The words “siempre adelante” painted on its side mean “always forward” – the motto of Saint Junípero Serra in the 1700s when he founded a string of Catholic missions in California.

The mobile chapel, unveiled in December, should be put to good use in a diocese that covers eight counties. It was taken earlier this year to Manzanar National Historic Site in the eastern Sierra, the location of an internment camp for Japanese Americans during World War II.

Survivors of the camp attended the somber service. There were 200 Catholics interned there just because they had Japanese surnames, Ochoa says.

“We certainly shamefacedly have to pick up the pieces and say, ‘Never again,’ ” Ochoa says. “Never again should that happen.”

Vicar general of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno, Msgr. Raymond Dreiling, gives the homily during a Mass held at Kearney Park as part the diocese’s 50th anniversary conducted through their mobile chapel on Monday, Sept. 19, 2017. (image: Craig Kohlruss/Fresno Bee)

The church may not have directly caused that injustice or other dark chapters in history, but it still was part of a society that did, Dreiling says, and that’s important to acknowledge and to ask for forgiveness.

“There’s been a change of heart,” Dreiling says. “The church now stands very vocal and officially opposed to discrimination in all its forms.”

In that spirit, the Catholic Bishops of California issued a statement in September urging immigration reform for those enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and their families. Dreiling estimates about 70 percent of approximately 1.3 million registered Catholics in the Diocese of Fresno are Hispanic.

“DACA students are not the so-called ‘bad hombres,’ an insidious label used to instill fear in others and feed the racism and nativism that unfortunately is rearing its ugly head in our cities,” the statement reads. “Far from it, DACA-eligible youth are high school graduates, in school or working on their GED. Many are now in college. They may be honorably discharged members of the armed services. No one convicted of a felony or serious misdemeanor (or three misdemeanors) can apply for DACA.”

After the Mass at Mooney Grove, Ochoa talked about push-back on that statement.

“People say, ‘Oh you bishops are involved in politics.’ This is not politics,” Ochoa says. “This is the doctrine of social justice that we’ll continue to proclaim.”

Full story at The Fresno Bee.


  1. Anonymous 2 says:

    Father Arthur Liebrenz, OFM, starting in 1939, was actually also one of the early Franciscans who ministered out of a motor vehicle, with Mass in the fields on Sundays, wherever Catholics could be gathered (The Redemptorists also took up this challenging work.).

    In fact, the missionary priest who has no chapel, portrayed in the famous film “The Lilies of the Field,”(1962), starring Sidney Poitier as an itinerant worker, was modeled on Father Liebrenz.

  2. Anonymous 2 says:

    Now for a little perspective on the Japanese internment issue of World War II.

    My uncle, who was an officer in the “Pineapple Pentagon” in Honolulu durimg WW2, before he passed away commented extensively on still classified information that the Imperial Japanese Navy, whose codes we had cracked even prior to Pearl Harbor, actually had a plan for an invasion and commandancy of San Francisco. The plan was to have IJN Marines land at possibly Davenport and Half Moon Bay, take the heights on Skyline Blvd and elsewhere, emplace artillery, and cannonade the city into submission. In fact, at Oahu IJN spies were hidden in the Japanese American community, a matter which caused the deaths of hundreds of US Navy sailors. It had to be…

    • Anonymous 2 says:

      Assumed that they were also hidden in the militarily vital San Francisco Bay Area.

      But today of course we are know-it-alls and know so much more about the past than anyone else. Right.

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