Electronically Serving Monterey Park, Alhambra, San Gabriel, & Rosemead


This is the fifth in a series of articles about southern Sicily, chiefly the interesting town of Agrigento that we visited in the 1990s.


By Charles N. Stevens

Nestled in a wooden pew waiting for the mass to start, I glance at the interior of the old church, a sanctuary that had been given to the Cistercian monks in 1219, over 700 years ago. Medieval workers had built it out of the same yellow sandstone that the Greeks used to build their temples nearly 1500 years before. The walls of the church are pitted and textured, and the great stone vaulting of the ceiling is marked here and there with reddish tan or white stains where rainwater has seeped through and run down the gentle curves. A long red rug runs from the altar to the ancient front door of the church. Incoming people cross themselves. Some kneel and some pray on their knees with their eyes closed and their palms together.

Behind the altar five frescoes fill the spaces between stone arches, their tints now faded into pale pastels. Scabs of plaster have sluffed off, taking the paint with them so that several of the frescoes appear as though they are uncompleted jigsaw puzzles. A decoration of flowers frozen in plaster dominates the larger central arch. A plaster statue of Mary with the child Jesus stands near the altar not far from a gory statue of Jesus on the cross, dark blood streaming from his crown of thorns, running down his face, his  life blood oozing from the gash in his side, seeping from his hands and feet, draining from his scraped knees. A bouquet of fresh red roses, brighter than the coagulating blood of the statue had been placed at his feet.

An open Bible on a short stand, a bouquet of hibiscus and bougainvillea and two large candles rest on the altar table. The priest, a short middle-aged man adorned with green vestments, walks in from the side of the altar. He lights the two large candles, their wicks flickering then settling into a solid flame. Music from the organ resounds in the cold stone chamber, around the ancient walls and columns, the stained ceiling. Air currents flicker the candle flames as the priest reads from his program, and the people respond, the swelling murmur of their voices washing through the old stones like the sound of a collapsing wave.

A reader delivers a message from a lectern, and a blend of choir voices and organ music drifts in like a soft wind from a hidden chamber just off the altar. A woman with short black hair, wearing glasses, reads from a podium.

The priest reads his sermon from a book, the monotony of his uninspired voice dripping from modern loudspeakers attached to all the ancient columns, bouncing weakly in the hushed tomb-like chamber. Even if I had understood Italian, I believe the sermon still would have been dull. Most of the light in the church comes from the large open doorway. A narrow shaft of sunlight strikes a woman’s brown hair, her red sweater, casting her sharp shadow on the back of pew in front of her. Most of the people respectfully attend to the sermon, but I suspect their minds roam free. A child wearing a pale green coat and gold earring, her dark hair in bangs, impatient with the sermon, twists out of her pew, and trots out of the church. Her embarrassed mother chases after her, running down the red rug with a worried look.

Passing clouds cut off the shaft of sunlight, darkening the church. The woman at the end of our row uses a Spanish fan, black with a design painted on it. It does not seem warm in the church, yet she vigorously fans her plump face with it. Suddenly she folds it up into a slim compact package that she clasps in her hand. Everyone stands for the credo, many of the worshippers mouthing it from memory, not looking at their programs. Some of the parishoners voice individual prayers for the sick.

During the offering the eucharist cup is brought to the altar table. The priest carefully pours wine and water from two slender glass cruets into the silver chalice then covers it with a small white cloth. He offers a prayer over the chalice and wafers. Dolores and I, observers rather than worshippers, watch the people file out of their pews, and line up in the center aisle to take communion, a new shaft of sunlight reaching in from the doorway, illuminating their backs. The shuffling of their feet echoes in the cold stone vault, the devout each taking the blood and body of their savior as they pass the altar.

I am again lost in the expanse of time, watching a modern service held within the walls of a 12th century church. At the side of the room lies a Roman sarcophagus from the 2nd century AD, its exquisitely carved figures acting out the pagan myth of Phaedra and Hippolytus, from the days of different gods. Just outside, the semicircular stone benches of the Greek Ekklesiasterion nearly touch the walls of the church. 500 years before the sarcophagus had been carved by the Romans, the assembled Greeks had sacrificed a pig or a calf to Zeus before beginning their discussions about the affairs of State—no more than 50 feet away from where I sit in the church.

As we rise to leave, I look around once more at the old stone walls, the columns and arches, the stained vaulted ceiling and the fading frescoes. Time is working its slow way on the church, and someday it too will crumble like the Greek temples down the hill.

MONTEREY PARK AUTHOR PUBLISHES 4th BOOK – Seeking More of the Sky: Growing Up in the 1930’s:

Charles “Norm” Stevens, a 43 year resident of Monterey Park has recently published his 4th book: Seeking More of the Sky: Growing Up in the 1930’s. This is the story of a young boy growing up in Inglewood, California in the l930’s. This was a time during the depression when unemployment was affecting many and the banks were closed, while the clouds of war were gathering in Europe. But he was lucky enough to be raised in a loving family, the power of that love reflected throughout his stories.

Stevens is the author of three previous books about his experiences during WWII:

An Innocent at Polebrook: A Memoir of an 8th Air Force Bombardier (Story of his 34 bombing missions from his base at Polebrook, England over Germany and France)

The Innocent Cadet: Becoming A World War II Bombardier (A prequel to the first, telling of his training in the U.S. before going overseas into combat.)

Back from Combat: A WWII Bombardier Faces His Military Future from Combat: (This book details the time from when he returned from combat in England until the end of the war.)

He is known to the readers of The Citizen’s Voice as the author of Travel Log Articles including “Cruising the Rhine and Mosel”,” Best of the West”, “In Search of Snow” ,  “From Paris to Normandy on the Seine”, and “Exploring New York”.  He is retired, having taught for 32 years, primarily in the Montebello Unified School District.

Those interested in purchasing an autographed copy of any of his books, may contact the author at 323-721-8230 or  Normstevens24@gmail.com.

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