By Brett Johnson
The Piru United Methodist Church hangs on, comforted in its old age by an odd combination of colorful history and Hollywood.
It has survived earthquakes, windstorms and a dwindling congregation through its long years.
This holy morning, a large white candle on the altar will be lighted to signify the birth of Jesus Christ, member and church trustee Viola Acosta noted. Led by the Rev. Chuck Mabry, the congregation will follow a book of Methodist worship and sing hymns.
The Christmas morning message, Mabry said, will be one of joy and hope.
“The concept of hope,” he said, “is necessary to help the Piru church keep a sense of possibility and a reason for them to be there.”
Beyond that, similarities to most other churches end.
The church’s sanctuary is a time warp, packing more than 120 years of old school. It was built in 1890 as the linchpin of Piru founder and builder David Caleb Cook’s vision for the town as “a second Garden of Eden.”
It retains its original bell, rung via a rope that hangs behind the front doors and runs through a small hole in the ceiling up to the truncated steeple’s belfry. The original wooden seats — 12 across in eight rows, divided by a center aisle — give it the look of a schoolmarm’s classroom. The stained-glass windows are rife with brilliant yellows, reds, oranges, greens, purples and blues; some are originals and others have the names of Cook and other founding members etched in black ink on the bottom panes.
On cold winter mornings, parishioners wear blankets on their laps and legs during worship, as the sanctuary walls sport only two crude, inadequate heaters.
The pipe organ is rare, said by some to be one of just seven of its kind in the world, and dates back to the Civil War era. Unfortunately, much of it sits in disrepair in large wooden crates in the adjoining social room, still hamstrung from the damage it suffered in the 1994 Northridge earthquake. Both the organ and the church are county historic landmarks.
The steeple used to be taller but was lopped off, likely in the late 1920s, for fear that strong Santa Ana winds would topple the spire, noted Floyd Legan Jr., who wrote a history booklet on the place in the 1970s.
Everything is old, even the massive bougainvillea bush outside — a good 10 feet tall, nearly as thick and in bright magenta bloom on a sunny, crisp December morning.
“It’s been there for years,” Acosta said.
Be it ever so crumbled and aging, the small church trundles on, barely.
FEW IN THE FLOCK
It’s a tiny congregation. Acosta and others say barely a handful attend services regularly out of a membership that only numbers in the 20s; Piru, several noted, is now a largely Catholic community. Mabry is only a part-time minister.
Still, he talked of the church’s traditional role as a familiar fixture, a connection to the community.
“The number of participants has declined dramatically, but it is still a significant institution in Piru itself, partly because of its history,” Mabry said.
Asked how special the place is to him, the 88-year-old Legan replied simply that “you’ll find that my footprints have walked all over it, in more ways than one” for more than half a century.
“There’s a small group of us trying to keep it up,” Legan added. “It’s a very historic building. It has something to do with the early days, the days of the ranchos.”
Last Sunday, Mabry presided over four worshippers, including Legan. They prayed, made community announcements and sang such familiar hymns as “Joy to the World” and “O, Come All Ye Faithful.”
Maria “Chacha” Troyke stepped up to the altar and lighted the fourth advent candle, a symbol of purity, that day.
“I love it,” Troyke, who has lived in Piru most of her 57 years, said afterward. “It’s a joy to be here — this church and the meaning of coming here. The pastor gives you hope. It helps me with life — and the problems that come with life.”
She said she’s unemployed “like everyone else” — though fortunate that her husband has a job.
For Troyke and the others, the church is temporary refuge from the real world, especially during a season whose meaning is often buried amid Christmas commercialism.
The church, though, is not immune to secular forces: Around here, Hollywood helps pay the bills.
Or as Stephanie Acosta put it, “What really sustains the church is the movie and TV companies.”
IN THE SPOTLIGHT
Hollywood has fallen in love with the church’s classic look. So much so that Stephanie Acosta, Viola’s daughter and like her mom a church trustee, handles filming requests. The sign out front, right after detailing the church’s regular 9:30 a.m. Sunday services, lists Stephanie’s phone number.
The biggest part of its screen appeal, she said, is that it resembles an old-fashioned church from anywhere in the nation, but especially the South.
Earlier this year, the church stood in as a Texas parochial school for an episode of “Desperate Housewives.” Star Eva Longoria, Acosta said, signed the church’s guest book. HBO’s campy vampire series “True Blood,” set in Louisiana, has come to Piru and used the church to replicate a Bayou State place of worship.
The FX series “Justified,” Acosta noted, has used the church more than once for the show’s town hall meetings, set in Kentucky Appalachia.
This spring, the just-opened Matt Damon-Scarlett Johansson film “We Bought a Zoo” filmed at the church.
“We had a bear walking around here,” Acosta said matter of factly.
Willie Nelson set foot there several years back for one of the “Dukes of Hazzard” movies. Clint Eastwood filmed a “Space Cowboys” scene there more than a decade ago.
Piru has long been a Hollywood magnet, ever since part of the 1910 silent film “Ramona,” starring Mary Pickford, was shot in the area; filming at the church goes back at least several decades.
Viola Acosta and her sister, Claudina Root, laughed remembering the time Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton came to the church sometime in the 1980s to shoot a Christmas movie — in July. It was a typical summer day in Piru, with the temperature near 100 degrees.
“We were roasting outside,” Root recalled, “and everyone inside the church (for the scene) had to wear these heavy coats and scarves.”
Nevertheless, Root and the Acostas marveled at Hollywood’s ability to make it look like Christmas — with help Continue reading