It's been 45 years since a new parish church has been built to serve Bakersfield's Catholic community.
That's a long dry spell for a city that has charted tremendous growth since 1968 when St. Philip the Apostle Church was established in Bakersfield's rapidly growing southwest.
But times are changing -- and soon that dry spell is expected to come to an end.
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish, Bakersfield's newest Roman Catholic parish and the first centered in the city's northwest, will begin construction of its first-phase worship center and parish facilities beginning with a groundbreaking ceremony at 2 p.m. Saturday.
For those parishioners who have spent years working and praying for this moment, the event at the northwest corner of Old Farm and Reina roads -- the site of the planned 720-seat worship center -- symbolizes a new beginning, an opportunity to "get in on the ground floor" of a new Catholic parish.
At an estimated cost of $6.2 million, the facility will also include classrooms, meeting and office space, a children's center and a kitchen. An even larger worship center is planned in the not-too-distant future as projected growth demands.
The first-phase project was designed by Robert Habiger of Dekker/Perich/Sabatini, with revisions by Mark Russell, Radian Design Group. Construction is managed by S. C. Anderson.
"It's a real honor to be asked to do this," said Monsignor Perry Kavookjian, pastor of St. Elizabeth's since its formation in April 2008.
"You don't do this on your own," he said. "It's through the cooperation of people, their goodness and generosity, that something like this can happen."
Bishop Armando X. Ochoa, head of the Diocese of Fresno, will preside over Saturday's ceremony, ushering in a new era for the parish's nearly 1,000 families, who have been meeting for worship each Sunday in an auditorium at Frontier High School.
"The tough part is over," said Mark Teissere, who along with his wife, Tina, has been involved with the growing parish from the beginning.
After living in Houston for several years, the couple returned to Bakersfield in the mid-1990s. Tina had converted to catholicism from her Baptist background, and brought a bit of the Protestant denomination's enthusiasm with her.
"We wanted to take what we had in Houston and bring it back to Bakersfield," she said.
That included an unmistakably welcoming environment, a strong outreach program, a women's ministry at least as vibrant as the men's, Bible study and youth activities and education to help secure the parish's future.
"When we heard they were planning on building a church in the northwest -- that was an easy decision for us to get in on the ground floor and help build a new church," Mark said.
The Teisseres credit the scores of parishioners who have been involved in the design committee, the capital committee, the outreach efforts and more. But it was the choice by the diocese to send Kavookjian -- the parishioners call him Father Perry -- that proved to be the master stroke.
"Somehow the diocese knew to send us the right guy," Mark said. "He's so enthusiastic and his leadership skills are phenomenal."
For his part, Kavookjian credits the pastors at St. Philip, St. Francis and Christ the King in Oildale for opening their doors and allowing him to invite members of those parishes -- especially members living on the city's west side -- to consider moving to St. Elizabeth.
It's not always easy to leave one's parish family, he said. But many have made the move, and others living in the northwest who stopped attending church have come back to it through St. Elizabeth.
According to statistics gathered by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a nonprofit, Georgetown University-affiliated research center that conducts social scientific studies about the Catholic Church, there were 19,236 Roman Catholic parishes in the United States in 2000. That number had fallen to 17,413 last year, and more than 3,500 of those were without a resident priest pastor.
At the same time, the self-identified Catholic population in America has continued to rise -- mostly due to immigration -- from 48.5 million in 1965 to 78.2 million last year, according to the center. And many of those Catholics want a home parish.
For many Catholics in Bakersfield, getting to Mass 20 minutes early on any given Sunday is a must if they want to find a seat. A new church coming to Bakersfield may be one answer.
"The interest is there," Kavookjian said. "Not only are we gaining people from other parishes, we are also bringing in people who were not attending Mass anymore, some after a lot of years of being away from the church."
And that, Kavookjian said, is a wonderful thing.