Ringing the Bell at the San Buenaventura Mission with Father Tom
By Jack Dunphy
Spanish missionaries built a chapel in what is now the center of Ventura California in 1782. Father Tom Elewaut, the current pastor, explained the early missionaries built the church with the hope of bringing Christianity to the 1200 native Chumash Indians. San Buenaventura Mission has endured for three centuries, and today it’s considered the epicenter of this vibrant seaside city.
From its four-acre site one sees the Pacific Ocean and from its tranquil gardens one gazes on an eclectic mix of Spanish architecture that comprise the church and its historic buildings. “I am the luckiest pastor in the world,” Father Tom told us, as he opened the door that lets in the view of the sea all the way down the boulevard from the church.
One of the Mission buildings houses a museum. On display are intricate baskets made from reeds by the Chumash. Father Tom described several shelves of books as the second oldest library in California. What I found the most interesting in the museum was a tiny wooden cross. In a solemn voice Father Tom stated that the tiny wooden cross was made from the actual cross from the crucifixion. And he pointed to a document hanging on the wall which he said offers verification. Included in the collection is an early copper bowl with intricate carvings. This bowl was used during the baptism of Chumash Indians.
We asked Father Tom if he could show us the bell tower. He unlocked a secret door and took us up a three levels through a winding dark narrow staircase. We climbed onto a small platform with no railings and were rewarded with a sweeping view of the Pacific. Just around us hung old bronze bells of various sizes. One looked like the Liberty Bell complete with its own major crack. With child like fun we gonged each bell.
The Mission conducts 13 weekly masses for its 2000 parishioners. All services are in Spanish and English. Father Tom admitted he was not completely fluent in Spanish. “If you didn’t understand everything said, was that a problem hearing sins in confession?” I asked. “No” Father Tom replied with a smile. “I understand about 15% of what they tell me. That is why they come to me.”