My Brush with Hollywood Immortality

Over the weekend, I stumbled across this fun piece from The National Catholic Register’s Jim Graves entitled “California Churches Make Hollywood Cameos:”

California is home to many beautiful Catholic churches as well as home to Hollywood.

Consequently, the state’s churches have frequently caught the eye of filmmakers and appeared in well-known movies and television shows.

The following is a sampling of some Catholic churches that have made movie cameos that moviegoers will recognize.

Graves mentions seven churches in particular — three from San Francisco and four from the LA area — along with some of their more memorable cinematic appearances, and it’s a treasure trove for those (like me) who are sometimes nearly as fascinated by the “real-life locations” and history behind a film as we are by the film itself. But most happily of all, his piece reminded me of my own personal favorite “Cameo Church:” the old Sacred Heart Mission in Saticoy, California.

For a number of years, we lived just down the road from the quaint, white-sided building, and it was a constant, comforting presence — hovering just on the outskirts of our daily trek to Mass with a then much younger (and much smaller) pack of Susanka boys. Yet its picturesque locale, nestled in among the brilliant mustard fields of Darling Road, was not its original location

The building started as Arnold’s General Store and Post Office in an old retail district at Saticoy Avenue and Telephone Road. In 1915 farmer John P. Thille had the building moved to Wells Road and Violeta Street. Thille and other community leaders converted it to a chapel, named Sacred Heart, and a parish of Mission of St. Sebastian in Santa Paula.

“Priests and nuns came from Santa Paula to teach the Spanish-speaking children,” Martin said.

In the 1930s, the Vanoni family became members of the church, and they and other families worked to make it a full-fledged parish church, Martin said. But the building could only seat 200 people, and in 1968 the congregation relocated to another site on Henderson Road.

After the Catholic congregation moved to its current site, the little church was abandoned and boarded up. For almost two decades, it had no use except as a refuge for the homeless who sometimes crept in for shelter.

That last line’s not entirely true. Because the building had another use; that of movie star (or at the very least, “sacred architectural character actor.”) For years, it was known locally as the “Kodak Moment Church,” dubbed so in honor of its appearance in a wedding-themed Kodak commercial. And in the mid-90s, it achieved even more notoriety as the revelatory (and largely fictionalSt. Michael’s Church in Fort Walton, Kansas, where The Rock’s Nicolas Cage discovers who really killed JFK?

OK, so maybe I’m the only person who remembers it for that last reason. But its presence in the final moments of Bay’s (far-and-away) Best Actioner always brought a smile to my face, and those near-daily drive-bys remain among my most palpable brushes with Hollywood. (Except for that one time I sat next to Malcolm McDowell…)

Sadly, the tiny church is no more. It burned to the ground in mid-2005, under “suspicious circumstances.” Thankfully, however, its celluloid immortality is assured.

It’s (un)surprisingly difficult to find photographs of the old church. This particular image comes from Joe Virnig’s Ventura County Vistas site, and features both the bright yellow flowers and the mountainous silhouettes that I remember so fondly. I’m glad someone managed captured its charm while they still had the chance.

About Joseph Susanka

Joseph has been doing development work for institutions of Catholic higher education since graduating from Thomas Aquinas College in 1999. A grateful resident of Wyoming, he spends his free time exploring the beautiful Wind River Mountains, keeping track of his (currently) seven sons, and thanking his lucky stars for Netflix.


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