Cultural, economic and demographic changes have marked the history of St. John Vianney Parish during its five decades.
While Bishop Joseph T. McGucken established the parish on Jan. 15, 1958, the story of the parish actually begins in 1957, when the bishop told then Father (later Msgr.) Richard Dwyer, who was serving as editor of The Catholic Herald, that there would be a new parish on a 17-acre parcel on Coloma Road and that Father Dwyer would be appointed as its pastor.
Msgr. Dwyer immediately set about finding a way to get a building on the site, which was surrounded then by fields of grape vines, hop bushes and walnut orchards. He purchased two military barracks for $52 each from Mather Air Force Base – an investment of about $768 in today’s money. The buildings were moved from the Air Force Base to the site, where they were renovated by members of the parish under the direction of a professional carpenter.
The first Mass was celebrated on Ash Wednesday in 1958, during an especially rainy season. Fortunately, the parish had the services of a farm tractor to pull each of the parishioner’s cars out of the muddy parking lot.
The late 1950s and early 1960s were boom years for Rancho Cordova, which was a growing, flourishing community of young families, most of whom were employed by Aerojet or Mather Air Force Base. It made sense to expand the parish facilities to include a school, parish hall, a rectory for the priests and a real church building. The parish, under the guidance of Msgr. Dwyer, went into action to build right away.
By October of 1958, the rectory was completed. St. John Vianney School was opened in the fall of 1960, and has maintained an annual student body of about 300 students throughout the years.
The current church was completed in 1964, with a central spacious sanctuary designed to gather the congregation around an altar table resting on a large granite boulder that Msgr. Dwyer had brought in from Mount Aukum. The cruciform church building with an atrium extending to Coloma Road was built around it. A star-shaped roof design balanced over glass panels provided ample light and inspiration.
With the late 1960s and early 1970s came economic hard times for Rancho Cordova and St. John Vianney Parish, as Aerojet began to cut back on its workforce. Families who had committed financial support to the parish found that they could not continue to do so. The culture was changing. Changes were going on in the life of the church as well, as the liturgical changes of Vatican II were implemented. The parish experienced times of great financial, social and cultural challenge which would extend into the 1990s with the closure of Mather Air Force Base.
None of this discouraged the priests or the parishioners of St. John Vianney, however. Their patron saint was well accustomed to the most severe austerities and challenges during his lifetime. A great mystic, St. John Vianney manifested imperturbable patience and love for the people of God.
“St. John Vianney was a great confessor,” said Deacon Walter Little, who has been a member of the parish since 1968 and has served the parish for 20 years as a permanent deacon. “All four of our pastors, from Msgr. (Richard) Dwyer to Father (Martin) Moroney, have really worked with his spirituality. Just like our patron saint, our parish works at being forgiving and accepting.”
The parish persevered through the hard times, always reaching out to those in the parish and in the community, he said.
“St. John Vianney Parish and School are greatly involved in the call of Christ to reach out to one another — in the Catholic community and the community at large,” he said. “One example of this parish’s consistent outreach is the Cordova Community Foot Locker. We just served our nine millionth meal there.”
In recent decades, the ethnic mix of Rancho Cordova has greatly diversified and so has the parish community. Today, the parish community is enriched by members from the white, black, Central American, Indian, Indonesian, Mexican, Filipino and Vietnamese communities. The parish now has some 1,700 registered families.