Until the 1940s, the Borrego Valley was considered one of the most isolated communities in San Diego County. The outside world was accessible by only a few dirt roads, and there were no telephones or outside electricity. Agriculture was key to the local economy, and a small number of tourists were drawn to the area during the annual wildflower bloom.
In 1936, Alphonse A. Burnand, Jr. a grape grower from California's Central Valley, arrived in the valley looking for a place to grow winter crops. He recognized the area's potential as a residential and resort community, and over the years he interested investors in his dream of creating a desert community. He acquired land in and around the valley, and in 1945 announced to the press his plan to create a desert community that would include a resort hotel, a country club, a golf course, and an airport. In 1946, the town of Borrego Springs was founded.
As the population of Borrego Springs grew in the late 1940s, it became clear that a Catholic Church should be established in the community. The Most Reverend Charles F. Buddy, Bishop of the San Diego Diocese, assigned the task to Father Francis Lobell, pastor of St. Elizabeth's Catholic Church in Julian. Father Lobell went about finding an appropriate site for the church.
A.A. Burnand's initial plans for the town included a "municipal center" located in the foothills at the top of T Anchor Drive. During the Easter season of 1949, a group of local residents placed a large cross on the ridge above, and it soon became known as the church area. It was there that Father Lobell secured a tract of land donated by Burnand for what was being called the de Anza Catholic mission, named for Juan Bautista de Anza, the early Spanish explorer who traversed the Borrego Valley in 1774 and 1775. While waiting for the new mission to be built, Father Lobell celebrated Mass at Hoberg's Desert Resort, now known as the Palms at Indian Head.
Fund-raising for the mission began in 1952, and by the summer of 1953 construction was underway. Built largely by volunteers, financial support was provided by the sixteen Catholic families living in Borrego, and by many others in the community.
Sadly, just as construction was finishing in October 1953, Father Lobell passed away. Father William Cooney became the new pastor of St. Elizabeth's, and oversaw the completion of the church.
The de Anza Catholic mission name was short-lived. On April 25, 1954, hundreds of visitors, including dignitaries of the Catholic Church from throughout Southern California, came to Borrego for the dedication of the new building. Following a Solemn High Mass celebrated by Father Cooney, Bishop Buddy dedicated the new worship space St. Richard Catholic Church.
The July 22, 1954 issue of The Southern Cross described some of the features of the new church. It contains such elegant objects of art as statues of the Blessed Virgin, St. Joseph (and St. Richard) carved in Italy from a single piece of wood according to designs prepared in this country. The Stations of the Cross, made in the form of a Greek cross, were carved in wood by Mr. Carl Abel of Desert Center, CA. A large baptismal fount in the baptistery is of shaded cream color made of mahogany and imported from the Philippines are the pews. The bell in the tower has been secured from an old California Mission. A marble statue of the Sacred Heart, placed in a niche above the main entrance, has been donated in memory of the late Father Francis Lobell, founder of the parish.
On April 18, 1960, a fire of undetermined origin severely damaged the church. State park rangers and local residents fought the flames with garden hoses for over an hour until State Forestry fire equipment from Julian arrived. The flames destroyed the altar, crucifix, and organ in the choir loft. Several of the front pews were badly charred, as were statues of the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph. Sunday Mass was held at the Desert Lodge (now La Casa del Zorro) until repairs were made to the building.
At a February 2, 1965 meeting of the parishioners, Father William Mooney, pastor at the time, presented a proposal to build a home on the church grounds for a resident priest. Bishop Francis J. Furey approved plans to raise the necessary capital for its construction.
The fund drive proved so successful that the project was expanded to include a meeting hall, which could also be used for children's religious education classes. The creation of the rectory changed the status of St. Richard's from a mission of the Julian church to a full-fledged parish.
From 1972 to 1989, Father Lawrence Gatt served as St. Richard's pastor. Many changes were made to the physical plant during his seventeen year pastorate. The church and rectory were re-roofed, a ramada was built for social activities (which now doubles as a carport), and a mother's chapel was created in the church.
From April 1976 to 1986, at the invitation of Fr. Gatt, St. Richard Catholic Church served as the temporary home for the St. Barnabas Episcopal Congregation. In 1986 the Episcopal Congregation moved into their own Church just down the road from St. Richard's.
In December of 1981, A.A. Burnand, Jr., the "father" of Borrego Springs, passed away at the age of 85. Parishioner Victor Lugo, whom Burnand had helped when he first arrived in the valley in 1952, received permission from Father Gatt to build a garden memorial in his honor. Nine men worked on the project with Victor in their spare time, including Juan Esparza, Francisco Murillo, Jose Rivera and Felipe Salinas. It featured a large fountain, a tile walkway, and two stands on which memorial plaques were mounted, engraved with the names of Burnand and his son Perry, who had died two years earlier. The fountain was blessed by Father Gatt after Mass on December 19, 1982. Two additional stands were later added to the memorial, in tribute to Burnand's other son A.A. "Sonny" Burnand III  and to his stepson, George "Bud" Kuhrts. The memorial graces the front of the church property.
St. Richard's cemetery, located behind the church near the ramada, is the result of a dream that Josefina Murillo had about Our Lady of Guadalupe. Josefina's son Francisco relates that in the dream, Our Lady asked his mother to build a shrine in her honor in Mexico. Francisco carried the memory of his mother's dream with him for many years, and in 1991, he asked Father Robert Callahan, St. Richard's pastor at the time, if he could build a shrine on the grounds of the church. Father Callahan agreed, and with assistance from Jesus Cortez, Juan Esparza and Eleazar Madrid, Francisco constructed the memorial, based on his own design. After its completion, he surrounded it with a low fence and planted a rose garden. On May 31, 1991, the parish celebrated its official dedication, twenty-two years after his mother told Francisco of her dream. A plaque at the foot of the shrine reads "In Memory of Josefina Murillo E."
A cemetery was created around the shrine during Father Simon Lefebvre's pastorate. Thomas McGuire, a long-time parishioner, once told Father Lefebvre that upon his death, he wanted to be buried on the grounds of St. Richard's. When Thomas passed away in 1995, Father Lefebvre honored his wish. His body was cremated and his remains were buried near the shrine. Over the years, the cremains of many other parishioners have been placed there, as well.
Around the time the cemetery was begun, plans were developed to add a larger meeting hall to the smaller, existing one. Constructed entirely by volunteers and completed in 2000, it provided much-needed space for classes, meetings and parish events. It was later named Guadalupe Hall.
In 2001, the interior of St. Richard Catholic Church was transformed. An 8 foot by 8 foot stained glass window was installed behind the altar, illuminating the once dark sanctuary. Using glass imported from France and Germany, it was created by Canadian artist Sarah Hall. The window, which was unveiled to the congregation on Easter Sunday, complements those on the sides of the church made by Julian stained glass artist James Hubbell some thirty years earlier.
A number of improvements were made to the facilities during the years Father Brian Hayes was the pastor of the parish. He was responsible for numerous upgrades to the rectory and meeting halls, and in 2006, oversaw a renovation of the church's interior. The walls were painted, the carpeting was replaced with stone tile, and the pews were removed and refurbished.
In 2007 Rev. Victor Maristela was assigned to be pastor of St. Richard Catholic Church. And fifty-four years after the church was completed, the future looks as bright as ever.
1. From: Jim Hubbell Wednesday, March 19, 2008 7:04 PM
I remember doing the windows even though so many years have past. I like your church. I did the windows for Father Speno, a good friend and a good person. Is the alter and other furniture still there? The only thing else I remember was how hot it was when we installed the windows in August. Glad you are interested in the church's past.
Best regards, Jim Hubbell
2. Sonny Burnand was a generous benefactor of the Club's Borrego Springs Branch. Together with other members of his family, he donated 10 acres of land that became the home for the Club's new clubhouse and skate park in Borrego Springs. Through the years, Sonny provided substantial funding for Club programs. Sonny's wife, Audrey, has continued their philanthropic tradition with recent donation of funds to provide lighting for night skating at the park.
back to Top