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.
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
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
built, Father Lobell celebrated Mass at
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
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
Lodge (now La Casa del Zorro) until repairs were made to the
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
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.
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
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,
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
In 2001, the interior of St. Richard
Catholic Church was transformed. An 8 foot by 8 foot
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.
window, which was unveiled to the congregation on Easter
Sunday, complements those on the sides of the church made by
Julian stained glass artist
some thirty years
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.
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
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.