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Franco Zeffirelli’s Devine Design: St. Francis of Assisi Church in La Quinta Was a Place of Worship for Everyone from Capra to Sinatra

La Quinta artist Alexander Rosenfeld created the church's interior painting over 2.5 years at the age of 90-plus.
La Quinta artist Alexander Rosenfeld created the church's interior painting over 2.5 years at the age of 90-plus.

If you are traveling through the town of La Quinta, St. Francis of Assisi Church is worth a stop.

This beautiful church holds a special place in the hearts of its congregation and the broader community of La Quinta. This beautiful church, nestled in the hills of the La Quinta cove, is deeply rooted in the rich history of the Coachella Valley.

The land on which the church was built was originally part of the Clarke Ranch at Point Happy, a showplace of the valley from 1912-1952. Owned by Chauncey and Marie Clarke, the ranch was primarily used for raising Arabian horses and cultivating Deglet Noor dates. The property also boasted a variety of other fruit trees and a large vegetable garden.

In 1974, the dream of establishing a church in the area was realized when St. Francis of Assisi was officially established within the Diocese of San Diego.

The founding pastor was Fr. Raymond Bluett, who for the first ten years led the congregation in masses held in unconventional locations like a local bank and an auto dealership, earning them playful monikers such as “St. Crocker” and “Our Lady of the Cars.”

In 1983, the construction of the actual church building began, under the joint vision of Fr. Raymond Bluett and his friend – the acclaimed Italian film director Franco Zeffirelli.

Originally, the pair intended to create a replica of the 13th-century St. Francis of Assisi Church in Italy.

However, they soon realized that this was impractical and instead decided on a basilica-style church with a vaulted ceiling, echoing the Romanesque architecture of the 12th century.

The first mass at St. Francis was held on Holy Thursday, April 19, 1984.

And boy did the stars turn out for that premier!

The first two readers at mass were Frank Sinatra and Gregory Peck.

Interestingly, the Hollywood connection didn’t end there.

Many stars that sought peace and quiet at the nearby La Quinta Resort would attend mass at St. Francis of Assisi. Notably, legendary film director Frank Capra, who penned the Oscar-winning screenplay “It Happened One Night” while staying at the resort, also had his funeral mass at St. Francis in 1995.

The church’s heavenly architecture and very existence were made possible through the generosity of stars like Sinatra, Capra, Bob Hope – and entrepreneurs like the Annenberg family.

Still, it was the steady congregation of star-studded “regulars” that truly transformed the church from a building into a home away from home for Hollywood types and regular folks alike.

The interior of the church is as remarkable as its history.

The walls are adorned with murals painted by La Quinta artist Alexander Rosenfeld who took inspiration from faded copies of the Giotto frescoes from St. Francis of Assisi Basilica in Assisi, Italy.Rosenfeld, in his 90s at the time, dedicated 2 ½ years to complete the 16 murals, 14 of which depict the life of St. Francis of Assisi. Furthermore, the crucifix on the altar was carved out of a single 700-pound block of pepperwood by the sculptor, Ivo Demetz, in northern Italy and then shipped to La Quinta.

By 1998, just fourteen years after its opening, the parish doubled in size to 2,200 families and almost 5,000 parishioners, necessitating an expansion that included enlarging the hall and building the pastoral center and chapel.

As of 2016, St. Francis boasted 5,661 registered families and a total of 16,327 parishioners, making it one of the largest Catholic parishes in the Diocese of San Bernardino.

The parish community is diverse, with members from all walks of life and different parts of the world, adding to the richness of the culture and vibrancy of the worship.

The church has programs for all age groups, ranging from religious education for children and teenagers to bible study groups and social activities for adults. They also have a strong emphasis on community service and outreach, with various ministries dedicated to serving the needy in the local community and beyond.

Despite its growth and changes, the church has managed to retain its original charm and serenity. The timeless beauty of the architecture, the magnificent works of art, and the serene atmosphere all serve to create a sacred space that invites reflection, prayer, and connection with the divine.

 

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