California shrine pays honor to St. Joseph

While there are many impressive shrines dedicated to St. Joseph in the United States, at least two features set apart the Shrine of St. Joseph, Guardian of the Redeemer, in Santa Cruz, Calif.: the daily availability of its priests and its picturesque setting on the Pacific Ocean. Operated by the Oblates of St. Joseph, the shrine is “a spiritual oasis for people searching for God and who want to experience a personal peace,” as well as an aid in growing closer to God through a devotion to St. Joseph, said Father Paul McDonnell, Shrine director.

As the Church celebrates the feast day of St. Joseph on March 19, the Oblates are reaching out to the faithful to make them aware of the shrine’s existence and to welcome them for a visit.


The Oblates of St. Joseph are a religious congregation founded by St. Joseph Marello (1844-95). Marello was an Italian priest who later became Bishop of Acqui in Northern Italy. He was canonized by now-Blessed John Paul II in 2001. Marello’s community, originally known as the Company of St. Joseph, began with four candidates in 1878. 

“St. Joseph Marello was a humble and holy man with a great devotion to St. Joseph,” said Father McDonnell, who also serves as provincial superior of the newly formed USA Holy Spouses Province of the Oblates. The new province was formed when the community’s two previous provinces in Pennsylvania and California were combined.

Marello encouraged his community to imitate the virtues and qualities of St. Joseph as they began their work, which included serving the elderly, handicapped and orphaned. Marello died of cancer at the age of 51, but his community went on to flourish. 

By 1915, the Oblates had grown large enough to begin sending missionaries outside of Italy. In 1931, some made their way to California to serve its Italian immigrants. The community wanted to establish a California seminary, and, in 1949, was given an opportunity after praying a novena to St. Joseph. A wealthy family deeded the Oblates a 7-acre site along the beach in Santa Cruz, a resort area about an hour southwest of San Jose. The family’s only stipulation was that the site be used for religious purposes.

Construction of a chapel and seminary began, and, in 1952, the first Mass was offered in the chapel. The Bishop of Monterey-Fresno, Aloysius Joseph Willinger, granted permission for pilgrimages to the shrine. A lack of funding prevented completion of the shrine until 1993, when it was officially designated the “Shrine of St. Joseph, Guardian of the Redeemer.” The former Bishop of Monterey, Sylvester Ryan, used the occasion to encase a relic of St. Joseph Marello in the chapel’s altar. A prominent statue of Marello also greets visitors as they approach the chapel.

Shrine’s features

The shrine’s visitors include tourists and a local contingent of regulars who come for Mass, confessions and spiritual direction. The three priests (and one brother) who live at the shrine readily make themselves available to visitors. Susie Vega, a 20-year volunteer secretary at the shrine, observed, “When people show up at our door wanting to see a priest, our Oblates drop what they’re doing and come see them.”

Recent decades have brought improvements to the shrine, she said, such as the installation of its gardens, which include works of art such as images of the seven sorrows and seven joys of St. Joseph. Another favorite is the Patron of the Unborn, a bronze statue of a seated Joseph cradling a 6-month-old fetus. Father McDonnell noted that the statue was commissioned in 2001 at the behest of the Oblates so that “people who have lost a child can come here and find consolation.”

Along with daily Mass, the shrine hosts celebrations for selected feast days and an annual outdoor procession in August.

Apart from the gardens, the shrine itself is home to many works of art, including a 6-by-8 foot carving of the Holy Family.

Also notable is an art exhibit featuring significant scenes in the life of the Holy Family, such as the Nativity, presentation, flight into Egypt and the death of St. Joseph. Visitors can also see images of St. Joseph in a variety of roles: patron of the universal Church, of workers, of a peaceful death, of families, of the new world, of unborn children and expectant parents, and of migrants and refugees.

Devotion needed

The Oblates have 30 priests in the United States, Father McDonnell said. Although they’ve had a few ordinations in recent years, they’ve struggled with vocations. The shrine is an important apostolate of the community, as promoting devotion to St. Joseph is something society sorely needs, according to Father McDonnell.

“In our world, we want to make our own plans and control our own destiny,” Father McDonnell said. “But Christianity is not about that at all.”

Father explained, “Joseph certainly had his own dreams and goals, but God’s plans for him intervened. He had a great trust in God, accepted his call with faith and humility and put aside his desires to serve God. Joseph is a wonderful personification of what we pray in the Our Father: ‘Thy will be done.’”

Joseph is also an important model for the restoration of the family in a world where “marriages are broken and fatherhood has been lost,” Father McDonnell said. “He is a wonderful example for today — a perfect role model. He demonstrates to us commitment, fidelity, love and perseverance. Many men today live solely for themselves and are not there for the needs of the family. Marriage and family has suffered so much, and Joseph can help show us the way back.”

Father McDonnell recommends shrine visitors begin with Mass, tour the grounds and visit with the priests in the provincial house. “We’re here for the people,” he said.

The shrine welcomes donations, as its aging structures are undergoing renovation. They also need prayers. 

“Prayers are the greatest gift people can give us,” Father McDonnell said, “not only for the success of the shrine, but for vocations for our community.”

Jim Graves writes from California.