St. Therese’s Parish was established in Fresno in 1919 as Our Lady of Victory Parish. The first pastor, Father Martin Cody Keating, took over in June 1919, shortly after the completion of his duties as a Chaplain during World War I. It is said that Father Keating chose the name “Our Lady of Victory” in thanksgiving for our victory in that war.
Planning for the new parish had begun years before, when Msgr. John M. McCarthy, then pastor of St. John’s Parish, realized that the city of Fresno would need several more parishes to serve the future population. Msgr. McCarthy, received permission from his bishop, got out his horse and buggy, and, along with his assistant, began a weeklong search for a church site. They decided on the southeast corner of Forthcamp (now North Fulton Avenue) and Elizabeth Streets. A house on the site would serve as a rectory.
The first Mass in the parish was celebrated June 29, 1919 in the Dan C. Desmond home at 845 Echo Avenue. Records list 30 parishioners in attendance, including Margaret Regan Limes and her brother Edmund Regan. According to Margaret, as Father Keating drove by and saw the American flag flying he said “This is the place!” The altar boy serving at Mass that day was young Harry A. Clinch, who later served as the Bishop of Monterey.
In spite of determined opposition from neighbors who objected to the church being located near them, four lots were purchased at North Fulton (now Wishon) and Floradora Streets on November 12, 1919 and March 16, 1920. The first signers of an “anti-church” petition fell victim to an influenza epidemic; opposition diminished and ground was broken for the first unit of the parish school in June 1920. By September 1921 a two-story building was built and opened for classes and services. The upper floors were designated grades one through four and the lower floor served as a temporary chapel. Over the next eight years, grades were added each year so that children were able to attend grammar through high school. The Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet came from Los Angeles to staff the school and Mass was first celebrated in that building on Christmas Day, 1920.
The new diocese of Monterey-Fresno was established in 1922 and Bishop John B. MacGinley was installed as the first Bishop in 1924. As Father Keating began plans for a permanent church, his elderly mother in Los Angeles became ill. At the same time, Father Michael Sullivan, a priest from San Diego, expressed interest in working in the newly established diocese. Permission was granted for the two men to exchange places and Father Sullivan became the pastor of Our Lady of Victory Parish on February 13, 1925.
Marie Frances Therese Martin — Sister Therese of the Child Jesus — was canonized a saint by Pope Pius XI in 1925. Devotion to the holy Carmelite Sister with her “little way” to sanctity was widespread. Bishop MacGinley, in Rome at the time of her canonization, asked the Pope to name St. Therese principal patroness of the Monterey-Fresno Diocese. Pope Pius granted the request on condition that one church and parish in the diocese be named after her.
Our Lady of Victory Parish had broken ground for its fourth temporary quarters. Bishop MacGinley celebrated a Solemn Pontifical Mass in the incompleted building on the first public observance of the Little Flower’s feast day, October 3, 1927. Once completed, this building would be the parish church for 31 years. At this Mass, in a sermon on the life of St. Therese, Father Sullivan spoke as follows:
“On last Wednesday evening, a few minutes past seven o’clock, twenty-eight years ago, a young maiden 24 years of age, expired. The end came in a room back of the convent walls of the Carmelites of Lisieux. Her pure, deep eyes looked at the crucifix, the image of God who had loved her to the end, and her purple lips moved in her last prayer on earth: ‘I love Him — my God, I love Thee.’
Then she suddenly raised herself, and opening her eyes, which shone with unalterable peace and happiness, she fixed them for the last time on a statue of Our Lady, and her soul went to heaven.
That was 28 years ago, September 30, 1897, and already today she has been declared a saint of God. She has become the patroness of the Diocese of Monterey-Fresno, and is to be declared the patroness of this parish in Fresno.
She died unknown to men, only a poor nun who had spent four years behind the cloister of a French Convent; but today the world’s great daily papers vie with each other in proclaiming her. This little French maiden is now in the minds and hearts of millions the world over. We still live in the age of miracles. God’s arm is not shortened since the day when Moses drew water from the rock, since the day Jesus walked in Palestine — and God has testified by a thousand undeniable miracles that this little maiden was a precious child of His, His own Little Flower that grew in grace at the convent in Lisieux.
What has come over the world that a little maiden who wished to be hidden and unknown should captivate so many souls the whole world over? Because the Little Flower always remained a child and showed the simple way to heaven, the acknowledging of our own trust in God: because she was human — because her life was sanctified in ordinary ways.”
On May 2, 1926, formal dedication services for the completed Shrine of St. Therese Church at Floradora near Wishon were held, with Bishop MacGinley officiating. A marble statue of St. Therese was unveiled and blessed by Bishop MacGinley. According to Father Sullivan, the statue was sculptured by the artisans of Lisieux, France, from a six-foot block of marble from the famous quarries near Olympia, Greece. It was shipped to Fresno via the Panama Canal.
During the depression years, although financially stagnate, the parish grew in church members and students. The church, which had been built “out in the suburbs,” now served a full-fledged urban area. Msgr. Sullivan was appointed Vicar General in 1933 and was promoted to Domestic Prelate in 1934. In 1940, his request to be assigned to the small coastal parish of St. Rose in Paso Robles granted and he resigned as pastor of The Shrine of St. Therese in November, 1940.
On November 26, Msgr. James G. Dowling took charge as administrator of the parish whose facilities were strained to the bursting point. In accepting this challenge, Msgr. Dowling adopted a “five-year plan” of expansion and debt reduction.
The parish had now grown to over 1,000 families. Bishop Scher of Monterey-Fresno Diocese, purchased a quarter block at Pine and Wishon for $5,000 and leased it to the parish so that construction of the new school could begin. The old rectory (two doors south of Floradora on Wishon) was sold and a new rectory was completed on the corner of Floradora and Maroa Avenue in 1941. The first rooms of the new grammar school opened in September 1942. The long-standing parish debt was slowly reduced until in 1944, it was completely paid off. Monsignor’s five year plan was completed in 1945 with the addition of the Anderson home at 727 Pine Avenue as a permanent convent for the Sisters of St. Joseph.
Monsignor Dowling was so pleased with the success of the first five-year plan, that he envisioned a second “five year plan” to build a new church. During this same time, Bishop Scher acquired 40 acres on North Fresno Street which he earmarked for a central Catholic high school, and he asked all the pastors in Fresno to contribute their time and money to the project so that building the new church was postponed.
By 1948, San Joaquin Memorial High School was fairly well established. In October of that year, property was donated for the building of an auxiliary chapel on the corner of West and Princeton Avenues to more adequately serve the growing number of families in the parish. The first Mass at OUR LADY OF VICTORY chapel was offered by Farther Thomas McGovern, then assistant at St. Therese, on November 27, 1949. In 1950, the boundaries of St. Therese’s Parish were changed. The northwest section formed the new parish of Our Lady of Victory and Father McGovern became its first pastor. St. Therese parishioners celebrated the 25th anniversary of the dedication of the parish church and the Silver Jubilee of St. Therese’s canonization on October 3, 1950.
The first fund-raising campaign for the new St. Therese’s Church began on October 3, 1953. The cost of the church was estimated at $250,000. Space for additional parking was necessary and this need was satisfied with the donation of property directly across from the rectory. In January 1954 a vacant lot behind this property was purchased for $20,000 for additional playground and parking facilities. Ground was broken for the new Shrine of St. Therese on Corpus Christi, Sunday, June 12, 1955 at the corner of Wishon and Floradora Avenues and construction began on July 6, 1955.
Architect Vincent Buckley of San Francisco designed a Romanesque-Mission structure of reinforced steel concrete with a tile roof. The church was built by the Long and Needham Construction Company. Richard W. Jung, an interior designer from Los Angeles, employed Mr. Tedesci, an artist from New York, to plan the inside of the church. Fifty thousand pounds of marble were used in St. Therese’s Church. The marble was processed in Italy and shipped in huge blocks to the United States by water freight. The marble setter who worked three months on the Shrine of St. Therese predicted it would be one of the last churches of its style. He said that labor and shipping costs would be too great if marble was to be completely prepared in Italy and sent to the U.S and since there were fewer and fewer men in the U.S. learning the marble setter’s trade, he believed that more functional styles of architecture would take over.
Construction of the church was halted momentarily when Monsignor Dowling suffered a heart attack while saying Mass on St. Therese’s feast day, October 3, 1955. During Monsignor’s illness and period of recuperation, the parish was placed under the administration of Father James C. O’Doherty, pastor of St. Peter’s Church in Lemoore. Monsignor Dowling returned in February of 1956, and the cornerstone was placed and blessed on November 1, 1956. After a group of volunteers cleaned the interior of the new church, parishioners attended Mass for the first time at midnight on Christmas Day. That Christmas, St. Therese parishioners contributed almost $40,000 to help pay the quickly accumulating bills for the new church. The old church building became Sullivan Hall. Two months later, on February 27, 1957, the man who had been the altar boy at the first parish Mass in 1919 became Auxiliary Bishop of Monterey-Fresno Harry A. Clinch in the Shrine of St. Therese.