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Navy ending Roman Catholic Mass at base chapels in shift to serve younger sailors

Sailors, their families and military retirees at one San Diego Navy base have again found their church community left out in the cold as the Navy announced it will cancel all Roman Catholic services. The move is part of an ongoing effort to focus religious ministries on active-duty sailors, whose attendance at base chapel services have dwindled, according to the Navy.

Beginning Oct. 1, the six weekly Roman Catholic services will end at the chapel on Naval Air Station North Island, the Navy said. The move is part of a Navy-wide realignment of the service’s religious ministries announced last year meant to focus on younger active-duty sailors, aged 18 to 25 — the Navy’s largest demographic.

That could mean priests visiting sailors where they work — on ships, piers and elsewhere on-base — instead of staying in the chapel waiting for sailors to come to them.

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“The Navy is working to better serve active-duty Sailors throughout our regions,” Coleen San Nicolas-Perez, a spokesperson for Navy Installations Command, said in an email. “In some cases, this will involve changes to traditional religious services.”

What exactly those changes will be could vary, based on a variety of factors, such as a low percentage of active duty chapel attendance and the availability of churches outside the gates of Navy bases, she said.

Across the six San Diego County Navy base chapels, fewer than 20 percent of chapel attendees across Protestant and Catholic services were active-duty personnel. Rather, most were military retirees, according to Brian O’Rourke, a Navy Region Southwest spokesperson in San Diego.

The move will leave those retirees — alongside active-duty personnel and their families — searching for a new off-base parish.

The changes are an amended version of those the Navy moved to implement in 2020 until the changes drew the ire of Republican lawmakers and, eventually, President Donald Trump.

At the time, the service said it would forgo renewing its contracted Catholic priests at some bases, including Amphibious Base Coronado and North Island. The service later announced it had reversed course after Republican outcry. The next day, Trump, who clashed with Navy leadership several times during his administration, chastised the service via Twitter.

“The United States Navy, or the Department of Defense, will NOT be cancelling its contract with Catholic Priests who serve our men and women in the Armed Forces so well, and with such great compassion & skill,” Trump wrote on Twitter in August 2020. “This will no longer be even a point of discussion!”

Father José Pimentel prepared to serve mass service. (Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Coronado, CA – September 10: Father José Pimentel prepared to serve mass service for Catholic parishioners.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

This time, while its reasoning is the same as it was in 2020, the Navy is taking a different approach. There will still be a contracted Catholic priest serving the amphibious base and North Island, but the priest will not lead almost-daily Catholic Mass as before.

The contract solicitation published Aug. 12 says the priest shall provide “one Mass per week … supporting active duty personnel and their dependents … specifically liberty restricted personnel at Naval Amphibious Base Coronado.”

Those liberty-restricted personnel include sailors at Naval Special Warfare Command training schools who are not able to leave base to attend Mass, O’Rourke said.

The changes Navy-wide are not limited to just Catholic services, O’Rourke said.

“All religious ministry programs across Navy installations are being considered for modification,” he said. “Some religious ministry programs have already shifted from a chapel-based ministry, providing Sunday morning service, to a campus-based ministry, providing various services, including communal worship, at times and locations that meet the needs and availability of active duty sailors and their families.”

At the two Coronado bases, that includes both Protestant and Catholic services, O’Rourke said. Navy officials did not provide specifics when asked about changes at other bases.

The Rev. José Pimentel has led Roman Catholic Mass at the two Coronado base chapels for 10 years. He said he doesn’t understand how a priest will be able to properly serve Catholics in the military without holding community Mass at the base chapels.

A parishioner prays during mass. (Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Coronado, CA – September 10: A parishioner prays during mass given by Father José Pimentel.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“(The contract solicitation) speaks of providing the sacraments, but for any Catholic who knows better, you can’t just celebrate the sacraments outside of having a Mass,” Pimentel said. “It shows (the Navy’s) ignorance of the situation.”

Pimentel also questioned the Navy’s assertion of low attendance, saying that more than 50 people attended one active-duty family baptism in August.

Sailors who regularly attend Mass at both Coronado and North Island told the Union-Tribune the Navy’s move shows a misunderstanding about their chapel community.

“In the military there’s a strong sense of community — you’re moving so much, bases are like their own mini-towns and communities with their own places of worship,” said Ens. Cecilia Czerewko, 23, a Navy nurse who attends Mass at the amphibious base.

Czerewko said the chapel is more than just a place for sailors to go on Sundays. It’s also where they get married, and where their children are confirmed and take their first communions. Although Czerewko lives in Solana Beach, she drives to the amphibious base to attend Mass every week. It’s where she and her husband — a Marine Corps officer — were married Aug. 30.

“I grew up in a Navy family and have always gone to military chapels for Catholic Mass,” Czerewko said. “It’s a good community to have; that’s why I go.”

The closest Catholic church to North Island and the amphibious base is Sacred Heart Church near Spreckels Park, about midway between the two Coronado bases. The Rev. Michael Murphy, the long-time priest at Sacred Heart, said he understands how important those retirees are to the active duty parishioners.

“It’s the retired community that welcomes the active community,” Murphy said.

And that community is what keeps sailors coming to the chapel, sailors said.

“It’s very tight-knit,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class William Tailor, 20, a Navy avionics technician assigned to a North Island helicopter squadron. “Most chapels I’ve been to, after Mass people split up and go home. Here, people stay and talk. I became part of the community.”

The chapel on Naval Air Station North Island.

The chapel on Naval Air Station North Island.

(U.S. Navy)

Tailor said when he first arrived at North Island, he lived on base and did not have a car — something not uncommon for junior sailors — which would have made it difficult for him to attend mass elsewhere.

Petty Officer 1st Class Sanjay Dutt, who works in a base personnel office, said he is grateful the chapel was there for him after his roommate died by suicide in February. He said going to the chapel helped him “get back up.”

“I was blaming myself,” Dutt said. “I’m still kind of going through all that … I was lucky I had (the chapel). There could be others on this base in the same scenario.”

Murphy said he understands that the military faith community has unique needs and that his church is ready to open its doors to those displaced by the Navy’s decision.

“I know how difficult it is for the Catholics at the chapels to in effect end their community there,” Murphy said. “It’s hugely traumatic for people; the parish is being closed down. It’s very difficult.”

Murphy prepared a letter for the last Masses on base inviting sailors, retirees and their families to Sacred Heart.

“We welcome them joyously into our community,” he said.