Visited: August 2017
It all started innocently enough a few weeks ago while I was researching our 2018 trip to the Piemente region in Italy. Specifically, I was looking at the town of Asti and one of its main attractions, the 13th century Saint Secondo Catholic Church, which is the oldest church in Asti.
However, when I googled that Italian church, the town of Ontario, California, popped up. Of course, this piqued my curiosity. I immediately decided to delve deeper into this mystery that would eventually take me to a story that included the largest vineyard in California, a deadly train accident, a gorgeous little church and finally a memorial that stretches across the United States.
This discovery forced me to hop in the car that day and head toward the Ontario Airport area to find San Secondo d’Asti Church, a church that turned out to be quite similar to many California mission churches (which reminds me, I still have seven of those to go on my Mission Possible tour).
Located near the airport, in the midst of office buildings and a huge parking lot, lies this little house of worship that has an interesting backstory. Originally from Asti, Italy (ah, now it’s coming together), Secondo Guasti came to this area from his home in the Piemente Hills (by way of Mexico City and Los Angeles) in the 1870s.
Wine is a way of life in Piemente, and it seemed Guasti thought this would be a good place to grow some grapes. Not a small thinker, Guasti built an entire town (named Guasti…why be humble?). He brought entire families from his native Italy to work the land and build a winery.
According to author Mark Danielson, Guasti “purchased 5,000 desert acres 45 miles east of LA for $3,750.00, certain that there was underground water, and that the soil would produce good wine grapes. His hunch paid off, and this vineyard later became California’s largest winery.”
He built the town complete with a school, post office, firehouse, general store and about 200 homes for his vineyards growers. He even had a 22 mile long narrow gauge railway system constructed so the grapes could be transported to the packing house in a timely manner.
There was one tragedy that nearly derailed the entire operation. According to the West Adams Heritage Association, in 1903 a locomotive went off the tracks plowing into the nearby fields killing 32 workers. After the accident, Guasti built a nearby cemetery. Over the years the place acquired the reputation of being haunted by the dead workers and even by Secondo Guasti. The “Haunted Vineyard” became a favorite Halloween destination until 2006 when it was closed due to zoning restrictions.
According to my good friends at Wikipedia, “By 1917 the Cucamonga-Guasti vineyards spanned over 20,000 acres, and Secondo Guasti was advertising his vineyard as “The Largest in the World.” In 1917, according to the church’s website, it was “seasonally producing five million gallons of wine.” Take that Napa Valley!
Although most of the vineyard acreage has been turned into those office buildings and complexes, Cucamonga’s Filippi Winery and vineyards still sells Guasti sacramental and altar wines. Sadly, the town of Guasti is now a virtual ghost town (photo on right courtesy of BoomCalifornia.com).
Now back to that church I was researching in Asti. Secondo Guasti wanted a Catholic church similar to the one from his home town constructed in his new home town, so in 1924 he decided to build one (Why not?…he built the rest of the town). Guasti brought in woodworkers and stonemasons from Mexico and Italy, and the church was completed and consecrated in 1926. The church was donated by the family to the Diocese of Los Angeles and San Diego in 1935. Since 1978, it has been in the Diocese of San Bernardino.
When I arrived it was a typical summer afternoon in the Ontario area; meaning it was hot enough to fry an egg in the parking lot. Located right next to the parking lot are a number of statues depicting the Stations of the Cross.
I was going to ask the workman on the roof if he could move his truck so I could get a better photo of this one, but he looked none too pleased to be up on the roof on a day hitting about 110 degrees, so I declined to bother him.
…and I walked toward the courtyard. The first thing I noticed was a large tablet holding the Ten Commandments, which I hoped did not include the one that states, “Thou shalt not take inside photography.”
The courtyard is a lovely spot, however the view of the church’s bell tower is somewhat marred by an ill-placed cell tower. Looking at the ugly monstrosity, I wondered when people pray here do they ask, “Can you hear me now?”
The courtyard fountain comes from Asti and is dedicated to Guasti’s son, who passed away at the age of 42 in 1933. The fountain depicts a Franciscan Padre and a young Native American boy with grapes and fruit.
As earlier stated, the small church is very reminiscent of those mission churches I have seen on my California Mission quest, but actually more beautiful than many I have seen. The wood beamed ceilings and unique light fixtures stood out. I was the only visitor.
The stations of the cross are also displayed in bronze on the side walls.
Walking to the front of the church I reached the tabernacle (minus a Mormon choir).
As the story goes, “At the time of his baptism in Milan, St. Secundus was an officer of lower rank, which implies that he was a young man. He encountered persecution for the Faith when he dared to bury the body of the martyred St. Marcianus of Tortona. St. Marcianus was the first bishop of Piedmont, and is said to have been a disciple of St. Barnabas (the companion of the Apostle Paul). After performing that work of mercy, St Secundus fled to Asti, but he was arrested and after cruel tortures, he was beheaded. His martyrdom took place in Asti in 119 AD.”
I spent a few minutes more at the front of the church…
…and then it was back outside in the blistering heat, where on the patio I looked down to see the mosaic of grapes. A nice chardonnay sounded pretty good at this moment.
However, as I crossed the Borderline into Upland on the drive back home, I noticed a sign on the freeway for “The Madonna Of The Trail.” When it came to this monument, I was Like A Virgin, so off I traveled in search of a Madonna.
There, smack dab in the middle of busy Euclid Avenue (at the junction of Route 66) stood a giant statue of a pioneer woman holding a baby in one arm, clutching a rifle with the other while another child was tugging at her clothes (she desperately needed a nanny). I had no idea what that statue meant, but dodging traffic (I really should learn not to jaywalk) I made it to the median where I took some photos. Now, it was time to learn something about this Madonna.
In searching, I learned that in 12 different locales stretching from California to Maryland there are these large Madonna of the Trail statues that pay tribute to pioneer women who made the dangerous trek across the country. These statues, erected in the late 1920s, were a project of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution. I also learned from a reader of this website that 11 of the statues face west, while this one in Upland is the only one to face south.
The man instrumental in the erection of these statues was none other than a Missouri judge and future U.S. president, Harry S. Truman, then the President of the National Old Trails Association (these were the roads where the covered wagons traveled across the nation). He would later traverse the country to find the best cities for these monuments to be located. At a ceremony dedicating one in Ohio, Truman stated, “They [the women] were just as brave or braver than their men because, in many cases, they went with sad hearts and trembling bodies. They went, however, and endured every hardship that befalls a pioneer.”
This one in Upland was dedicated in 1929. It is the furthest west statue, while the one in Cumberland, Maryland is the furthest east monument.
My day was now complete (well, except for the chardonnay part). It had started by attempting to gather information on an upcoming trip to Italy, and it eventually led me to two relatively unknown, interesting sights complete with a fascinating history located right here in my own backyard. Yes, Google can be your friend!
San Secondo d’Asti Catholic Church
250 N Turner Avenue
Ontario, CA 91761
Hours: 8 a.m. – 3 p.m.
Madonna Of The Trail
1010 N Euclid Avenue
Upland, CA 91786