This Christmas, services at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church will be held in a chilly tent. The parishioners don’t mind, though. They know the sacrifice is worth it, as they will have a gorgeous new building for years to come.

The Eastside parish on North Nopal Street was literally bursting at the seams last summer. Service attendees always outnumbered the seating space, so dozens would have to stand around the perimeter of the church and even outside the doors each Sunday.

“We currently have seven services on the weekends to accommodate all our parishioners,” said Father Rafael Marin-Leon, the priest who oversees Our Lady of Guadalupe. “And there are always people outside kneeling because we lack seating. It broke my heart.”

The parish has been growing for decades, and every priest since the 1950s has wanted to renovate. After jumping through numerous hoops to receive approvals from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the city of Santa Barbara and the Santa Barbara Historical Society, church leaders had to come up with the funding. It finally happened, and construction is well under way.

Throughout the day, you’ll find Marin-Leon roaming the construction site, camera in hand. He’s exuberant with anticipation for the building to come.

“This church belongs to the people,” he said. “We made it happen together.”

Marin-Leon said the church was never meant to be a permanent structure. In fact, it was originally just a chapel that was moved in the 1930s after an earthquake damaged another Eastside church. It was moved temporarily to the current site, but eventually, the remainder of the structure was added as it grew into a new parish.

Funds for the new church have come from several directions. Our Lady of Guadalupe hosts Santa Barbara’s biggest mercado during Old Spanish Days, and the church finance council voted to allot 80 percent of proceeds from the festival toward the building fund. Additionally, money was set aside by the previous priest, donations have been made by parishioners, and a second collection has been made at services for the past four years.

“This project has really brought the community together and given the parishioners a sense of ownership,” Marin-Leon said.

He began brainstorming the idea for the renovation nearly five years ago with architect Gil Garcia.

“I couldn’t have done this without Gil,” Marin-Leon said. “He worked pro bono to get this thing off the ground and has really championed it along the way.”

Eventually, Garcia Architects was officially hired to make the church a reality.

The new building will have 8,500 square feet, compared with 4,300 in the old church. Additionally, the church was on the city’s list of buildings with historical value, which limited the amount and type of allowable changes. The architects had to hire a historian, who made the recommendation to keep the front facade, which the city approved.

Father Rafael Marin-Leon, left, and architect Gil Garcia began brainstorming the idea for the renovation nearly five years ago.

Father Rafael Marin-Leon, left, and architect Gil Garcia began brainstorming the idea for the renovation nearly five years ago. (Jenn Kennedy photo /

The building around the façade, which had to be carefully propped up during construction, was demolished. In addition, the architects had to match the design details, such as the corbels under the roof eaves and double-hung windows of the facade and previous structure.

Garcia said he remembers the struggling church from his days on the City Council.

“For years and years, the parishioners hoped they would get a new church,” he said. “I had a special place in my heart for this community, and I’m so glad we’re finally giving them a beautiful place to worship.”

To help ease costs, several craftsmen parishioners donated portions of the building, including the corbels, the stained glass windows and the interior marble. John Maloney Electrical Engineering donated much of its time to the project.

Construction is scheduled to be complete by mid-April, with seating for 484 people. A rededication is planned for May 15, officiated by Cardinal Roger Mahony, archbishop of the diocese.

A native of Spain, Marin-Leon worked in Africa, Los Angeles and Mexico before coming to Santa Barbara in 2003.

“Santa Barbara is paradise without having to die,” he said. “People are so friendly here, because it’s a great quality of life.”

He welcomes visitors to the new church, 227 N. Nopal St. A Christmas Day service will be held at 9 a.m. in English and at noon in Spanish.

Noozhawk contributor Jenn Kennedy can be reached at Click here to see more of her work.