As the 93 years young Mrs. Casillas lets me into her lovely Santa Monica home, I notice all the photographs on the walls – old glamour type shots that make one look like a 1940s Hollywood movie star, school portraits from all ages, baseball card pictures, family celebrations, vacations – and I think to myself: “Wow, this woman has had a lot of love in her life.” We spend the next couple hours talking about that love and her ties to First UMC.
Connie was born in Marfa, Texas, and was “born a Methodist.” Her parents were immigrants from Mexico and her father died when she was very young. At the age of 2, she and her mother Susana made the move to Santa Monica to be with her stepfather Joe, a botanist who always made sure they were taken care of. Her grandmother, a very devout Christian who visited them often, would always ask if they found a Methodist church yet. “No, not yet, Grandma, but we will. We will.” Finally, by inquiring of neighbors and the community, they found “our little Mexican church” on 19th St. and Michigan. When Connie was 12 years old, her grandmother gave her her first copy of Upper Room (a daily devotional magazine) in Spanish, in the hopes both to guide her faith and love for God and to teach her how to speak and read her family’s native language. As Connie tells me about their “little church,” her beautiful smile widens. “Back then, there were mostly Catholic Mexicans, so there was just a handful of us Methodists and that was OK.” And this handful was very devoted and proud of their little church. She recalls the woman who used to play the piano and the dinners the congregation shared.
“Dr. [Rev.] Carlson would visit us often, and he also preached once in a while, but we had quite a few older people that didn’t speak English too well so they didn’t like that. Then the freeway came and took our little church. Dr. Carlson invited us to the big church and we went.” However, before the freeway came, they would visit the “big church” on 4th and Arizona and attend events, concerts, or special dinners, making the transition smooth and comfortable. “I had a great picture of my mother in front of the little church. But my daughter took my cabinet and moved all my books without telling me. Never do that to your mother.” I definitely won’t, but we eventually found the photo (see below).
Most of the congregation from the “little Mexican church” started going regularly to the “big church,” but eventually they started moving away little by little. Connie and her husband Carmen and their six children were regular attendees of First UMC. As were his mother Virginia and sister Amparo or “Ampie” who sang in the choir. Connie and Carmen were often greeters while their sons were acolytes and ushers. “Bobby was an usher for 26 years!”
“Mark, my youngest son, played the violin and the piano. He was so talented and got scholarships for music. Dr. [Jim] Smith would hire him sometimes.” In addition to Connie’s three daughters being married here, there were baptisms of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Then, in August of 2012, Connie lost her son Mark and her husband just weeks apart from each other. “I cried so much when he (Mark) died. Then my husband. Carmen was a beautiful person. His daughters idolized him. I adored him and he adored me. Nancy [from the church office] was right there with us when Carmen died.”
Connie and I talk for a while; there aren’t any particular stories she shares, although she does recall the church always having a beautiful choir. There’s pride in her tone when she tells me the church is quite active, “We do a lot, we always have.” She tells me about her in-laws’ tortilla factory, Casillas Tortillas – the first in Santa Monica – and their market. How she was in her glory when raising her children. When her oldest, Susanne, and son-in-law Ed rented a big Cadillac and drove Connie and Carmen to Texas to visit their hometowns, both of whom had not revisited since they left as young children. Mostly we spoke of the incredible love she and her husband shared for 72 years.
“Wherever I was, he was, and vice versa. If I were sitting in the living room, he would make his way to sit next to me. If I were vacuuming, he would move the furniture and take over. And he was such a good cook!” When the war broke out, Carmen spent two years in Italy and came back an even better cook. In their heyday, they enjoyed going to the Hollywood Palladium every Saturday to dance. “He always pampered me, and that’s how he liked it, he would say.” They renewed their vows for their 25th and 50th anniversaries, the latter taking place in the First UMC sanctuary and officiated by Rev. Chuck Wiggins.
She walks me through her gallery of photos in her hall and other rooms. There is so much to take in and so many questions to ask, but I have to get back to the office. We say our farewells and I walk out feeling like I just made a dear friend. Connie Casillas definitely lives a life believing and belonging at First UMC of Santa Monica, and I am grateful to her for allowing me to see what her love looks like.
This article was originally published November 2015 – “Bearing Witness: Stories of Believing and Belonging at First UMC of Santa Monica.“