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Tale of a diocese, a chapel and a determined community

Hours before Mass begins, every seat is taken in the little red-roofed chapel that opens its doors each Sunday in proud defiance of the Catholic Church.

Families, many of them Mexican migrant workers, have come to this renegade church for 90 minutes of religious study led by a charismatic Peruvian missionary. Inside an aging brick building with dented wood floors, they crowd into creaking pews and pray.

Minutes before Mass, as more families arrive, the men pair off and lift the wooden pews, carrying them to the veranda already crowded with benches and folding chairs. So popular is El Centro Guadalupano – named for Mexico’s patron saint, the Virgin of Guadalupe – that Mass must be celebrated outdoors.

In any place but Pauma Valley, such a congregation would seem heaven-sent.

But to the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Diego, this congregation is a problem that won’t go away.

For two years, Bishop Robert Brom has been trying to stop Mass from being celebrated at the chapel, on state Route 76 about 15 miles east of Interstate 15, and move the congregants to a nearby church. For two years, Mass has continued, as relations between the bishop and his rebellious flock have grown increasingly bitter.

The dispute is now headed to court, where a judge will be asked to decide who controls the chapel and its grounds – the church or the churchgoers.

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