Parish Leader’s Planned Exit Generates Sorrow, and More

Review file photo
Cambria Tortorelli will leave her post as Holy Family parish life director in mid-2021. “She has been dedicated to us parishioners and we return the affection,” said Diana Mahmud.

The worth of a person is often mirrored in how other people view that individual.
I’ve found this to be the case with Cambria Tortorelli, who sent an email about two weeks ago to Holy Family Church, saying that she was stepping down as parish life director next June 30 after 12 years on the job. She explained that she was nearing the end of her second six-year term, the limit set by the archdiocese.

The parish life director is a lay leader who is entrusted with the leadership of the parish and has the responsibility for overall day-to-day pastoral care and administration. Sacramental ministry is reserved for the clergy.
The parish life director also coordinates the various ministries and responds to the parish’s basic needs.
“It has been the honor of a lifetime to have had the privilege of serving you as your parish life director,” she said in her letter to parishioners. “You have become my family and I have loved being part of this amazing parish.”
The honor is all ours, answered parishioners I talked to. I’ve been writing “Spiritually Speaking” for almost two years, and Cambria’s name comes up so often that I’ve got to add that I agree.
“I will miss Cambria as a colleague and spiritual leader in South Pasadena,” said the Rev. Anne Tumulty of St. James’ Episcopal Church. “I am saddened that her ministry at Holy Family is coming to an end. [Monsignor Clement] Connolly and Cambria are a great team. Holy Family and our community have been blessed over the years by her thoughtful and heartfelt ministry. I wish her well and know God will continue to use her life for the good of others.”
The good wishes from parishioners I interviewed became more and more glowing. Holy Family is a big place — with 5,000 parishioners — and I’m sure that there are those in town and at the offices of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles who might be saying, “Yes, but …”
I’m going to use the familiar “Cambria” in this column because that’s how most people replied when I asked a question that involved her or the parish.
Everyone I talked to mentioned what a role model she is to young people — particularly young women — and there were some pointed questions and remarks raised by people I respect greatly.
Here are comments from Diana Mahmud, a parishioner at Holy Family who was expected to be chosen as South Pasadena’s mayor this week.
“I think she was an excellent role model for any girl or young female that might have had an interest in becoming involved in parish administration and/or ministry,” Mahmud said. “I am deeply disappointed that she won’t be with us in a leadership capacity after June 30. … I don’t recall ever hearing anyone say a negative word about her. She has been dedicated to us parishioners and we return the affection.”
Then Mahmud raised an issue that came out in interviews with several others: Why — with Holy Family being so big and doing so much — is the priest pastor system being restored and the parish life director idea being ended?
A bit of history here: Monsignor Connolly, then pastor and now pastor emeritus, advocated for the director system and encouraged Cambria when she arrived. She was viewed by some as a “transition person” who would follow the extremely popular Connolly.
Now, the old system will become new again.
“I am greatly disappointed that she will be followed by a ‘priest pastor’ who presumably will be responsible for administrating the many activities of this large and busy parish,” Mahmud said. “It makes no sense to me to burden a priest with administrative responsibility for running this large and busy parish in addition to serving its spiritual needs. We are likely one of a handful of parishes that can afford to pay for a parish life director such as Cambria.
“Until women are allowed to be ordained as now occurs in most Christian faiths,” she added, “priests will remain in short supply. Given this shortage, large and active parishes such as Holy Family are best served by hiring a life director such as Cambria.”
Parishioner and psychologist Elizabeth Taylor credits Cambria, along with Connolly, with supporting the LGBTQ+ ministry, which Taylor helped start and which is among 80 offered by the parish. She, too, is deeply disappointed in the return to a priest pastor system.
“Cambria came into our lives like a whirlwind with a spirituality that ran deep into her soul,” said Taylor. “We could try to keep up with her, but had a hard time surpassing her. I don’t know if anyone did.
“She leaves a legacy in many ways,” Taylor added. “The one that stands out to me is the one she leaves to the young women in our parish. She taught them, simply by her presence, that they can rise above all obstacles and be the leader of a very large parish.”
Michael Cacciotti, a city councilman and also a parishioner, said Cambria has appeared before the council in support of various causes including rent control, a living wage and initiatives for the environment.
He, too, noted what a great role model she is to younger parishioners who are watching her speak. He said Cambria made Holy Family a more diverse place by bringing a number of different communities together.
“She exemplified Holy Family’s saying of ‘All Are Welcome,’” he said.
William Cullinane, a respected leader in South Pasadena along with his wife, Diana, has been a parishioner off and on at Holy Family for about 60 years. He provided some perspective for me on what is going on.
He noted that what happened after Connolly stepped down as pastor was “kind of experimental, but on many levels, what she [Cambria] did was impressive. The parish thrived and she showed who was in charge. It was quite an accomplishment.”
The parish, Cullinane said, is considered a prized appointment.
“It is an attractive assignment,” he said. “Now priests might be happy to have it back.”
Father Parker Sandoval, vice chancellor of the archdiocese, called Cambria an “extraordinary leader in the view of the archdiocese. She is recognized as such beyond just Holy Family.”
He said that Holy Family is one of five parishes that currently have the parish life director arrangement and that “the archbishop is open to new processes in the face of the shortage of priests.”
This is the first time that someone has termed out at Holy Family, he explained, noting that Connolly had retired. You can serve two terms and possibly be extended if you are close to retirement, which Sandoval said is at age 75 for a priest.
He said that the archdiocese was open to her continuing her work in some way and that there were “ongoing discussions” about possible opportunities.
I wasn’t able to get with her to go over what Sandoval explained, but plan to talk with her at a later date.
Cambria, in her email, explained that priests who are interested in applying for open pastorates have until Monday, Dec. 7. The Priest Personnel Board will spend the period from January through April working out assignments and Holy Family should hear who the new pastor priest is sometime in April. The departure will not, Cambria said, affect the ministry of Connolly and Father Denis Maher, the priest minister.
Cullinane noted that priests sometimes do not have the same level of skills in the financial areas as someone who came from a business background before she stepped into the church job. Cambria had a background in marketing and sales, and then worked for nonprofits before joining Holy Family.
Cambria is — as she says — going into another stage of her life. She’s already looking at where next to offer her talents and her heart.
“Change can be both a time of stress and a time of grace and opportunity,” Cambria said. “Please also pray for me as I discern where God is calling me to work in this next phase of my life.”
We will. And Godspeed.