By Barry A. Kunz and Donald J. Miller
When Fr. John M. Shimotsu was assigned in July 2020 as a parish priest working for the pastor at St. Anne’s Catholic Church in Seal Beach, he may not have considered that he would be named the new pastor 18 months later, starting January 1, 2022.
And as the new pastor, he will lead this Seal Beach church and her parishioners at the start of the second hundred years in its history in Seal Beach.
Born in Santa Monica and baptized in the Protestant Church, Fr. John grew up in Culver City. As a cadet at Virginia Military Institute, he participated in Navy ROTC and earned a bachelor’s degree in History. In 1985 he was commissioned as a Naval Officer and was confirmed a Catholic while a student at Surface Warfare School in Coronado, California. After four years of active duty, he resigned his commission in 1989 to pursue formation for the Catholic priesthood at Mount Angel Seminary in Oregon, where he received a Master of Arts in Theology and a Master of Divinity degree. He was ordained a priest in 1994 for the Diocese of Orange County, and he first served as a parish priest at St. Polycarp Catholic Church in Stanton before being given permission to serve as a Navy Chaplain from 1997 to 2019.
Fr. John returned to the Diocese of Orange County as a priest in August 2019 after serving twenty-three years as an active-duty Navy Chaplain with the Navy and Marine Corps, eventually achieving the rank of Captain in the U.S. Navy.
Assignments as a Navy Chaplain included Fleet Chaplain, U.S. Seventh Fleet, the largest of the forward-deployed U.S. fleets, with 60-70 ships, 300 aircraft, and 40,000 Navy and Marine Corps personnel.
Next, Captain Shimotsu served as Fleet Chaplain for the U.S. Pacific Fleet command of the U.S. Navy located throughout the Pacific Ocean with 200 ships, 2,000 aircraft, and 250,000 Navy and Marine Corps personnel.
In June 2016, until his retirement from active duty on August 1, 2019, Captain Shimotsu reported to his final assignment as Command Chaplain for the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, the largest of the six geographic United Combatant Commands for the U.S. Military. This joint military command oversees 370,000 Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine, and Special Operations personnel with an area of responsibility that encompasses about half the earth’s surface, stretching from the waters off the west coast of the U.S. to the western border of India, and from Antarctica to the North Pole.
In all these assignments, the mission of a military chaplain has been to support military personnel and their families, and to minister at every level of command to build individual, unit, and family readiness, and strengthen spiritual resolve, moral character, and military toughness.
Fr. Shimotsu had never been to St. Anne’s in Seal Beach until he received the assignment as a parish priest, effective July 1, 2020. Curious enough, he first drove over to Seal Beach, down Main Street to the pier, taking in the small town, its shops, restaurants, and the people. Then he made a visit to St. Anne’s Church. The Church was not open, but he enjoyed a walk around the grounds. When he heard that he had an apartment above the garage and saw it, he thought, well, this is really nice. He believed the assignment to be a good fit for him.
Fr. Shimotsu has some advantages over others coming into the assignment as a new pastor. A new pastor comes in with little, if any, knowledge of the workings of the local Church or its parishioners. However, Fr. Shimotsu has been at St. Anne’s a year and a half before becoming pastor, and he knows many of the parishioners, and now has a good idea of how things work. He said that any changes will be done in a very measured way so there are not any unnecessary disruptions.
When Fr. John first arrived as a priest at St. Anne’s in 2020 during the pandemic, things were in constant change. He is impressed and grateful for the many volunteers, the Knights of Columbus, the Woman’s Guild and other parishioners and staff that worked to facilitate activities at St. Anne’s, including the outdoor Mass under these changing circumstances.
Many people were isolated at that time and not able to attend church services. Exercising great caution, he visited the sick, providing the Sacrament of the Sick and distributing Holy Communion. This is where Fr. John met a good number of the parishioners on a personal basis.
The first person Fr. John visited for a sick call was a nearby parishioner, Ms. Angela McCoy. As he got to talking with her, he learned that she was from Northern Ireland and had a cousin who was a priest. On a wild hunch he asked her maiden name. And then he asked if she knew of a priest by that name.
She did. And that was her cousin, Fr. Pearce Coyle, a Navy chaplain who had been at Fr. John’s first assignment as a Navy Chaplain with the Marine Corps in Twentynine Palms, CA. They had become great friends. And Fr. John thought it providential, that he was at St. Anne’s, finally retired from the Navy and at a new assignment, and the first sick call he makes is to the cousin of a dear friend. He believed it to be a good sign that he is at St. Anne’s.
St. Anne’s is a very close-knit parish. There are those outside the parish who drive a good distance to be part of the family of parishioners. And because they are a close-knit community, they have wonderful fellowship events where a good many of people come.
Fr. John wants the parish to continue a sense of welcoming to newcomers, as well as people who are already Catholic, but haven’t been as active in the past in Church activities.
He says there are also great challenges these days placed on young families. It is important to reach out to them, to assist them forming their families into their Catholic faith, and passing their faith down to their children.
Fr. John says, “I’ve met with some of the older parishioners and they tell me wonderful stories about raising their young families over the decades here in the parish and in Seal Beach. Looking at the demographic trends, we have to be very concerned these days. We can’t just assume that people are going to be here in future generations. There’s been a decline in religious observance by younger generations. And so, if we’re going to continue well into the next 100 years, we have to make that a very conscious effort to strengthen the faith of people across all age groups.”
As one his first efforts, Fr. John was able to restart a Church program called Christian Initiation of Adults.
He believes it is important to the life of the parish to bring in new Catholics, and also to teach Catholic adults so they can complete their sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation.
Fr. John has also expressed deep appreciation for a special outreach program between St. Anne’s Seal Beach and a Catholic parish in Santa Ana also called St. Anne’s. “It’s very heartening to see the support that many of our parishioners have given to St. Anne’s Catholic Elementary School in Santa Ana, with everything from musical instruments and computers to helping them fundraise and provide tuition assistance to needy families. There may be many things different between the cities of Seal Beach and Santa Ana, but there is a good spiritual connection between the St. Anne’s in Seal Beach and the St. Anne’s in Santa Ana. It’s gratifying to see the generosity of people who live in Seal Beach lending a helping hand to needy families in Santa Ana.”
Fr. John is happy to begin the next phase of his time as a Catholic priest to be here in Seal Beach. As he says, “It’s the only Catholic parish in Orange County that has a Navy Base in its parish boundaries. I still remember my first morning waking up in my new apartment above the Church’s garage in Seal Beach and hearing the morning colors being played from the loudspeakers at the Base at eight o’clock, and then hearing the bells ringing from the Bell Tower at St. Anne’s Church just before the start of Mass at nine o’clock. That was a great way to start the next phase of my service to my country and to my Church.”