When Thomas Aquinas College officials were planning the construction of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel, a longtime friend, Msgr. George J. Parnassus, stepped forward to make a magnificent gift. He would pay for the construction and installation of the massive bronze doors that stand at the Chapel’s main entrance.
It was a fitting choice. In their design, strength, and size, the doors convey a sense of beauty, stability, and welcome — qualities characteristic of both the Church and this faithful priest who served it for more than 60 years. In his humility, Msgr. Parnassus made this gift anonymously, but with his death on August 17, the story of his generosity can now be told.
The son of legendary boxing promoter George Parnassus, Sr., Msgr. Parnassus was a Los Angeles native who, at a young age, discerned a calling to the priesthood. He entered the seminary shortly after graduating from high school in 1945 and was ordained on May 30, 1953. While obtaining a master’s degree in history and then pursuing doctoral work at the University of Southern California, he served various parishes and schools in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. In 1967 he became a professor and spiritual director at St. John’s Seminary, returning to parish life again four years later.
In 1976 Msgr. Parnassus began a 37-year tenure at St. Victor Catholic Church in West Hollywood, Calif., including 23 years as pastor. During that time, he dedicated himself to restoring the beauty of the century-old church’s building and its liturgies. He installed 14 stained-glass windows and new Stations of the Cross. He replaced the tabernacle, so as to give greater prominence to our Eucharistic Lord, as well as the central crucifix. He also reconstructed St. Victor’s giant pipe organ and assembled a talented choir that filled the building with sacred music from its choir loft.
His renovations, both architectural and liturgical, proclaimed the sacred in sight and sound. Msgr. Parnassus “made this church a place of reverence,” said his successor, Msgr. Jeremiah Murphy. “He made sure that we would have music that would be uplifting, that would be angelic.” As a result, St. Victor’s became something of a spiritual magnet, drawing worshippers from throughout greater Los Angeles.
A collector of precious art and antiques, Msgr. Parnassus shared many of his beloved treasures with the College. These gifts span the course of history, from ancient Hittite seals (c. 1200 B.C.) to a 19th century, first-edition volume of the Hebrew Bible, illustrated by the French artist Gustave Doré. Over the years he donated several paintings, including several original works by Salvador Dalí, and an extensive collection of ivory carvings, most notably a five-pound, 16th century bust of St. Ignatius.
As a member of the President’s Council, Msgr. Parnassus gave generously to Thomas Aquinas College’s financial aid fund, helping to make a Catholic liberal education possible for those students who would otherwise not be able to afford it. “He believed in the College and he believed in what we stand for,” recalls his friend and the College’s head librarian, Viltis Jatulis. “He was very generous to us. I remember he said that he thought he shouldn’t keep his Hittite seals for himself, but give them to people who would enjoy them more.”
His generosity to the College, however, was not limited to material gifts. Msgr. Parnassus also gave greatly of his time, coming to campus on several occasions throughout the years to serve as a chaplain at the College’s Summer Seminar weekends. During the Chapel’s planning phase, he was a member of a design committee that offered guidance on matters of sacred liturgy and architecture. In 2001 he participated in the College’s 30th anniversary celebration, and in 1999 dedicated its new residential building, St. Thérèse of Lisieux Hall.
Msgr. Parnassus again returned to campus as the homilist at the Baccalaureate Mass for Commencement 2005. “I always come here and find a blessing for myself,” he said. “I can only imagine what it has been like for you [students] to live here … It has been a blessing for you, I’m sure you realize, and you realize that it has been God’s work — that He is the One Who has brought you here, and He wants you to experience this.”
As a pastor in West Hollywood — a community where the Church’s teachings on marriage and sexuality are not, to put it mildly, always embraced — Msgr. Parnassus successfully struck the difficult balance of presenting the truth with love. He offered semiannual Masses for those who suffered from AIDS and established an AIDS chapel for private prayer. He was also the head of the Archdiocesan Commission for Life Issues, an early sponsor of the West Hollywood Food Coalition, and the founder of an outreach program for the disenfranchised in the area.
“He would challenge people to be better,” said Msgr. Murphy in the Sunday homily following Msgr. Parnassus’ death. “In many ways, Msgr. Parnassus set the world on fire … and by fire I mean the energy and the love to make a difference.” As Thomas Aquinas College Vice President for Finance and Administration Peter L. DeLuca put it, “He was a good and very wise man — a good pastor, a good priest, and a dear friend.”
Msgr. Parnassus’ funeral Mass took place, of course, at St. Victor’s Church, where an overflow crowd, including some 50 priests and 4 bishops, came to pay their respects. “We continue to pray for Msgr. Parnassus and give thanks to God for his life and his ministry among us,” said the Most Rev. José H. Gomez, Archbishop of Los Angeles. “Let’s ask for his intercession, that we will have many more such good, faithful, and dedicated priests.”
Posted: August 28, 2013