Catholic San Francisco


Nancy Porteous-Thomas

Deacon Rusty Duffey of Lady of Refuge Mission in La Honda on the San Mateo County coast distributes St. Christropher medal at the Blessing of the Motorcycles May 21.

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Harleys and holy water: rural church’s Blessing of Motorcycles
May 24th, 2011
By Dana Perrigan

Nearly every Sunday during Mass at Our Lady of Refuge Mission in La Honda on the San Mateo County coast, the quiet sanctity of the liturgy is pierced by a siren’s shrill wail -- a serious accident, usually involving a motorcycle, has taken place on one of the winding roads that snake their way through the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Every weekend, the miles of smooth asphalt with twisty turns and scenic backdrops lure hundreds of Bay Area motorcyclists. While some are content with cruising along and enjoying the sights, others are intent on practicing their racing skills on the tight corners.

At the end of the day, not all of them make it home.

“I was hit myself a couple of weeks ago,” says Deacon John McGhee. “A woman was coming around a curve and didn’t make it. She jumped off and the bike hit my car.”

While neither was injured, the accident served as yet another reminder of something Deacon McGhee -- assigned to Our Lady of Refuge since his ordination 16 years ago --and his friend, Deacon Rusty Duffey, had been talking about for years: an annual Blessing of Motorcycles in La Honda.

Last Saturday, May 21, the years of talk bore fruit. Wearing stoles made for the occasion by a parishioner that bore the image of a motorcycle, the two deacons launched into a special blessing extolling the beauty, as well as the responsibilities, of the sport.

The weather went along for the ride. The coastal fog that had enveloped the forest-like setting of La Honda the day before cleared into a bright blue spring afternoon. A gentle breeze moved through groves of pine.

While phone calls had been made to some Bay Area motorcycle groups, and flyers announcing the blessing had been placed at popular biker hangouts, the turnout was low. Only four bikes and their riders showed up for the blessing and St. Christopher medals.

Dan Cissell and Sandee Lehner, both from nearby Skyline, rode up on their Harleys. Mark McGhee, Deacon McGhee’s son, arrived from Pescadero on his Kawasaki. Parishioner Joel Mansfield, who rode from his home in San Francisco to take part in the event, showed up on his 1998 Honda Valkyrie.

Parishioners Shella Bordi and Elizabeth Hardy didn’t have motorcycles, but they were there to help with the event.

Undaunted by the low turnout, and perhaps mindful of what 12 men had begun a couple of thousand years ago, Deacon McGhee stood before the small group of bikers and parishioners and signaled the beginning of the ritual.

It began with a song, “The Lord is My Shepherd,” performed by Mansfield Family Music, which sang several other tunes during the blessing.

After delivering the blessing and leading the assembly in petitions of prayer, Deacon McGhee walked slowly down the steps of the 125-year-old Our Lady of Refuge church and sprinkled holy water on the four motorcycles, as well as those in attendance.

“We bless the fleet, we bless animals, and we always do car blessings,” says Deacon Duffey, “so we figured -- why not motorcycles? We put the word out, and we hoped.”

Assigned to St. Robert’s in San Bruno after being ordained in 1990, Deacon Duffey met Deacon McGhee when he was asked to interview him as a possible candidate for the archdiocese’s diaconate program.

“They were going to close the church (Our Lady of Refuge),” says Deacon McGhee, now 86, “and I thought that if I became a deacon maybe they wouldn’t close the church. I became a deacon and they didn’t close the church.”

Before he became a deacon, he was a parishioner who was heavily involved at Our Lady of Refuge -- a mission church attached to Our Lady of the Pillar in Half Moon Bay -- for 24 years.

“We call it the scrounge church,” says Deacon McGhee, gesturing toward the altar of Our Lady of Refuge, “because just about everything in it was scrounged from somewhere else.”

The cross is from Our Lady of the Pillar. The pews are from St. Cecilia’s. The altar was a gift from the Dominican Sisters.

Presently, the congregation consists of about 35 parishioners. On holy days, about 100 people attend Mass at the church.

Outside the church, Joel Mansfield turned hot dog links on the barbecue. A retired police officer with the city of Berkeley, Mansfield met his wife, Angela, while working as a lifeguard at the public swimming pool in La Honda in 1970. Although they now live in San Francisco, they have remained supportive of Our Lady of Refuge throughout their marriage. Along with their son, John, a student at UC-Berkeley, they formed Mansfield Family Music, a family trio which also performs at Church of the Epiphany in San Francisco.

Sitting on a bench across from where Mansfield cooks hot dogs, Deacon Duffey sips a soft drink.

“Maybe next year I’ll tweet,” he jokes. “Maybe we’ll have a better turnout.”


From the May 27, 2011 issue of Catholic San Francisco.


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