The story goes that in 2011, a holy man saved the “Gathering of the Tribes” longboard contest at Trestles beach.
The day was cloudy and breezy, the waves small. Then, an elderly man in a robe and sandals stepped onto the beach.
“He blesses the waves, and the sun pops through the clouds,” says surfing legend Chuck Linnen, 76, of Huntington Beach, Calif. “And then the waves come up.”
People looked at each other like: Who is this guy?
It’s a question often asked about the Rev. Christian Mondor — a Franciscan friar and Catholic priest at Sts. Simon & Jude Parish in Huntington Beach. Not because of miracles, but because of his accepting, nonjudgmental and, some say, enlightened ways.
“How many 87-year-old Catholic priests do you know who play banjo and surf?” asks the Rev. Peggy Price, a minister at the Center for Spiritual Living in Seal Beach, Calif.
You might also ask: How many 87-year-old Catholic priests call God “the Great Kahuna?”
Or pray in public for “righteous and tubular” waves?
Or sing songs like this on banjo: “Sometimes I have an old whiskey and I fall asleep in my chair, and I dream that I’m a man much younger than I am.”
The answer is, one.
Which is why word recently spread of a surprise honor for this man.
The surfing priest of Surf City.
Mondor was born in Hollywood in the Roaring ’20s. When the family got too big, Dad sold their Clinton Street home to a vaudeville couple desperate to get their daughter into the movies.
“She eventually landed the lead role in ‘The Wizard of Oz’ — Judy Garland,” Mondor says.
The Mondors moved to Westwood where two influences altered the course of young Richard’s life.
One was the ocean, where he bodysurfed every day of the summer. The other was St. Paul the Apostle Church, where he biked each Sunday to hear the sermons of a charismatic young priest favored by celebrities like Bing Crosby and Loretta Young.
“Father Fitzgerald was my idol,“ says Mondor, who became an altar boy, “and one of the reasons I became a priest.”
The influence was so strong that by ninth grade, Mondor was attending the Los Angeles Day Seminary, and by 10th grade, he’d joined a Franciscan monastery in Santa Barbara.
It was a few years later, while teaching at St. Francis Boarding Seminary in Oregon that he discovered another life-altering influence (get ready for this):
It was 1962. The nation was astir with civil rights, rebellion and a new social consciousness. Folk music gave it voice.
Mondor wanted to get his students involved.
“I thought, ‘Wow, I’ve got a banjo at home.’ So I asked the kids, ‘Anyone know how to play guitar?’ ”
No. But that hardly mattered. Soon, he had a folk band with three guitars, a bass and banjo, which he learned to play in the barn, “so I wouldn’t drive people crazy.”
It started as fun, but they got better and better. They played in downtown Portland, Ore., won music competitions in Vancouver, Wash., and cut a record that got radio play.
He named them the Troubadours of St. Francis — after the founder of his order.
On his 70th birthday, Mondor bought himself a gift — a $100 surfboard.
“I thought, my gosh, I’m in Surf City, I’ve got to learn how to ride a board.”
Like his experience with the banjo, he took to it right away, loving the thrill of the sport and its innate spirituality.
“Water is a powerful symbol of life,” he says. “We know life originated in the water millions of years ago. We cannot live without water. And Jesus chose water as a symbol of life that would come from baptism.”
He began surfing Bolsa Chica, then San Onofre, with parishioners. He had his share of scares, wipeouts and getting hit by the board.
“One of the first things you learn surfing is to respect the power of the ocean,“ he says. “But it can be very contemplative. When you’re out alone, between waves, you experience a beautiful calm. [At least] I do.”
When he speaks of the tranquility, the pelicans swooping low, the dolphins rising high, he almost sounds like St. Francis, who so rejoiced in all of God’s creatures and nature that he now is called the Patron Saint of the Environment.
“I know a lot of surfers,” Mondor says. “This is their way of praying. They don’t come to church, but they’re out on the sea thanking God for the great gift of the ocean.”
Over the years, word spread that there was an 80-year-old priest who didn’t criticize you for skipping church. Who didn’t act offended if a bad word slipped from your mouth. Who didn’t mind if you simply called him “Mondor.”
By 2008, the Diocese of Orange heard about all this and asked to have a word with this surfing priest of Surf City.
The Diocese wanted him to try a bold experiment, called “The Blessing of the Waves.”
It was a way to reach out to those who surf, swim and love the ocean. It started small, but over the past five years, it has gained international press and now attracts more than 2,000 people each October, with leaders of several faiths giving prayers and blessings.
“There’s a sense of fun and a sense of joy that comes through,” Mondor says.
That much is obvious in his own prayer, which gives thanks for the smallest-to-largest creatures in the ocean before adding: “But keep the great whites [sharks] always in their space and not ours.”
For all this, the Diocese recently gathered several friends to present Mondor with a hand-shaped ceremonial surfboard. As thanks.
Newly installed Bishop Kevin W. Vann wrote a letter of thanks — promising to attend next year’s event. And Huntington Beach City Councilor Joe Carchio said: “Father Christian is probably more important to the city than [professional surfer] Kelly Slater. ... You are someone we look up to for inspiration.”
Back in his office, where the new surfboard will hang (along with three banjos, a rack of swimming medals and a July 4th Grand Marshal award) Christian plays banjo and finishes singing “Old Bones:”
“But I love life, I’d like to live it again, though I might not be much more than I’ve ever been.”
And it becomes clear that while he’s been honored for leading The Blessing of the Waves for five years, his real accomplishment has been to teach a community how to live, how embrace life like a gentle rebel.
Not with judgment, but with joy.