By Raymond R. Beltran
When Gilberto E. Chavez was ordained auxiliary bishop in 1974, there weren’t many priests of Mexican descent who were placed in roles of leadership in the U.S.
In fact, he was only the second, following Aux. Bishop Paul Flores in San Antonio, Texas.
Chavez is now retiring, effective Thursday, May 31, and Latino Catholics who’ve built a kinship with him say there will be a ‘black hole’ in his absence for a spiritual community where he leaves behind an imprint of social justice.
“He has stolen our hearts,” says Gabriela Ginese, former president of the Guadalupana Confederation, a Catholic group that organized a 650-person farewell gala for the bishop this past Sunday. “He is a man full of love, and strong will, and generosity for those in need.”
Chavez is a former priest who long ago found himself swept up in the midst of the Chicano Movement and spent a ‘Day of Terror’ in Ecuador after the military overthrow of President Isabel Martinez de Peron.
Originally from Ontario, California, Chavez was the second oldest of five siblings, one sister and four brothers, born to Ramona Espinoza Chavez, a Zacatecas native, and Margarito Chavez, also from Mexico.
His parents owned a produce store in the midst of vegetable fields, highly populated by Italian immigrants, he remembers. The families there hadn’t much, but they were dedicated to their families and faith, examples that he says helped shape his spiritual path.
“My Aunt Ramona was also one of the most Catholic people I ever met,” says Henrietta Luna, a close cousin of the bishop. “We all followed her.”
Luna remembers the young Gilberto as a great singer, a Mexican food fanatic, a great checker player and a ‘travieso’ when he was a child.
“When we’d go to his house, he’d throw cold water on us when we’d open the door to his house,” Luna remembers, laughing. “We’d run away and then come through the back door and then he’d be waiting for us with a bucket of warm water.”
At seventeen, the future priest lost his father and ten year old brother, Ramon, in a horrific train accident while on their way to the family’s store. The Lunas took control of the business for two years, and Chavez was off to college.
“We still call him Gilbert,” Luna says. “Except when we’re in public. We respect him in public, but he’s very down to earth.”
Before becoming auxiliary bishop, Chavez spent much of his time building relationships with various Mexican communities surrounding this county. He was a chaplain in California’s Drug and Rehabilitation Center in Norco throughout the sixties, leading into a pastor position at St. Anne’s Church in San Ysidro.
He became involved with the Guadalupanas Confederation, and as the Chicano Movement began to gain momentum politically, many felt it was time to kick open the church doors and ask why 52 percent of the Mexican congregation weren’t represented in the clergy’s hierarchy.
Priests like Victor Saladini (dubbed The Tortilla Priest for replacing wafers with tortillas during communion) and Juan Hurtado, who pushed for more bilingual ministry, were among those to initiate church activism with their deeds.
Committee on Chicano Rights organizer, Herman Baca, remembers, “there were three institutions you didn’t question in those days, the military … the Democratic Party … and the church.”
He remembers a radically progressive religious group, Católicos Por La Raza, protesting inside the churches of San Bernadino as the impetus of what sparked much of San Diego’s future Chicano Power politics influencing the fabric of church order.
“I remember reading about them, then asking myself, ‘what are these guys on peyote or something?’” Baca laughs. “Then, I read what they were saying and I said to myself, ‘how come I’m not there?’”
Mexican Americans began to picket in San Diego. They wanted more social programs, educational needs, bilingual clergy and more representation in an institution where they made up fifty-two percent of the population.
But the church didn’t just feel pressure from Chicanos. Christians and Protestant Evangelicals began to compete with the Catholic Church for the exponentially growing Mexican community, providing orphanages for undocumented migrant’s children and bilingual classes for their pastors.
“One clergyman estimated that more than ninety percent of the Spanish speaking residents converted to Protestant faiths had been baptized by the Catholic Church,” reads a late 1970s San Diego Union article called ‘Hispanics Sought by Protestants’.
Daniel L. Muñoz, who created a newsletter called Tezozomoc Speaks (which later became La Prensa San Diego) took notice of Rev. Gilberto Chavez for his activism with PADRE, a national Chicano priest movement that demanded more leadership roles for Latino clergy. Baca took notice of Chavez when he led mass in honor of arrested unionizer, the late César Estrada Chávez who struggled for farmworkers’ rights.
Meetings began to take place at Padre Hidalgo Center to find ways to integrate the Mexican American clergy into the leadership of the church.
“One of the things I noticed is that we had no center of attraction for our people,” says Muñoz, who had just returned as a WWII veteran in the Navy, “something in the church that reflected our attitude.”
As attempts to gain significance in the hierarchy failed, protests became louder at USD and Our Lady of Guada-lupe in Logan Heights. The appointment of the third bishop of San Diego, Leo T. Maher, in 1969 was a symbol of silencing efforts made, and as Muñoz and Baca remember, they weren’t among the favorites in the pews for their outspokenness.
The struggle to court the Mexican community, which is remembered as reaching a population of hundreds of thousands locally, was progressing and Southern Baptists, Jehova’s Witnesses, Methodists and Seventh Day Adventists began to capitalize on the efforts to convert Spanish speaking followers.
The diocese suddenly took notice of the two year long absence of an auxiliary bishop in San Diego, which was last vacated by Rev. John R. Quinn who went on to become Bishop Quinn in Oklahoma. Ultimately, on a Friday evening in mid April, 1974, in the Golden Hall of the Convention and Performing Arts Center, Bishop Maher, under the ordinance of Pope Paul VI and in front of 4,000 spectators, ordained the second Mexican American auxiliary bishop in the U.S., Rev. Gilberto E. Chavez … in English, and then in Spanish.
“He did what he could within his constraints of the church,” Muñoz says. “He was an honorable man.”
A restructuring of the church for Mexican people didn’t follow, but on a local level, Bishop Chavez has left a legacy that exhibits what the church could be for the Mexican community in need of services. Padre Hidalgo Center was ultimately named, by Maher, a place of worship for Mexican people.
Chavez went on to head a committee for Spanish speaking people, serving as vicar for Latinos in the diocese.
After being declined years later a bishop position in San Bernadino (taken by a protested Rev. Philip Straling), where he was backed by César Chávez and Armando Navarro, he humbly remained under Maher and has been quoted to say, “my preoccupation and distress is the Hispanic situation in the dioceses of San Diego and San Bernardino ... We know that only a continuous endeavor to be Christ-like will help us to overcome these difficulties.”
He went on to organize bilingual seminaries to engage more Latino priests into the clergy to continue the social services that had been created before and under him, like Padre Hidalgo and PADRE.
Throughout the seventies, the local diocese continued to defend itself against accusations that it did little to promote issues of social justice in the Mexican community. ‘Immigrant Day’ was proclaimed on December 17, 1978. The church created its own foster care agency to sponsor children who’d been victims. Maher organized “An Hour in the Barrio” at the health center along National Avenue in Logan Heights, where he’d dialogue at Friday luncheons with the Mexican American Foundation.
Chavez made national headlines in ’76 when he and 37 other bishops were detained by Ecuadoran military while at a third annual Congress of Concerned Bishops of Latin America, a discussion about how the church could better serve people during the highly militarized insurgencies that led to the overthrow of Chile’s Salvador Allende and Ecua-dor’s Isabel Martinez de Peron.
“If the government can arrest archbishops, leading dignitaries of the church as well as bishops, priests and nuns and deny them their human and Christian rights,” he said upon his release, “what then for the people?”
“His retirement will leave a big black hole,” says Baca, who recently worked with the bishop to raise awareness about the sale of Paradise Valley Hospital, which caters to South Bay’s uninsured. “Somewhere down the road all those issues addressed in the seventies will have to be addressed again.”
According to Chancellor Rodrigo Valdivia, there are no plans to replace Chavez any time soon. The diocese ordained Salvatore Cordioleone auxiliary bishop under current Bishop Robert Brom.
“The episcopal duties until this time discharged by Bishop Chavez will need to be taken over by Bishop Robert Brom, or Bishop Salvatore Cordileone,” wrote the chancellor in a letter to La Prensa.
The duties are assisting the bishop with confirmations, liturgies, administration and at his request, representing the diocese at ecclesiastical and civic functions.
During his speech to attendees at his farewell gala this Sunday, he awarded Baca and the Committee on Chicano Rights (CCR), as well as Daniel Muñoz Sr. and La Prensa San Diego, for their involvement in helping the poor.
He was in turn awarded a certificate of appreciation by the CCR for his three decade stance to empower Mexican people in the community.
The Guadalupanas Confederation haven’t gotten word of a replacement, but they hope for some kind of consistency, say organizers.
“For us it would mean a lot to hear news that we are getting another person like Bishop Chavez,” says Ginese of the Guadalupana Confederation, where Chavez was a spritual director to some thirty parishes. “Generosity, humility, kindness … he is always with those in need, very humble.”