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Latino Catholics in Fillmore Protest Beloved Mexican Priest’s Departure

Times Staff Writer

It was supposed to be a joyous occasion for Catholics of Mexican ancestry, complete with a procession and a re-enactment of the first appearance of Mexico’s patron saint.

But last Sunday’s Virgin of Guadalupe procession drew less than one-third of its customary participants at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Fillmore, and its tone was more somber than celebratory.

Not only did the ensuing Mass fail to depict the customary legend--the appearance of the Virgin Mary to a poor Indian on a Mexican hillside--but Pastor Sylvester O’Byrne delivered the homily in English and made little reference to the figure so revered by Mexicans.

“It pains me that he didn’t say more about the Queen of Mexico,” parishioner Angelina Garivay, 44, later said in Spanish. “This is a big day for the Mexican people. It’s as important to us as Christmas or Easter.”

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For the church’s Latino parishioners, who make up 90% of the church’s 1,000 families, the service typified what they view as a pattern of cultural insensitivity that culminated last month in the dismissal from his parish duties of a Mexican priest who served the church for more than a year.

Spanish-speaking parishioners say that church officials have not satisfactorily explained what the parishioners view as the summary dismissal of the Rev. Ezequiel Mondragon and the officials’ refusal to allow Mondragon to give a farewell Mass.

Mondragon, who is temporarily living at the home of a Fillmore ironworker and his family, has sought to distance himself from the controversy, turning down parishioners’ invitations to pray with them at the church and refusing to make a public statement.

“I love my church that I’ve served for 26 years,” said Mondragon, a slight, easy-going man who does not look his 49 years. “I don’t want to say anything against it.”

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But that has not stopped his followers. On two occasions, crowds of about 400 have gathered to demand an explanation from church officials. A delegation of four parishioners has sought the intercession of Los Angeles Archbishop Roger Mahony.

O’Byrne has denied responsibility for Mondragon’s departure, saying church officials in Mexico had called him back to his country through the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

“It’s quite common for a priest to be assigned (to one church) and then transferred,” O’Byrne said. “In the Protestant church, the priest is hired by the parish, but not in the Catholic Church. We work on the hierarchical system, where the orders come from a higher authority.”

Mondragon was not allowed to give a farewell Mass, O’Byrne said, because he spent 10 days after his dismissal in Mexico as the result of a death in the family. “That would have been the time for him to tidy up his affairs,” O’Byrne said.

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But the explanations do not satisfy some Latino parishioners. When he returned from Mexico 10 days after his Nov. 10 dismissal, Mondragon told supporters that he had received no orders from Mexican church officials, according to parishioner Jennie Garcia, leader of the protesting delegation. And, more than a month later, Mondragon is still in Fillmore.

To demonstrate their displeasure with Mondragon’s treatment, some church members, such as Sonya Becerra, 34, are refusing to submit their customary tithes.

“If Father O’Byrne doesn’t take us into account,” she said, “then we don’t want to support him.”

Eltidia Sanchez, 35, has withdrawn her four daughters from the church’s youth choir. “We feel like we’re not part of the church because they don’t pay attention to us,” she said. “We feel like we’ve been denied our right to find out what happened with Father Mondragon.”

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And Tereso Cardenas, 37, said his family of five has stopped attending the Fillmore church and has been going instead to Catholic churches in Los Angeles and Santa Paula.

“If this happened to one priest, this might happen to another,” he said. “We wouldn’t have any recourse. They don’t take what we feel into account.”

So deeply was Mondragon missed that three times parishioners persuaded him to conduct Mass in a private home.

Mondragon’s departure hit the church hard because he had become a particularly unifying force in the congregation, parishioners said. He worked side by side with parishioners who carved out a park from a vacant lot behind the church. He oversaw the repair of a defunct bus for use in bringing farm laborers without cars to church. And he had a way with the young members of the congregation, alternately joking with them and offering sober advice.

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“We have never had so many altar boys,” said Delores Maynard, 46.

Acts of Kindness

Then there were the little things. Maynard, for instance, cited the attention Mondragon showed her 103-year-old grandmother. Every day, he would administer Communion to her at her home, Maynard said: “Rain or shine, he would be there.”

In addition to such services, Mondragon represented something special to many church members because he was the most effective Mexican priest the church had seen in a long time. Other Mexican priests have come and gone from the Fillmore church, but parishioners say they want a Mexican presence as a fixture, not a visitor.

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“We understand that there’s a shortage of Hispanic priests in the United States and that they have to be transferred to where they’re needed,” Garcia said. “But we’re also a need. We have a big Latino parish and we need someone who can work with us in our culture and understand it.”

A Mexican, they claim, would have paid more heed to the rituals surrounding the Virgin of Guadalupe.

O’Byrne took exception. He said the liturgical calendar called for celebration of the third Sunday of Advent on Dec. 13, not commemoration of the patron saint whose day falls on Dec. 12. “All Sundays of Advent take precedence over the Virgin of Guadalupe,” he said.

O’Byrne also pointed out that a Spanish-speaking priest who has served the congregation in the past has already taken Mondragon’s place. And far from being insensitive to his parish’s needs, the Irish pastor, who speaks with a heavy brogue, said that he was profoundly troubled by the dissension in his church.

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“I’m very disturbed,” he said. “I don’t like to see unrest or unhappiness among the people.”

Officials at the Los Angeles Archdiocese do not comment on specific personnel changes, said the Rev. Joseph Battaglia, archdiocesan spokesman. Generally, however, a priest leaves a post “after consultation with the priest and the pastor and recognizing the needs of the parish and the archdiocese at large.”

“People are always upset when a priest is transferred,” he added. “It’s possible that his services are needed elsewhere. There is a shortage of Latino priests.”

Parishioners acknowledge such a shortage, but wonder what parish could be in greater need than their own.

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“We’re pure Latino,” Garivay said of the congregation.

And while they know and respect Mondragon’s replacement, the Rev. William Appling, they still feel bereft.

“We’re taught to respect and obey, but we feel we’ve been taken advantage of,” said Blanca Ferrer, a leader in the protest. “We had a good, functioning priest who was healthy and willing to do anything to bring people into the parish, and they made him go.”

On Nov. 25, the parish delegation had an audience with Bishop G. Patrick Ziemann in Santa Barbara. Four days later, Ziemann arrived in Fillmore for a previously scheduled meeting to discuss other concerns, and about 400 parishioners came to demand an explanation of Mondragon’s dismissal.

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Investigation Promised

Both Ziemann and another official with whom the delegation has met, Dean Charles O’Gorman of Oxnard’s Santa Clara Church, said they would investigate the matter and contact parishioners, but Garcia said they have not heard from either of them despite repeated phone calls.

Calls placed by The Times to O’Gorman and Ziemann were not returned.

Members of the delegation now hope to arrange a meeting with Mahony, but so far have received no response, Garcia said. They also await a response from Mexican church officials to their letter inquiring whether Mondragon was recalled.

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The dismissal, parishioners said, could not have come at a worse time. Mondragon had already begun meeting with the parish’s Las Guadalupanas club, which raises funds all year for Virgin of Guadalupe Day.

After Mondragon’s dismissal, however, some parents pulled their children out of the church, and plans for a pageant collapsed. The traditional procession, which usually attracts more than 100 participants, was held, but only about 30 showed up.

The protesting parishioners fear that the church’s traditional Christmas celebration of Las Posadas, a reenactment of the Nativity with a candlelight procession, will not be held.

“The season being what it is,” Ferrer said, “all our holiday plans have been scrapped.”

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