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Leader in Immigrant Aid : New Vicar to O.C. Latinos Is Named

Times Staff Writers

A bilingual Mexican-American priest from Stanton, who has headed the Catholic Church’s efforts to help immigrants in Orange County, was named Friday to minister to Orange County’s burgeoning Latino population.

Father Jaime Soto was appointed by Bishop Norman F. McFarland to be “episcopal vicar of the Hispanic community,” a position that oversees the concerns of an estimated 300,000 to 400,000 Latinos who are Roman Catholics--about half of the Catholics in Orange County.

Soto, who grew up in Stanton, is especially attuned to the needs and concerns of Orange County’s Latinos, McFarland said. His familiarity with the county is a “great advantage,” the bishop said.

Soto’s appointment apparently was a popular one among priests in the Latino community. When he was looking to fill the vicar’s position, McFarland said he took a straw poll. “Father Jaime Soto was by far the name mentioned most often,” he said.

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Lay members of the church also praised the new vicar, one saying he was “ecstatic” over the appointment.

“Jaime is one of the most compassionate priests I’ve ever met, and I’m in the compassion business,” said Jonathan Parfrey, a member of the Catholic Worker Community which helps the Santa Ana homeless, about 60% of whom are Latino.

Soto, who currently serves as associate director of Catholic Charities of Orange County, the church’s social services agency, will direct the Office for Hispanic Ministry beginning May 1. He succeeds Archbishop Tomas Clavel, who died Oct. 13.

Some leaders in the Orange County Latino community had criticized the diocese for moving slowly to meet the needs of the county’s growing Latino Catholic population and have complained that the Office of Hispanic Affairs has been ineffective. They want the new vicar to take a more active role in the diocese, Amin David, president of Los Amigos of Orange County, a Latino business and civic organization said before Soto’s appointment.

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But David hailed McFarland’s decision on Friday.

“It pleases us very much that Father Soto was named as the vicar,” David said. As chairman of the Orange County Coalition for Immigrant Rights, Soto “brought a lot of class and dignity to the pronouncements we needed to make about the legitimate presence of the Latinos here,” particularly regarding the Immigration and Naturalization Service raid into La Purisima Church in Orange last September, he said.

“He’s always spoken of the church’s obligation to serve the immigrant.”

At a news conference Friday, the new vicar said that while he is well-versed in the needs of immigrants, he also is concerned about the issues of education, family, drugs and day laborers.

Soto, in particular, said he would like to fight the efforts of cities which, when providing day laborers a place to congregate, distinguish between those with, and without, legal residence papers.

Such a distinction, Soto said, extends “too far” the law requiring that employers hire legal residents. It also offends him on a deeper level, he added.

“It’s immoral to make the simple desire to work a crime,” Soto said.

Soto said one of his first actions as vicar will be to convene a committee made up of laity and clergy to advise him on the needs of Latinos and to “develop a pastoral plan” to address those concerns, he said. Eventually, he said, he would like to see such a committee become a formal advisory group to the diocese.

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As episcopal vicar, Soto has the authority of a bishop over a particular group. The term is derived from episcopus , Latin for bishop, and is among the titles included in the church’s new Code of Canon Law, the law of the church, said Father Lawrence Baird, the diocese’s director of communications.

Latinos account for about a fifth of Orange County’s population and about half the Catholics, diocese officials said. Catholics registered with parishes number about 500,000, but unregistered members of the faith make the number rise to an estimated 700,000, McFarland said.

Soto was variously described Friday as a man of the people and as an intellectual who can seem aloof.

“He isn’t the type who wants people to kiss his ring. He isn’t aloof. He’s extremely good with people,” said Parfrey of the Catholic Worker Community.

As a priest in the tough neighborhood surrounding his parish in the Delhi area of Santa Ana, Soto made friends easily, Parfrey said. He is also a feminist who once made peace among dissenters at a religious feminist convention, he said.

“He’s sensitive to the group he’s supposed to be the shepherd to. He would be an excellent vicar and beyond that an excellent bishop.”

Parfrey said some Latinos in the diocese were happy not just that Soto had been named, but that the post had been filled at all. “This is one of the best things I’ve ever heard in the diocese. I’m ecstatic.”

Los Amigos’ president David said that Soto is a scholar who can appear distant and is not regarded as an activist. “But he’s warm and genuine. You can get close to the individual.”

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Soto also represents a “new wave of progressive thinking,” David said. “We rest confident he will pick up the call to do the job thoroughly and not hastily.”

Specifically, Soto will be challenged by parishes in Santa Ana and Anaheim, where congregations have been shifting from Anglo to Latino. “The fear of strangers in our churches, as well as in our cities, will be lessened by the likes of Father Soto,” David said.

Soto said he sees a need to increase the number of Spanish Masses offered throughout the county. Currently, 66 Masses--out of a total of 300--are said in Spanish at 28 churches, he said.

His church, Our Lady of Guadalupe (Delhi) in Santa Ana, is one of those and is filled beyond capacity every Sunday, he said.

“I think there is going to be a need to expand the celebration of the Eucharist (in Spanish) even more,” Soto said.

Forty of the 235 priests in the diocese are involved in the Office of Hispanic Ministry, he said, adding that while about 20 of them are Latino, only three of them are of Mexican descent--the predominant ancestry of the county’s Latino parishioners.

As associate director of Catholic Charities, Soto headed the immigration and citizenship services, which assist immigrants apply for legal residence.

“While I regret having to leave behind the work of administering that part of the agency, I look forward to continuing as an advocate for immigrants and refugees in my position as vicar,” Soto said in a statement issued in both English and Spanish. “I know that my association with Catholic Charities will continue as, together, we persist in our commitment to be present among those who are poor and marginalized in our county.”

Soto’s work with Catholic Charities actually made McFarland hesitate before naming him vicar, the bishop said.

“His leaving Catholic Charities is going to create a void,” McFarland said, adding that his departure was a “serious consideration” before Soto was selected. However, he will be able to continue (working on behalf of the immigrants) in his new job.”

The bishop said he was unaware of any dissatisfaction over the delay in naming a vicar.

He spoke of Clavel’s death as “a great loss” that affected him personally and left the diocese without the archbishop’s service. “He was indefatigable in his love for people,” the bishop said of Clavel.

FATHER SOTO AND HIS DIOCESE AT A GLANCE

FATHER JAIME SOTO

New episcopal vicar for the Hispanic community for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange.

Born Dec. 31, 1955, at Daniel Freeman Hospital in Inglewood.

Raised in Stanton (his parents still live there).

Attended St. Polycarp Catholic Church, Stanton.

Graduated from Mater Dei High School, Santa Ana.

Studied at St. John’s Seminary, Camarillo.

Ordained in 1982.

First assigned to St. Joseph Catholic Church, Santa Ana, as a parish priest.

Attended Columbia University from 1984 to 1986. Received a master’s degree in social work.

Became associate director of Catholic Charities in July, 1986. Soto is currently with the parish of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church (Delhi), Santa Ana.

LATINOS IN THE CATHOLIC CHURCH:

There are 500,000 registered Catholics in the diocese--half of whom are Latino--and an estimated 200,000 more who are unregistered with parishes, according to Bishop Norman F. Mc Farland. Latinos account for about one-fifth of Orange County’s population.

The diocese has 235 priests, 40 of whom are involved in Latino ministry. About 20 of them are Latino. Only three are actually of Mexican descent.

28 parishes offer a total of 66 Masses (out of 300 in the diocese) in Spanish.

Source: Diocese of Orange.


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