Father Luis Olivares, Voice for the Poor, Dies of AIDS


Father Luis Olivares, the defiant Roman Catholic priest who declared his downtown Los Angeles church a sanctuary for Central-American refugees and whose impassioned sermons gave voice to the struggles of undocumented immigrants, has died of complications from AIDS. He was 59.

Olivares died Thursday night at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where he had been hospitalized since Tuesday, church officials said. Olivares left his position as pastor of Our Lady Queen of Angels Church in 1990 after announcing that he had contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion during a visit to El Salvador.

Civil rights activists, religious workers and members of Southern California’s Latino immigrant community reacted with sadness to news of Olivares’ death, calling him a tireless fighter for the poor.


“Father Luis Olivares was the champion of the immigrants and the refugee poor of Southern California,” said Peter Schey, an attorney with the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law. “His ministry served to instill a sense of hope and dignity in the community.”

In a written statement, Cardinal Roger Mahony, archbishop of Los Angeles, said: “I am deeply saddened and share the sense of loss felt at (his) death. . . . He fed the hungry, welcomed and sheltered the homeless and the stranger in our midst, instructed the ignorant and revered the dignity of every human person.”

Born in San Antonio, in 1934 to a family of Mexican immigrants, Olivares joined a Compton seminary at age 13. The church, Olivares said in a 1991 interview, offered one of the few tickets out of poverty then available to Latino youth.

He earned a master’s degree in business administration from Notre Dame University and quickly rose to high administrative posts within the church’s Claretian order. For a time, he developed a taste for expensive clothing and disdained political statements. At one point, he declined to join fellow church workers in a protest against the Vietnam War.

By his own account, his life changed forever after meeting Cesar Chavez, founder of the United Farm Workers union in the early 1970s. Moved by the courage of Latino immigrants who made up most of the UFW’s rank and file, Olivares joined their struggle, walking picket lines and attending the funerals of slain strikers.

He would dedicate the rest of his life to fighting injustice.

“You cannot be witness to the human suffering and not be convinced of the existence of social sin,” Olivares said in a 1986 interview. “We are all responsible unless we take a stand and speak against it.”


Olivares became a leading spiritual force behind the United Neighborhoods Organization, a grass-roots group that fought for low-income housing and other services in Latino communities.

After becoming pastor of Our Lady Queen of Angels Church in 1981, Olivares found war refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala, countries ruled by U.S.-backed military regimes, flocking to his parish.

It didn’t take long for Olivares’ downtown church--known affectionately as La Placita (the little plaza)--to become a hotbed of opposition to U.S. foreign policy in Central America. Olivares spoke out against military aid to El Salvador and opened the church’s doors to those fleeing persecution.

On a winter day in 1985, Olivares took the fateful step of declaring his church a sanctuary for Central-American refugees facing deportation. The tall priest stood in the 200-year-old church, adjacent to Olvera Street and asked hundreds of parishioners to disobey the immigration laws because “the first law is the one of human dignity.”

Hundreds of Central-American families eventually sought refuge at the church, prompting Harold Ezell, then regional commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, to charge in 1986 that Olivares was “promoting lawlessness.”

Olivares soon found himself at the center of growing controversy. Federal officials investigated his church. Mahony and other church leaders questioned his defiant tactics. Local supporters of the Salvadoran government called him a communist. His life was threatened by a self-styled “death squad.” Unperturbed, Olivares kept up his activities.


“For us, Father Luis was always there as a moral force and as a voice of truth,” said Mary Brent Wehrli, executive director of the Southern California Ecumenical Council’s Interfaith Task Force on Central America. “There were those who didn’t want to hear, who didn’t want to believe. That never deterred him.”

Later, Olivares took the sanctuary movement a step further. He proclaimed that all illegal immigrants--not just war refugees--were victims of persecution. He urged all Americans to violate provisions of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which prohibited the hiring of undocumented workers.

“The Lord’s command is clear,” he said at a 1987 news conference. “In the Book of Leviticus, God says, ‘When aliens reside with you in your land . . . you shall treat them no differently than the natives born among you.’

“In the light of the Gospel call to justice,” Olivares said, “we find ourselves unable to comply with the current regulations. . . .”

The Rev. James Lawson, former president of the Los Angeles chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, recalled being arrested with Olivares several times as they joined dozens of others in protests of U.S. foreign policy in El Salvador.

“Luis recognized that a pastor’s task wasn’t just to lead his people in the Mass and worship,” Lawson said. “He was also prepared to lead them in that journey to change their environment and to challenge and to confront their environment when it was unjust.”


Olivares also traveled repeatedly to Central America, to see firsthand the conditions in refugee camps for Salvadorans along the El Salvador-Honduras border. It was during one of these many trips that Olivares, a diabetic, was infected with HIV--the virus that causes AIDS--through the use of improperly sterilized needles.

After becoming stricken with AIDS and leaving La Placita in 1990, Olivares lived in a Claretian retreat in Hancock Park. He became increasingly active in the AIDS awareness campaign, appearing as a grand marshal at an AIDS benefit in East Los Angeles.

“This is all new to me,” Olivares said in December, 1990, as he struggled to cope with the disease. “You try to live out your remaining time doing whatever good you can. That’s what I’m looking for now.”

Central-American activists said they would honor Olivares’ memory by continuing to fight for the causes he championed.

“We will always remember how he fought for peace and social justice for Latinos, Central Americans and especially Salvadorans, in both Los Angeles and El Salvador,” said Oscar Andrade, executive director of El Rescate, a refugee assistance agency. “His example inspires us to go on.”

Olivares is survived by seven brothers and sisters. Funeral services will be held Monday at 1 p.m. at the San Gabriel Mission.