After serving as deacon of Sacred Heart Mission for eight years, Arthur M. Hiraga was planning to do missionary work in January at an orphanage in Japan.
The church’s parishioners were going to throw a surprise party on Friday in gratitude for his work in the community. But Hiraga, 74, suffered a heart attack and died Friday, shortly after having Thanksgiving dinner with his family.
Shocked church members and friends who remember Hiraga as friend of the poor and a counselor to widows and widowers are now planning a reception in his honor after a funeral Mass tonight at St. Justin Martyr Church on Ball Road. More than 1,000 people are expected to attend.
In Colonia Independencia, the community where he served, Hiraga was responsible for getting toys for needy children during Christmas, delivering food to the hungry, finding shelter for the homeless, work for the jobless and counseling for the emotionally distraught.
“Art was the behind-the-scenes provider,” said Gloria Lopez, a volunteer at the Anaheim Independencia Community Center, for which Hiraga helped get funding. “Everyone always knew they could ask him for anything, and he never took any credit. He would just say, ‘Dale gracias a Dios (‘Thank the Lord’).”
Hiraga was ordained a permanent deacon in 1975, primarily to serve in the neighborhood parish. But the retired engineer did far more than the liturgical duties expected of him, St. Justin Deacon Raymond Duthoy said.
“Art was a tremendous person,” Duthoy said. “He gave everything he had to the church and always emphasized doing good deeds.”
Hiraga was raised by his mother in Los Angeles and attended Maryknoll Catholic School, where he met his future wife, Mary Uyesato, who was an orphan growing up there.
In 1942, during the anti-Japanese hysteria of early World War II, they were put in the Manzanar internment camp, where the couple married, said Hiraga’s daughter, Madeleine Wakamatsu.
“My parents never expressed any bitterness about the camp,” she said.
A year later, the couple worked on a farm in Iowa, raising chickens and picking fruit.
In 1944, Hiraga entered the U.S. armed forces and served as an intelligence officer at Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s headquarters in Tokyo for two years.
He then moved to Anaheim in 1953, where he bought a chicken farm. Two years later, he sold the farm to developers and bought a home nearby on the west end of the city.
Through the years, the Hiraga family participated in many charitable deeds, including working as missionaries in Bolivia during the late 1960s, where they learned Spanish, said Wakamatsu.
Hiraga shunned the limelight, yet people knew they could count on him for help in times of need. Some showed their appreciation by painting his home about five years ago. One woman cleaned his home every two weeks after Mary Hiraga died four years ago.
The party being planned for him by the community was going to be a celebration of his life, Wakamatsu said.
Instead, Hiraga will be buried Wednesday at 10 a.m. at Holy Sepulcher Cemetery in Orange, next to his wife, and a memorial Mass will be held Friday at Sacred Heart Mission.
Hiraga is survived by his daughters, Madeleine Wakamatsu of Laguna Niguel and Ann Hiraga of Los Alamitos; son Martin of Washington; three brothers and two sisters.
“We consider Art’s death a great loss in this community,” Msgr. Hugh O’Connor said.