Devout Parishioner Stands Up to Catholic Church : Monterey Park: Eddie Ramirez is leading a fight against plans to turn his parish into a center for evangelical outreach to the Chinese community.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Each morning, Eddie Ramirez slides a well-worn holy card into the left pocket of his shirt, snugly over his heart.

The card depicts El Santo Nino de Atocha, the Mexican Child Jesus, whom Ramirez credits with saving his life when as a teen-ager he was given six months to live.

Now 72, Ramirez isn't shy about whom to thank for his recovery from tuberculosis or the success that once seemed elusive to the son of immigrant cannery workers. Phrases such as "Praise Jesus" and "Thank the Lord" issue from him in loud, continual exclamations. In his dining room stands a makeshift altar complete with Bible, rosary and lighted candles.

Just about everyone who knows him, including his pastor at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Monterey Park, thought until recently that Ramirez would have sooner missed Sunday Mass than challenge the church.

But Ramirez has metamorphosed from pious parishioner to strident critic. He led the fight against the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles' plans to turn his parish into a center for evangelical outreach to the Chinese community--and wrung apologies and concessions from church leadership that at first flatly refused to change its mind.

Latinos, who dominate the membership at St. Thomas Aquinas, saw the outreach plan as an effort to take their church away from them, despite vows to the contrary by the archdiocese.

The Latino parishioners were especially concerned because the plans called for transferring Father Brian Cavanagh, the one priest who spoke some Spanish, to bring in two Chinese-speaking priests.

"We're fighting this takeover," Ramirez said. "It makes us feel that we're not important, that we've been denied representation as Spanish-speaking people."

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Ramirez is still fighting, despite several compromises made by Cardinal Roger Mahony during a surprise visit to St. Thomas Aquinas: Cavanagh would stay on temporarily, the cardinal said, and parishioners would be involved in the outreach plan.

After Mahony's visit, some opponents pledged to work with the new priests.

Not Ramirez. That Sunday, he walked up to Mahony and called him a Pharisee, invoking a Biblical parable about hypocrites.

"Jesus is on our side, and the Cardinal is not being righteous," Ramirez said one morning last week, sipping coffee in his home. "This is only buying more time, and it's a lot of rhetoric. I don't see anything of substance."

he archdiocese has had equally harsh words for Ramirez, whom it accuses of inflaming passions and spreading rumors.

"The reading I get is that most of the parishioners are quite happy," said Father Gregory Coiro, director of public affairs for the archdiocese. "But there is this core group with Eddie Ramirez as their spokesman who are determined to get their own way."

After a meeting with Mahony, Ramirez softened his words. He won't stop fighting for his people's rights, he said, but he will watch to see what the church has in mind.

Ramirez's fight against the archdiocese isn't as out of character as it might seem for a devout Catholic. In 1970, long before affirmative action became a household phrase, Ramirez ran for governor in the Democratic primary against Jesse Unruh, who lost to Ronald Reagan in the general election. Although Ramirez knew he would not win, he entered the election to draw attention to the plight of Latinos, whom he believed were not adequately represented in politics.

Standing 6-foot-1, with blue eyes and brown hair combed straight back, Ramirez cuts a striking figure.

"He has charisma, he can convince and motivate people," said Monty Villajin, a fellow parishioner at St. Thomas Aquinas. "We really appreciate what he did for us."

Ramirez is used to beating back obstacles to achieve his goals.

Born in Sacramento to Mexican immigrants who worked in canneries, Ramirez was the only one of 11 siblings to receive a formal education. When the family moved to Los Angeles, Ramirez enrolled at Roosevelt High School, where he read so fast that teachers sent him to the library during reading lessons so he could plunge ahead on his own.

Ramirez said he was one of about five Latinos to enroll at UCLA in 1940. Always good in math and science, he decided to become a pharmacist. To make ends meet, he sold fruits and vegetables door-to-door in East Los Angeles, lugging wooden crates filled with produce.

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In 1943, he developed tuberculosis and was sent to a Sylmar sanitarium, where doctors saw abscesses the size of silver dollars on each lung and gave him six months to live.

But "our heavenly father had other plans for me," Ramirez said. His pious mother brought him a novena of the Santo Nino de Atocha, the Child Jesus. He said the prayers for nine days and sensed the tide turning.

"I felt the presence of Jesus," Ramirez recalled. "I cried like a baby. I knew I was going to get well." Six months later the doctors told him his lungs were completely healed.

A few years later he tried to return to college--this time USC--to finish his degree. When he was told there was no room for new students because the GIs returning from World War II had priority, Ramirez went back to his car and cried.

God spoke to him again, he said, as always at pivotal moments throughout his life: "The Lord lightened me up. He said, 'You're not a new student, you're a re-entering student.' "

Ramirez got out of his car, marched to the front of the line and told the clerk he was a re-entering student. He got priority over the GIs.

After earning his degree in 1951, Ramirez worked for others for two years, then decided to buy the drugstore where he had shined shoes as a child. He married a friend of his sister. He and his wife, Delores, have six sons and a daughter. All but one work as health professionals--doctors, nurses, pharmacists. The youngest studies creative writing at USC.

In 1962, the family moved to a newly built home on a Monterey Park bluff. It was mainly white and Latino then; today most of their neighbors are Chinese.

Ramirez said Catholic clerics often visited his Boyle Heights pharmacy for free medicine, including the nuns from St. Vibiana parish Downtown, where Cardinal Mahony lives.

"I would tell my staff, 'Don't you charge my nuns,' " Ramirez recalled. "We took care of the priests for a long time too, but now they have insurance."

State Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles) remembers the Ramirez pharmacy as the hub of neighborhood life. "It was the place where people would congregate and talk," Torres said. "He really had his finger on the pulse of what was going on."

Torres, whose friendship with Ramirez goes back decades, called the pharmacist "a man of conscience, of deep faith and compassion" and said he is not surprised at Ramirez's full-bore attack on the archdiocese.

"When he feels there's a problem to be remedied, he seeks a solution to it," Torres said. "I have always admired that of him; he is an inspiration to young people to never give up a fight."

Ramirez's activities in Democratic politics go way back. In 1949, he campaigned for Edward R. Roybal, the first Latino elected in this century to serve on the Los Angeles City Council and later the House of Representatives.

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At the time, ignorance about Mexican Americans ran so high that another councilman reportedly introduced Roybal as "our new Mexican councilman who also speaks Mexican."

Ramirez helped rally the Latino vote for President Lyndon B. Johnson's 1964 election campaign and was rewarded with an invitation to the LBJ ranch, where he met Johnson and shook hands with the president of Mexico.

Four years later, Ramirez ran for Congress. Then in 1970 came his run for governor.

"Mexican Americans will no longer sit silently and idly by while being bypassed by calculating and manipulating politicians," Ramirez told a local newspaper that year.

In campaign speeches, he railed against the gerrymandering of political districts that split the Latino vote among Los Angeles County districts and diluted their political power.

Ramirez now jokes ruefully that he was 20 years too early. In 1990, a U.S. District Court judge ruled that Los Angeles County supervisors had discriminated against the county's 3 million Latinos in drawing district boundaries that fragmented Latino neighborhoods. Redrawn boundaries created a new, predominantly Latino 1st District.

Last year, Ramirez nearly died from a hematoma of the lumbar plexus that put him in a wheelchair until he could learn to walk again. But his usual willpower and belief in God pulled him through.

"You resign yourself, you say, 'Jesus, I love you, I'm ready,' but it wasn't my time yet. The Lord had something else for me to do. And now I know what it is," Ramirez said.

Ramirez said that during his recovery, Father Cavanagh visited him at least three times a week at home. The two grew closer, but Cavanagh never dreamed that Ramirez would one day rise up against the archdiocese.

"He was never a rabble-rouser," Cavanagh said this week. "He'd be the last one you'd think would do that. Eddie has always had a reputation for being an ultra-religious man.

"The only outspoken thing he had was religious language . . . People joked that he was trying to take the priest's job away, using all those religious metaphors."

The church's announcement about its plans for Chinese outreach brought Ramirez's dormant rabble-rousing instincts back to the fore. Close to 75% of the church's 1,200 families are Latino; about 20 families are Chinese American.

Yet, Latinos and several Asian Americans complained, the church was transferring a beloved priest who could minister to members in Spanish and erecting a Chinese Community Center on the church grounds that few in the congregation would use.

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The church reassured the parish that all Latino-oriented ministries, such as a Spanish Mass and Spanish prayer groups, would continue and that the move was meant to add to the parish, not push Latinos away. One of the new priests also speaks a little Spanish, the archdiocese said.

Ramirez emerged almost overnight as leader of the parish unity group protesting the changes, even though he had little experience in church politics and had only recently joined the parish council, a group of lay people who advise the pastor on issues that concern the congregation.

"We didn't sit down and vote him into office; it just came out that way," said Alfred Valdez, a parishioner who has long been active in church affairs. "He's a very devoted man. He's the most outspoken of all of us and has very good experience in how to get through to the media."

As Ramirez continues to wage his fight, his phone rings all day long and he switches fluidly from English to Spanish as he updates parishioners on the effort to thwart the archdiocese's plans. Most evenings are spent in prayer meetings or strategy sessions.

In CNN sound bites, Ramirez argued in his forceful, staccato style that it was ridiculous to remove a priest who could say Mass, preach and minister to the people in Spanish.

He helped organize demonstrations in which hundreds of angry congregants marched in front of St. Vibiana Cathedral, carrying signs that read: "Why our parish, we want answers" and "How much will it cost to buy our church back?"

He framed the issue in political terms, accusing the church of bullying Latinos because it believed they wouldn't dare challenge the authority of their religious leaders. He said archdiocese attempts to reach out to the Chinese were having the opposite effect, as several prominent Chinese American parishioners vowed to leave the church over the issue.

Protesters did their best to illustrate that St. Thomas Aquinas was already a multicultural church, where people of Filipino, Mexican, Chinese and Italian heritage worshiped.

At first, the archdiocese stood firm, saying the church was not a democracy and the outreach plan was needed. But the controversy refused to die; it reached ever higher as local politicians, including Chinese Americans, offered support. In the past six weeks, Ramirez said his group has bombarded Mahony's office with 500 letters and hundreds of phone calls.

Mahony, during his surprise visit to St. Thomas Aquinas earlier this month, apologized for not bringing parishioners into the decision-making process.

In a letter read in English, Spanish and Chinese, the archdiocese agreed to back off its initial plan and create a planning committee to be chaired by Bishop Gabino Zavala, the new regional bishop for the San Gabriel Valley. Zavala will appoint nine parishioners--three Latinos, three whites and three Chinese Americans--to plan outreach to the Chinese community.

Cavanagh will stay on as co-pastor until June 30.

Ramirez, however, wants a Spanish-speaking priest full time at St. Thomas Aquinas instead of a priest who visits each Sunday for Spanish Mass. Ironically, Ramirez now wants someone fluent in Spanish, unlike Cavanagh, who can minister to Latinos in their own language but considers himself far from fluent.

And he wants to make sure any community center built on the church grounds would be open to all parishioners.

The man who took on the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and won at least a partial victory has no doubts he will succeed. Failure is not a word that exists in his vocabulary. And besides, he says, the Lord is on his side.

"I have never felt we were going to lose," Ramirez said. "I've always felt, I'm going to do this and I'm going to give it my best shot."

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