After growing up in an Ireland pockmarked with poverty, Father Mike Gleeson said he had always considered it important to speak out on social issues he believed in.
So the pastor of St. Anthony Catholic Church in San Gabriel didn’t hesitate when some parishioners asked him to help fight Wal-Mart’s proposal to build Los Angeles County’s first Supercenter store in neighboring Rosemead.
In a church bulletin, he called the Rosemead City Council’s approval of a Wal-Mart store disgusting and said the retailer was “the greediest corporation on Earth.” He also helped Wal-Mart critics gather signatures for a referendum on the project, including allowing organizers to use the church for a petition drive.
Such outspoken views have divided his parish as well as a nearby church, Mission San Gabriel, where another priest has criticized Wal-Mart. Some parishioners believe that the priests have no business encouraging opposition to the chain store.
“This is not what I go to church for,” said Mary Ellen Dundas, 58, a Mission San Gabriel parishioner, who along with several others has written a letter of complaint to Cardinal Roger M. Mahony. “This is not a moral issue. When I go to church, I go to be uplifted, to get what I need to move on to the next week. I don’t want to hear that I’m a sinner for supporting Wal-Mart.”
The dispute underscores the passions boiling over as the retail giant attempts to expand its presence in Los Angeles County. Wal-Mart has been trying for more than a year to open a Supercenter -- which sells groceries as well as items available at regular Wal-Marts -- in the county. But it has faced strong opposition from unions, community groups and some politicians.
Rosemead officials approved the Supercenter plan two months ago, saying the city needed the tax revenue that Wal-Mart would bring. But critics predict that the store will kill surrounding businesses and depress wages, especially for unionized workers at grocery stores that would be the Supercenter’s main competition.
Rosemead and San Gabriel are middle-class bedroom communities about 10 miles east of downtown Los Angeles where most residents are either Asian American or Latino. The Wal-Mart issue has been the talk of the towns, and St. Anthony and Mission San Gabriel churches are no exceptions.
St. Anthony, an imposing structure with a tall brick tower, is on a stretch of San Gabriel Boulevard marked by small businesses, including Chinese restaurants, dental and medical offices and auto repair shops. Leafy residential areas with tidy yards are just to the west of the church.
A marquee on the front lawn of the church reads in English and Spanish: “Voting Is a Privilege and a Responsibility.”
St. Anthony parishioner Alice Guerrero, 75, said she first approached Gleeson in early summer just as the Wal-Mart controversy was heating up. She and others wanted to gather signatures for a referendum on the project.
“We needed signatures, so I thought, ‘I’ll just ask Father Mike; he’s always helpful.’ He agreed to help,” Guerrero said.
Gleeson, 57, said he simply did what priests often do: assist causes they think have social and moral implications, regardless of whether the outcome is victory or defeat.
“I think in the end it’s important to speak out,” he said. “You just can’t limit yourself by waiting for everyone to agree with you about something. If you did, you would never say anything.”
Years ago, he protested the proliferation of nuclear arms. More recently, he has spoken out against the war in Iraq, including comments in the church’s newsletter.
“I got some flak for it. One person told me to go back to Ireland,” he said with a laugh. “I got several letters, which was fine. I wrote back.”
Gleeson wrote a blistering column in the church newsletter opposing Wal-Mart’s Supercenter plan. He also wrote a letter to the Rosemead City Council saying: “I hope you will not prostitute yourself to Wal-Mart, but instead consider the implications of their suggested entry into Rosemead and the people who elected you.”
The pastor’s tough talk was cheered by Wal-Mart’s opponents. But some who support the project said they were shocked by what he was saying.
Sharon Esquivel, 60, said Gleeson used exceedingly strong language in casting support of Wal-Mart in a bad light when he attended a Rosemead City Council meeting in August.
“I thought he should have taken his collar [off] if he was going to say things like that,” said Esquivel, who is a member of Putting Rosemead in a Desirable Environment, a group that supports bringing the Supercenter to Rosemead.
About the same time, Wal-Mart was also becoming an issue at the Mission San Gabriel church. Father Ralph Berg, 69, said his involvement was more limited than Gleeson’s. He said he promoted registration drives at St. Anthony and made announcements at the end of Mass or through church bulletins encouraging people to support the referendum idea.
“The issue as I saw it was about the City Council making a unanimous decision over the protest of a large number of people,” Berg said. “As a Catholic priest I tried to let people know what their civic responsibility was, to be involved and not just be passive citizens, to hold government accountable.”
To Wal-Mart’s critics, Berg and Gleeson are taking a courageous stand.
“Father Mike did what he did because he was just concerned about his parishioners,” said Bert Ross, 82, a former newspaper printing employee and longtime Rosemead resident. “He was looking out for us.... [Wal-Mart] is anti-union, anti-labor and anti-employee.”
But Lee Ann Dalessio of the Rosemead Chamber of Commerce said she thought the priests crossed a line.
“There’s a division between church and state, and I think it should be kept that way, and this matter has gotten out of hand,” Dalessio said. “What the churches have been doing is a little outlandish as far as I’m concerned.”
Supporters have said Wal-Mart could bring more than $640,000 in annual sales tax receipts to Rosemead, which has not had a major grocery store since the local Ralphs closed earlier this year.
Esquivel and other Wal-Mart supporters decided a few weeks ago to send their letter of complaint to Mahony. She said the letter was written by Mike Lewis, a West Covina-based Wal-Mart consultant, and other members of her community group. A spokesman for the retail giant declined to comment on the dispute.
“It had to be done, because we wanted to let him know what his priests were doing,” Esquivel said. “I just wish we could have our Wal-Mart and that the church would butt out of this.
Tod Tamberg, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Archdiocese, said that while the church neither endorsed nor opposed the priests’ actions, it was typical of priests to get involved in issues they thought had moral implications.
“This is a local issue that’s being dealt [with] at the local level in parishes which are part of the community in that area,” Tamberg said.
“With issues that affect life and human dignity it’s inescapable that they will have a moral component to them, so that the church has not only the right but the duty to speak out.”
Gleeson said that he got a couple of angry phone calls about his opposition to Wal-Mart, but that most parishioners who disagreed with him were civil.
He said that in private conversations, he explained to parishioners that he believed Wal-Mart’s business practices perpetuated poverty.
He said their typical reaction was: “I think Wal-Mart is wonderful, and I just disagree with you, and I don’t see why you object to them.”