A century of serving the disenfranchised


For a century, the fates of Los Angeles, La Placita church and the priests of the Claretian Missionary order who serve there have been inextricably intertwined with provocative politics and courageous acts of faith.

In the 1920s, Father Medardo Brualla fearlessly entered a quarantined area near the church to minister last rites to those dying of the Black Plague and contracted the disease, dying a few days later.

In the 1960s, Father Thomas Matyschok led parishioners to protest bulldozers tearing down their Chavez Ravine homes for Dodger Stadium.

In the 1980s, Father Luis Olivares braved death threats and political censure to declare the church the city’s first sanctuary for undocumented Salvadoran immigrants fleeing civil war.

In the 2000s, Father Richard Estrada helped organize some of the biggest protests in city history, bringing out hundreds of thousands of marchers against legislation aimed at criminalizing illegal immigrants and those who aid them.

And now in 2010, as the Claretians recently celebrated their centennial at La Placita with special Masses, the church remains the touchstone for Roman Catholic Latinos in Los Angeles and the city’s epicenter for immigrant rights.

Pastor Roland Lozano reaffirmed the religious community’s devotion to social justice and spiritual care for the poor, particularly Spanish-speaking immigrants, at a gala anniversary dinner earlier this month attended by 400 supporters, including City Council members, labor activists and Latino celebrities.

“The city has changed. The church has changed,” Lozano said. “But one thing has not changed: The dedicated mission of Claretian missionaries to immigrants, the poor, the defenseless, those who have no voice.”

The religious community, founded by St. Anthony Claret of Spain in 1849, sent the first missionaries to Los Angeles specifically to minister to the town’s Spanish-speaking migrants. In 1910, Pope Pius X granted all Mexicans in Los Angeles the right to marry, be baptized and seek other pastoral care by the Claretians at La Placita, rather than at their neighborhood churches, where they might face discrimination or language barriers.

Today, U.S.-based Claretian priests, brothers and seminarians are far fewer in number. Lozano estimates they have dropped from 500 in the 1960s to about 100 today, a tiny fraction of the 3,000 who serve worldwide in 64 countries on five continents.

But at La Placita, as Our Lady Queen of Angels is affectionately known, the Claretians continue to carry out their historic mission with an impact that was hailed during anniversary festivities.

“The leadership at Placita has arguably been the most important human rights leadership in the city,” said Antonio Gonzalez of the William C. Velasquez Institute, a nonprofit public policy analysis organization in Los Angeles. “They were there early and have been there consistently.”

The dedication to immigrant rights is apparent as visitors enter the church’s shaded plaza across from Olvera Street. The centennial banner, referring to Arizona’s tough new immigration law, proclaims: “La Placita Church for Immigration Reform. Alto a Leyes Injustas! No A SB 1070.”

The church has served as a sanctuary for immigrants for decades, including efforts to assist those fleeing from a 1954 federal government campaign to deport 1 million illegal immigrants.

The fiery Olivares broke new ground in the 1980s when he and his flock assailed U.S. support of Salvadoran military regimes, defied immigration laws and took in hundreds of undocumented immigrants fleeing the violence. In doing so, he launched the historically Mexican American church into an at-times uneasy transition into a Pan-Latino congregation serving significant numbers of Central Americans.

His enormous influence prompted clergy and city officials last week to dedicate a small road just north of the church as “Paseo Luis Olivares.” The priest died in 1993 of complications from AIDS, which he contracted during a blood transfusion.

In recent years, the church has redoubled its social activism with new leaders after the Claretians voted in 2001 to champion the cause of immigrants and the poor as one of two priorities, along with developing lay leadership.

Pastor Lozano, 60, is a San Antonio native and the grandson of a Claretian missionary. He said he was drawn to the priesthood after hearing vivid stories of their good works — including one priest’s gripping account of trying, unsuccessfully, to save an African American man in Texas from getting lynched. The former provincial superior of the Claretian Missionaries of the U.S. Western Province, who already has several advanced degrees, is currently studying law so he can open a free legal clinic at the church.

Father Richard Estrada, 67, is a Los Angeles native who was baptized at Placita and credits the priests and nuns who marched for civil rights in the 1960s as inspiring him to join the priesthood. He helped plan the massive 2006 immigration marches, takes water to the desert for immigrants and runs Jovenes Inc., a program to care for the homeless and at-risk youth, including those who are immigrants.

And Father Rosendo Urrabazo, a 57-year-old San Antonio native, spent 12 years in Rome working for the worldwide Claretian order before returning to Los Angeles six months ago for his second stint at Placita. He is focused on developing lay leaders through community organizing.

Their service to migrants goes well beyond political battles over immigration. On any given week, the priests conduct about 30 Masses, weddings and quinceaneras for more than 10,000 people, hear 10 hours of confessions and baptize hundreds of babies.

The church staff and more than 80 volunteers offer English classes, a health clinic, food distribution for seniors, hot meals for the homeless, legal aid, income tax help and a 12-step program to help people overcome addictions.

On a recent weekday, for instance, the plaza was filled with children in their Sunday best preparing for baptism, and later in the evening, a line of 300 hungry and homeless women and men waiting to be fed.

One man, a 46-year-old Mexico native and U.S. citizen, would give his name only as Salvador because, he said, he did not want others to know of his dire straits. He said he was laid off from his $11.57-an-hour job assembling airplane parts a year ago and hasn’t been able to find work since. He has run through his savings and is now living on the streets, depending on La Placita for evening meals.

Despite the occasional hate mail chastising the church for aiding unauthorized immigrants, Estrada said the Claretians will continue to serve them as a demonstration of their faith in action.

“The church will not turn its back on immigrants or to the people with AIDS or to the child who is homeless,” Estrada said. “If we do that, we might as well shut down.”