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San Diego police chaplain Henry Rodriguez dies at 61

The Rev. Henry Rodriguez left his sick bed and hurried to a crime scene. Then he drove to Mercy Hospital.

Although he was battling pneumonia, Rodriguez wasn’t there for his own health. He was there as a San Diego Police Department chaplain, comforting the family of slain Officer Jonathan De Guzman.

“He was in the hospital room,” said Sgt. Edward Zwibel, one of Rodriguez’s closest friends, “attending to the needs of others even though he was very ill.”

Rodriguez, 61, died Thursday — the same day as De Guzman’s funeral Mass. When news of the priest’s death spread through the church, the police officers absorbed yet another blow. “There was an audible sigh,” Zwibel said.

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A San Diego native, Rodriguez was the longtime pastor at St. Jude Shrine of the West. He also served as a chaplain to the police, Scripps Mercy Hospital and San Diego Hospice. He relentlessly advocated for the powerless — sometimes irritating bishops, mayors and police chiefs.

Yet friends and colleagues insist that he built more bridges than he burned.

“He was dedicated to the community and to the police,” former Chief Jerry Sanders said.

Rodriguez was born March 25, 1955, the second of six children. During Sunday Mass at St. Jude, where he had served as an altar boy, Jennie Rodriguez remembered her son as a good boy, smart and kind.

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But he had a difficult adolescence, dropping out of junior high school. Rodriguez spent a few years on the streets before volunteering at Sharp Memorial Hospital.

“You help out the nurses, lift patients, take them up to the X-ray department,” said Steve Best, who met Rodriguez in 1973, when both were orderlies. “Henry basically grew up at Sharp. He liked it and was really good at it.”

The nurses there encouraged Rodriguez to get a GED. When he did, they helped pay his college expenses. After graduating from the University of San Diego with a bachelor’s degree in sociology, he entered St. Francis Seminary and was ordained a priest in 1986.

After graduate studies in Minnesota and Rome, he came home to San Diego and St. Jude.

Rodriguez also became a leader of the San Diego Organizing Project, protesting plans to push a freeway spur through the surrounding neighborhood.

At about the same time, he invited a young police captain to meet with residents.

“Later, I called those the ‘SDOP Pressure Sessions,’” Sanders said. “They had it all orchestrated, a list of questions, people would line up and just hammer away.”

Somehow, the captain got through the meeting. “Boy,” he recalled, “I was stumbling.” Afterward, the priest took him aside. “We just need your help,” he said.

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Like Sanders, Rodriguez believed in community policing, seeing the cop on the beat as a neighborhood ally. And residents needed allies. The priest’s brother, Vincent, had been murdered in the area in 1987. Parishioners told their new priest that the streets around St. Jude were known for drugs and prostitution.

At protests, some who marched with Rodriguez saw police officers as the enemy. He didn’t. In 1989 the priest volunteered as a Police Department chaplain, a position he would hold to the end of his life.

“He was someone who was very comfortable representing his church, his community and the Police Department,” said Kevin Malone, executive director of the San Diego Organizing Project, “and holding everybody equally responsible.”

Rodriguez remained as pastor at St. Jude until 2006, then added hospice duties to his list of ministries. “He really found great meaning in caring for the terminally ill,” Zwibel said.

On July 1, Rodriguez returned to parish life, becoming pastor of St. John the Evangelist Church in the Hillcrest neighborhood.

“He put everything into working with other people,” said former Police Chief William Lansdowne, “and took very little time for himself.”

As one of his last official acts, Rodriguez — who last month contracted whooping cough that led to pneumonia —  emailed the chaplains and officers involved in De Guzman’s funeral. He expressed pride in the group, appreciation for their hard work and compassion.

Many of the same people are now preparing Rodriguez’s services. “They are pulling out all the stops to make this a nice celebration for him,” Zwibel said. “He was big in their life.”

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Rodriguez is survived by his mother, Jennie Rodriguez; his siblings, Jennie Rodriguez, Gloria Taylor, Linda Rodriguez and Jess Rodriguez; and 10 nieces and nephews.

peter.rowe@sduniontribune.com

Rowe writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.


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