Fr. Luis Olivares: A better choice for sainthood than Serra

This story appears in the Francis in the United States feature series. View the full series.

by Mario T. García

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Pope Francis’ visit to the United States will be historic in part because he will sanctify Fr. Junípero Serra as a saint of the Catholic church. However, there are some reservations, in particular among Native Americans in California, to this sanctification of Serra due to his role in the Spanish conquest of Native Americans in California. While Serra might have ameliorated some of the worst abuses of the Spanish military against the Native Americans, the fact remains, whether one supports his canonization or not, that he was part of the Spanish conquest. It is said that the conquest was carried out at two levels: the sword and the cross. That is, the Spanish conquistadores bore the sword as the symbol of conquest, and the missionaries such as Serra bore the cross as the symbol of spiritual conquest. Both were two sides of the same coin. Native Americans were conquered, deprived of their lands, exploited for their labor; they were stripped of their own native religions and instead forced into becoming Catholics. The Spanish conquest was done by force and by ideology primarily spread by the missionaries. Serra was part of this conquest and so today there are Native American protests as well as that of others. I personally believe that Pope Francis might have re-thought this decision and researched other possible American and California candidates for sainthood that would serve him better.

I would like to propose such a candidate albeit a little known one. This is Claretian Fr. Luis Olivares, someone who gave his life for the protection of Latin American political and economic refugees in Los Angeles. I am currently writing a biography of Fr. Luis, and in researching and writing his story, I have found an individual who in his life exhibited saint-like qualities. Born in San Antonio on February 13, 1934, Fr. Luis very early felt he had a vocation to the priesthood and followed that feeling to the Claretian seminary in the Los Angeles area. After many years of training, he was ordained in 1960 and quickly rose to become a top official in his order. For several years, Olivares served as the treasurer of the western province of the Claretians. In this capacity, he was in part in charge of investing Claretian funds in the stock market and as a result he was wined and dined by Wall Street executives. He came to love this attention that included flying to New York City where he was picked up by a corporate limousine, stayed in fancy hotels, taken to Broadway shows, and dined in exclusive restaurants.

However, like St. Paul, Fr. Luis underwent a conversion. In 1975, he met for the first time César Chávez, and by Olivares’ own admission this was his conversion from being part of a religious bureaucracy to a community priest serving the poor and oppressed. Meeting the humble and saint-like Chávez, who, in turn, had devoted his own life to organizing the Mexican and Filipino farm workers in California, the lowest of the lowliest, impressed Olivares and convinced him that this should be his mission in life and as a priest. He commenced to work with Chávez in doing what he could to minister to the farm workers. He visited them and comforted them. He joined picket lines in the boycotts of the United Farm Workers led by Chávez and Dolores Huerta against the powerful California growers to force them to treat their workers humanely.

Wanting to also help in the urban Mexican American barrios, Olivares requested a transfer to a poor East Los Angeles parish, Our Lady of Solitude or La Soledad. There he joined and helped lead the United Neighborhoods Organization (UNO) that, beginning in the late 1970s, successfully organized and empowered Mexican Americans in East L.A. to confront both governmental and corporate power though the use of people power to improve their lives. Olivares, for example, led the struggle against the big insurance companies that were redlining the eastside and charging exorbitant auto insurance rates, clearly a discriminatory and racist practice. Fr. Luis became the lead organizer and spokesperson on this issue, and UNO forced the companies to rescind their rates and provide lower ones for Mexican Americans. But the auto insurance issue was only one of many others that Fr. Luis contributed to, along with other devoted UNO members, to improve living and economic conditions in the eastside, whether getting traffic lights on unsafe and congested street crossings, to better services by large grocery chain stores, to improving the public schools in the barrios. Fr. Luis did this because he knew or came to know that this is what it meant to be a Catholic priest and that his mission was to prioritize the poor and oppressed. Olivares became a liberationist, not only by reading liberation theology that called for the church to have a preferential option for the poor, but also, like César Chávez, living it.

In 1980, having become a community priest, Olivares accepted another transfer, this time to the historic La Placita Church (Our Lady Queen of the Angeles Church) in downtown Los Angeles, a place that represented the original early Catholic church established by the Spaniards in Los Angeles. La Placita was the heart of Mexican American Catholicism in the city. It was not so much a parish as a symbol of the peoples’ faith in a church that spoke to them in Spanish and that accepted their particular devotions such as that of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Olivares hoped to expand his work with UNO out of La Placita. However, something happened that would further transform Fr. Luis’ ministry. Civil war in Central America, in particular in El Salvador, led to thousands of Salvadoran refugees, and to a lesser extent refugees from Guatemala, entering the United States and especially to L.A. seeking political refuge. Many had family members who had been tortured or killed by the Salvadoran military and death squads. Some had themselves experienced torture. In the 1980s about a million Central American refugees crossed borders (including the U.S.-Mexico border) to reach the United States where they hoped they would be given political safe haven based on U.S. and international law. Unfortunately, the Reagan administration turned them away and declared that the Central American were not legitimate political refugees, but just more “illegal aliens” like those entering from Mexico seeking jobs and supposedly taking jobs from “real Americans.” By both U.S. law and international law, these were political refugees and yet the Reagan administration in order not to embarrass its Cold War anti-Communist client states in El Salvador and Guatemala refused to accept the refugees.

Fortunately, many other Americans came to the assistance of the refugees through what came to be known as the sanctuary movement. In Los Angeles, the heart and soul of the movement was Fr. Luis Olivares. In 1985 he declared La Placita a sanctuary church and established a program administered by Jesuit Fr. Michael Kennedy that fed and clothed the refugees as well as housed them. Some were even allowed to sleep inside the church and the church hall. Olivares and Kennedy and their staff also assisted in finding jobs for the refugees and schools for their children. Since many of the refugees arrived with emotional traumas as well as physical injuries, La Placita arranged for medical assistance. La Placita, due to its small size, could in no way support the thousands of Central American refugees who arrived in L.A., but Olivares did what he could to help as many as possible. But more than actual assistance to some of the refugees, Olivares and La Placita stood as a symbol that some Americans cared for the refugees and, that guided by their sense of morality, were prepared to protect them from immigration authorities so that they would not be deported back to El Salvador, for example, where they might be tortured and possibly killed. Fr. Luis’ love for the refugees would not allow him to be party to this offense against humanity. It didn’t matter to him if in sheltering and caring for the refugees, he was breaking the law for, as he often said, there was a higher law that he adhered to — God’s law — and he would first and foremost be guided by this.

Not restricting this love to the refugees, Fr. Luis two years later in 1987 did what no other sanctuary movement in the country did — he expanded sanctuary to include undocumented Mexican immigrants and further defied the Reagan administration and immigration officials who focused on deporting such immigrants. It’s true that in 1986, the U.S. Congress passed a new immigration law that in part contained an amnesty provision that allowed undocumented immigrants who had been in this country up to 1982 to legalize their statues. It also provided employer monetary sanctions for those who hired the undocumented. Olivares supported amnesty but also recognized that still thousands of the undocumented who had arrived after 1982 would be subject to deportation and, secondly, that some employers would refuse to hire not only undocumented Mexican immigrants but any person of Mexican origin in order to avoid any possible sanctions. Olivares confronted this new law and said that in order to protect the undocumented, he would offer them sanctuary at La Placita and that he as pastor would hire the undocumented and called on others to do likewise. Once again, Olivares appealed to God’s law in defying “Caesar’s law.” This expansion of sanctuary led to confrontations not only with immigration officials, but with the church hierarchy. Archbishop Roger Mahony (now Cardinal) attempted to pressure Olivares to back down and not defy immigration law. Olivares refused and continued his ministry.

Despite these pressures, Fr. Luis for the rest of the 1980s continued his work with the poor and oppressed especially in the form of the Central American refugees and Mexican undocumented immigrants. He could not serve them all, but he still reached many and again served as a shining beacon of love and care. In 1989, no doubt due to the pressures from the Los Angeles archdiocese, the Claretian order announced that Olivares would be transferred to Fort Worth, Texas. Fr. Luis did not want to leave La Placita, but knew that he had no other choice. However, he did not end up leaving, because in 1990, he was diagnosed with HIV that, according to church officials, he had contracted on one of his visits to El Salvador to take aid to those in refugee camps and in the countryside. Olivares himself noted that he became ill on one of his visits from his diabetes and had to be given an injection in a rural clinic. According to Olivares and others, the needle was infected with the virus. Fr. Luis lasted two more years, years of much pain and physical suffering, but he never complained, and he remained as involved as possible with continuing to call for support for refugees and undocumented immigrants. He died on March 20, 1993, at age 59. At his funeral at San Gabriel Mission hundreds attended, including many of those whom he had ministered to as well as those who had worked with him; a weak César Chávez who would, himself, die in a few weeks, was among them. The refugees and immigrants present both before and after Mass saluted their beloved priest by calling out “Presente!” meaning that Fr. Luis was present with them and would always be.

Fr. Luis’ family believe that he is a saint, and they pray to him. Many of his fellow clergy also believe that he was saint-like. I agree. But what about miracles? We know that such criteria for sainthood can be somewhat arbitrary in canonization. However, let me say that, in my opinion, ministering to the poor and oppressed such as Fr. Luis did for the refugees and undocumented and saving the refugees from possible torture and death they would have faced if returned to El Salvador is a form of miracle. Fr. Luis helped to transform people’s lives and, in a sense, gave them a new life and hope. Isn’t this a form of miracle?

I know that Pope Francis will canonize Junípero Serra and we will have St. Junípero Serra, but I think a more appropriate symbol, given the pope’s own liberationist tendencies, would have been to canonize the first truly U.S. Latino priest in the form of Fr. Luis Olivares. Perhaps this will happen. I hope it does. Presente Fr. Luis Olivares!

[Mario T. García is Professor of History and Chicano Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara and author of many books on Chicano history, including about Olivares in Católicos: Resistance and Affirmation in Chicano Catholic History (Univ. of Texas Press, 2008).]

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