Bishop of the Barrio: Venerable Alphonse Gallegos

They called him the Bishop of the Barrio: Venerable Alphonse Gallegos, a visually impaired Mexican American kid who grew up in the Watts neighborhood of LA and went on to become a friend to gang members, lowriders, struggling parents, migrant workers—to every one of his people. As a priest and then as a bishop, Fr. Al was famous for his advocacy, fighting against abortion and nuclear arms, fighting for workers’ rights and access to education. But Gallegos was not driven by issues; every battle he fought was about a person and every person he knew felt absolutely, unconditionally loved by the bishop of the barrio.

Born in Albuquerque to a pious 4th-generation Mexican American family, Alphonse (1931–1991) and his twin brother had nine other siblings. The older children taught the younger ones to pray and each evening the family gathered on benches built by their carpenter father to pray the Rosary together. When Alphonse was a toddler, his family consecrated themselves to St. Joseph, and ever after the feast of St. Joseph was a major neighborhood event, hosted at the Gallegos house but featuring appearances by all their friends and family.

The family soon moved to Los Angeles to seek treatment for Alphonse’s extreme myopia—a vision impairment so severe that in his teens he was unable to count fingers held ten inches from his face and could only read text that was two inches away from his eye. As a teen he had two delicate eye surgeries; he was then able to leave the special classes he had been attending and enter mainstream classrooms, but Alphonse’s vision remained poor.

Though his twin Eloy was outgoing, Alphonse was quiet and rather serious as a child (an attitude that was largely concealed by his ever-present grin). He was patient as well. In a house as full as his, there was a certain amount of chaos to be expected. This led to distraction in the kitchen and the tortillas were sometimes burned as a result. Burnt tortillas are anything but appetizing, but little Alphonse would just smile at the sister who had left the tortillas on too long and say, “But I like burnt tortillas!”

From early childhood, Alphonse hoped to become a priest; in later years, he spoke of a religious vocation as “a DESIRE, a YEARNING for that station in life.” This desire was augmented by his encounters with Augustinian Recollect priests as an altar boy at San Miguel parish in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. After graduating with honors from Manual Arts High School (a public school in the Los Angeles City High School District), nineteen-year-old Alphonse entered the Order of Augustinian Recollects. In religious life as in family life, Alphonse was noted for his kindness and generosity. Before he was permitted to make solemn vows, Alphonse’s formators wrote of him, “Perhaps Frater Alphonse’s greatest virtue is his good will. He seems never to have been asked to do, prepare or make anything that he did not receive the request with an abundance of good will and fulfill it to the best of his ability.”

But for all his goodness, Alphonse’s future ordination was anything but certain. Though his surgeries had improved his vision, he still had what his formators called an “academic deficiency,” likely a result of his childhood disability. Alphonse persisted, refusing to let this matter hinder him in the calling he felt God had given him. Mercifully, his community was supportive, giving him a dispensation from the common recitation of the Divine Office; when the community gathered to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, Alphonse joined them but prayed the Rosary instead. Such accommodations were unusual in the 1950s (and in many places today). What loss the Church would have suffered had Alphonse Gallegos been barred from ordination because of his disability!

Still, a dispensation from the obligation to pray the Office was one thing. Ordaining an ill-prepared priest was quite another. Alphonse’s vision had hampered his ability to study and his superiors were concerned that he might not be able to hear confessions properly. But his holiness was so evident, they were hesitant to delay his ordination. Instead, it was decided that Alphonse would be ordained on the condition that he continue to attend classes for two or three years so that he might be properly prepared to hear confessions. Though some wondered if his poor vision constituted an impediment to ordination, he was finally called to orders and was ordained in 1958 at the Augustinian Recollect seminary in New York.

After ordination, Fr. Alphonse visited California to celebrate his first Mass at his childhood parish of San Miguel before returning to New York, where he spent the first years of his priesthood answering the monastery door, in the tradition of such great saints as St. André Bessette, St. Josephine Bakhita, and St. Alphonsus Rodriguez. During those years he also served as chaplain to a hospital and several convents, while continuing his studies in theology as well as Braille. He even learned to drive a car, despite his poor vision (and the deep concern of his passengers).

After eight years of simple service, Fr. Alphonse was sent to the Kansas City novitiate where he had received his formation, this time to be novice master. When he was called back to the New York monastery three years later, something seemed to have changed in Fr. Alphonse. Never a good student, he had initially been content with whatever formation his superiors deemed sufficient. Now he wanted a degree. He attended night school for a year to earn his bachelor’s in psychology, then earned a master’s in counseling (to the shock of those who had felt him academically unfit for the priesthood). At the age of 41, Fr. Alphonse was ready to begin the work that would eventually earn him the nickname “Bishop of the Barrio.” Fourteen years after his ordination, he was sent home to Los Angeles to serve in the parish where he had grown up, a parish where he was familiarly referred to as “Fr. Al.”

There must have been something bittersweet in the return. Fr. Al’s father had died just a year before; his mother eleven years before that. He would return to many siblings, nieces, and nephews, but too late to walk alongside his parents in their final years. And while Fr. Al was excited to work with his people again, to be out in the community rather than serving only other religious, he was concerned that the people of San Miguel might struggle to accept the leadership of a man they had known as a child.

Mercifully, his parishioners loved him from the first, and were absolutely delighted to have one of their own back. But there were plenty of problems outside the church walls. The neighborhood (Watts) had been plagued by riots during the civil rights era and remained a place of great unrest, with many clashes between its majority Black population and the significant Hispanic population (many of whom were undocumented). Gangs ruled the neighborhood and both petty and violent crime oppressed the people. In the year before Fr. Al’s return, San Miguel’s parish school was broken into twice and the classrooms ransacked.

To serve his people, Fr. Al focused first on education, not just improving the quality of instruction but building relationships with the children so that they would understand that they were honored and important members of the community. He greeted them each morning and afternoon and made such an impact that when a parent heard that Fr. Al might be moved to another parish, he wrote to Fr. Al’s superiors telling them how his children came home every day “telling me Father Gallegos shook my hand, told me a joke, or he was talking to us.” This small ministry of presence meant so much to the community that they could not bear the idea of losing him.

At the heart of Fr. Al’s work in the school was a mission set forth in a school self-evaluation during his tenure as pastor, valuing above all “the actualization that each child realizes and respects his dignity as a person, understands and takes pride in his cultural heritage, and grasps an authentic relationship with God.” What a gift to this community to have a pastor who so honored their culture—his culture—and called them to take pride in it. He helped them to be proud of their community as well, working with local benefactors (including union leaders and members of the entertainment industry) with such success that within five years of his arrival he was able to refuse diocesan subsidies for the school. No longer dependent on outside benefactors, the community grew in its sense of dignity and redoubled its commitment to San Miguel Parish School.

Fr. Al was not confined to his campus, though. He spent much of his time walking the streets of the barrio—one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Los Angeles—stopping especially to visit with the lowriders whose flashy cars were a major feature of the streets of Watts. He would bless their cars, much to their delight, invite them to church, and discuss the value of continuing their education. He was a regular feature on the sidelines of pickup games on neighborhood basketball courts and built relationships that led to many dinner invitations in the homes of his people. His emphasis on education meant that he took many young people on college visits; in his six years as pastor, he saw twenty-seven of his kids graduate from college. After leaving Watts, he told a reporter, “Before, standing on the street corner, they felt the world had nothing to offer—until they discovered that they had something to offer the world.” That they learned this from a man who had grown up on the same street corners made all the difference.

As he was meeting with families and joking with teens, Fr. Al was also working to learn their language. Like many Hispanic Americans, he was not raised speaking Spanish, but it was the first language of many of his people. So, despite the stigma that came of being a Mexican American speaking broken Spanish, Fr. Al fought to learn the language so he could be all that his people needed, so he could offer them the love of Jesus in the language their mothers had spoken to them.

Fr. Al restarted the CYO (Catholic Youth Organization) that had been so formative in his youth. More importantly, he would seek out young people at risk of becoming involved in gangs and invite himself to their homes, sometimes approaching them as they were speaking with gang members and asking the youth to walk with him to their house since he was coming for dinner—often to the surprise of the parents who had not exactly invited him. He worked to reconcile warring gangs and when he helped young people to extricate themselves from their gangs, he redirected their free time toward tutoring younger kids or adult parishioners. The more talented graffiti artists were even tasked with covering their previous endeavors with murals featuring religious imagery. And when young people from the neighborhood found themselves in trouble with the law, often their one phone call was made not to their parents but to Fr. Al. One former parishioner remarked on his heart for his people: “That’s the kind of guy he was: he’d go to the periphery of the earth to find people and to bring them back and just to bring joy to them, to love them.”

It was true of the more straitlaced parishioners as well as the gang members. Each one felt seen and known by Fr. Al. Decades later, they remember how glad he was to see them each time they attended Mass. One woman related how she had apologized for the noise her small children had made during the liturgy. Shaking Father’s hand, her husband said, “Father, you have to scold them! They don’t let us listen to the Mass!” Fr. Al responded, “They’re angels, they’re blessed! They’re supposed to make noise!” Nobody—however loud or difficult—was an inconvenience to Fr. Al.

The archdiocese, too, benefited from Fr. Al’s work as he helped to found one of the first permanent diaconate formation programs for Spanish speakers. Meanwhile, the other priests of the archdiocese were edified by his work for the people of Watts, a people he noted as being impoverished but not without joy.

After six years as pastor of his home parish in Watts, Fr. Al was moved to Cristo Rey Parish in Glendale in the summer of 1978. His people were devastated to lose him; the parish council of San Miguel wrote, “It is a very rare occasion that anyone can take hold of a community that is spiritually dying and with the grace of God make it reborn through that person’s faith in Our Lord and love for his people.” But Fr. Al had done just that. He would have a similar task with his predominantly Mexican American parishioners in Glendale. They, too, struggled to balance the Mexican customs of the older parishioners with the more American approach of the younger while experiencing the many challenges of racism and immigration (both documented and undocumented).

But Fr. Al had little time to work in Glendale. He had caught the attention of the powers that be and was asked to serve as the first Director of the Division of Hispanic Affairs for the California Catholic Conference, a position that would require a move to Sacramento and away from his religious community. Unconcerned with the prestige such a move would afford him, Fr. Al submitted the possibility to his religious superiors. With their blessing, Fr. Al moved to Sacramento in the fall of 1979, living apart from his religious community for the first time since entering religion in 1950. He was responsible for the Spanish-speaking members of the eleven dioceses of California, tasked with providing creative pastoral responses to the needs of Hispanic Catholics who had gone underserved in California for far too many years. “I strongly believe that the Hispanic community has much to offer to the Catholic Church in the United States,” he said, “as I have mentioned in the way of culture, tradition, and deep-rooted faith. Our people are persons of strong faith and tremendous love for the Church.”

Then as always, Fr. Al was motivated not by issues but by people, fighting for justice because of the needs of the individuals he loved. Though exceedingly busy with his demanding work, Fr. Al still made time to walk the streets and serve as late-night chaplain to the lowriders of Sacramento, building bridges of trust so strong that he was once even able to reason with an armed man intent on murder and take the man’s gun before he killed another lowrider.

Fr. Al moved into the rectory of St. Rose Catholic Church, a parish in the inner city, and resumed his ministry to his people, both in the barrio and in the migrant camps. He brought his bishop, Bishop Francis Quinn, to the latter, inviting the prelate to witness the living conditions of “hundreds of thousands of migrant Catholics,” as he wrote in his journal. Fr. Al was not content with just a diplomatic visit, though; he stayed at several migrant camps—for as long as a week at a time—and even spent a day working in the fields to see just how his people were treated. He celebrated Mass for the workers and their families. And having witnessed their plight, he met with the governor of California to discuss what might be done to protect them.

At the age of 50, Fr. Al was stunned to be appointed auxiliary bishop of Sacramento. “I felt frightened and humbled,” he wrote in his journal; before accepting the position, he spent the night in prayer asking the Holy Spirit to enlighten him and Mary to intercede for his humility. He was consecrated in November of 1981 and took “Love one another” as his episcopal motto. Though busy with his work as auxiliary bishop and his continued role in service to Hispanic Catholics, Bishop Gallegos was made vicar general, and was soon appointed pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church as well.

As auxiliary bishop, Bishop Gallegos continued his work for Hispanic Catholics, though he served all people and particularly reached out to Black, Native, and Asian American groups. Hispanics are not a monolith, and Bishop Gallegos worked with those who had been American for many generations as well as those who had only recently come to the United States. He marched with the United Farm Workers (and was photographed with Cesar Chavez), fought for bilingual education in the schools, started Spanish-language radio programs to catechize migrant workers, and personally paid Catholic school tuition for the poor. He continued to be known as a friend to the lowriders, whose cars he would bless as he chatted with the drivers late at night, and to men and women in gangs; indeed, so strong was his relationship with gang members that when there were disturbances in the middle of the night, the police chief would call him to help disperse gang members. He visited many homes for dinner, helped undocumented immigrants resolve their legal status, and even raised money for a little girl in Peru who needed a liver transplant.

Though a biography of Bishop Gallegos would show an impressive list of accomplishments, those who knew him insist that all he really wanted was to be with his people. He had no real hobbies other than loving them, listening to them, and walking alongside them—even if that just meant eating the home cooking they put in front of him or trying to watch soccer with them in spite of his poor vision. This was the heart of Alphonse Gallegos: his love for his people, his willingness to enter into even the most mundane moments of their lives so that they would know not only his love but the love of God. Above all, what people remember is his smile, the radiant joy their father had for them that spoke loudly of the delight their heavenly Father took in them.

Bishop Gallegos was always among the people, adorned by his enormous smile and occasionally a cowboy hat. He was committed to this ministry of presence, saying,

The Church has a tremendous obligation of being present where our Hispanic people are. I think we’ve come to the point in history where the Church must go to the people. I’m very strong in this particular point because I myself try to make my way to the camps, to the particular barrios or areas where our people are. I strongly feel that many of our people leave the Church because either they fail to have a clear understanding of what the Church is in the United States or maybe it is because we are not present when our Hispanic people are in tremendous need of assistance.

In 1984, Gallegos was one of a dozen bishops who spoke out against the United States’ development of nuclear weapons; these bishops encouraged their people to stage peaceful protests beside the railways that were being used to transport the weapons, writing,

Our stand in the pastoral letter is that no further deployment of nuclear weapons can possibly be justified. Every missile and nuclear weapons shipment is both a significant step toward a first-strike holocaust and a violation of the moral stand we have taken, with the support of many other U.S. citizens, especially people of faith. What we can all do along the tracks when these shipments come through is stand in prayerful witness to the alternative power of divine love and nonviolent action.

Though divisions in the Church today might lead some to discount such a warrior for justice as being overly progressive, looking at him with suspicion because of his work for undocumented workers or his concern with diversity and representation, Bishop Gallegos was a loyal son of the Church, unable to be defined as liberal or conservative. Indeed, Bishop Francis Quinn (Gallegos’s ordinary) wrote to the Apostolic Nuncio, “I know of no bishop more loyal to the teaching magisterium of the Church.” Bishop Gallegos was a pro-life advocate across the American political spectrum, advocating for the unborn, protesting against nuclear weapons, working in prison ministry, and insisting that Catholics must defend life at all its stages. He participated in anti-abortion rallies, decrying the violence of abortion while offering mercy to those who may have had an abortion, or encouraged someone else to show mercy too. On one occasion he was seen holding a sign that said, “Jesus forgives and heals.”

After ten years of episcopal ministry, Bishop Gallegos’ last day was a perfect encapsulation of his work. He celebrated Sunday Mass at his parish, spoke at a pro-life rally, visited a young man who was dying of AIDS, stopped by a parish to make tamales with parishioners, helped a group of Korean Catholics as they visited a potential site for their parish, then celebrated a confirmation Mass at a parish an hour outside Sacramento. After the Mass, the pastor asked Bishop Gallegos and Santiago Ruiz (his volunteer driver) to spend the night, concerned by how late it was. But Bishop Gallegos had a busy day ahead of him and he insisted on returning home.

He had experience trouble with his car’s electrical system before, but Bishop Gallegos was not one to upgrade unless it was absolutely necessary. Indeed, he lived so simply that when asked on an official form where his will might be found, he noted that he had left it with the Augustinian Recollects—a reference to his vow of poverty which (though no longer binding now that he was a bishop) was still a guiding force in Bishop Gallegos’s life and meant he had no possessions to speak of and thus no need of a will. So, when the temperamental car stalled on the highway—interrupting the Rosary he and his driver were praying—Bishop Gallegos was not surprised. Though Ruiz protested, Bishop Gallegos got out to push the car to the side of the road, leaving Ruiz to steer. As he stepped out into the road he was struck by a passing car and thrown fifty feet into the bushes. He died on impact, at 9:18 p.m. on October 6, 1991.

The people of Sacramento were devastated. Indeed, Catholics throughout the state of California were heartbroken at their loss—especially the Hispanic Catholics who had been served so well by Bishop Gallegos. Thousands came to his funeral, including a hundred priests and two dozen bishops. Vietnamese refugees were there beside the Black Catholic Council. Filipinos grieved alongside Latinos and Poles. Native Americans wore their traditional garb while the Knights of St. Peter Claver donned their hats and sashes. Nor were his beloved lowriders left out. Bishop Gallegos had ministered to these men as they worked on their cars, and they brought those same cars in procession to pay him homage—300 lowrider cars formed an honor guard, their drivers mourning the loss of a bishop who had loved them just as they were. The mayor of Sacramento remarked, “I have never seen such a diverse group come to pay tribute to any one person in Sacramento.”

Three decades later, the people who knew Bishop Gallegos still grieve their loss, frequently breaking down in tears when they remember the moment they heard of his death. Because Gallegos was no bureaucrat, no distant auxiliary bishop unknown to his people. No, he was a father, a teacher, a friend. He was a man whose love of his people changed them.

One successful businessman summed up the power of Gallegos’s fatherhood. When asked how his life would have been different had he not known Bishop Gallegos, Art Vallejo responded, quite simply, “If he was just a regular priest, without mocking the other priests, I think I would probably be in jail. Or dead.”

This is what moves the people of California to seek canonization for their bishop: not because he was a great success or a warrior for justice (though he was those things) but because he was a father who loved his children so well that decades later they attest that they are better because of him. This is the man who may soon become the first Mexican American Saint: a public school kid from LA whose long list of accomplishments was overshadowed by the most important of all: he loved well. Through his intercession, may each of us look past labels and expectations and love with reckless abandon, in imitation of the bishop of the barrio who lived in imitation of Christ.

Featured Image: Photo of Bishop Gallegos from his canonization cause, presume to be either PD or Fair Use.

Author

Meg Hunter-Kilmer

Meg Hunter-Kilmer is a hobo for Christ and a Fellow of the Sullivan Family Saints Initiative in the McGrath Institute for Church Life. She lives out of her car and travels the country speaking to youth and adults, giving retreats, and writes about the saints.

Read more by Meg Hunter-Kilmer