Here is a “venerable” perfect for our time. He was know as “Bishop of the Barrios.” I was privileged to be a friend of his sister, Senaida. She, like her brother, was a person of prayer with an approachable charm. She corroborated the personal side of this story:
After his fatal accident, the National Catholic Register wrote of him: “Alfonso Gallegos was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 1931, one of Joseph and Caciana Gallegos’ 11 children. Because Alphonse was born nearly blind, his parents moved the family to Los Angeles when he was very young order to get him better medical care. Following two surgeries, the boy gained the ability to see much better, at least for a time.
According to the biography provided by his religious order, the Augustinian Recollect Friars, “The Gallegos household was one of prayer and deep faith. The recitation of the Rosary and catechism lessons were the order of the day. St. Joseph was chosen as the patron saint of the family.”
Growing up in the barrio of Watts, the family attended the relatively new San Miguel Church on East 108th Street. The aforementioned Recollects ran the parish, and young Alphonse found his vocation serving the Mass at their feet.
In 1950, he entered the Recollects’ New York seminary where he spent the next eight years. His never perfect eyesight became progressively worse, and because of this, he had a hard time completing his academic work to his superiors’ satisfaction. They debated whether to ordain him, but in the end it was decided that “his holiness, humility, and community spirit” were unsurpassed and were the very qualities they wanted in a priest. He received Holy Orders on May 24, 1958.
The race riots of the late 1960s had altered Watts for the worse. Those families that could afford to move did. They were replaced by illegal immigrants who were at that time coming to the US in ever greater numbers. “The new pastor dedicated his energies to revitalizing a declining community concentrating on the education of the children, the strengthening of the family, and the evangelization of the youth.
“It was in Watts that Father Al became known as the ‘chaplain’ of the ‘low riders’, the street gangs of Latino youth who dedicated their talents to customizing their cars. His Friday and Saturday night visits to the street corners became legendary. Working with his fellow-religious, Fr. Gallegos revitalized the ‘barrio’ leading the members of the Parish Council to send a letter to his superiors stating: ‘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.’”
The talent he displayed in working with the California’s rapidly changing Catholic Latino community led to his appointment as head of a newly created office at the California Catholic Conference, the Division of Hispanic Affairs.
Two years later Pope St. John Paul II made him auxiliary bishop of Sacramento, and he received consecration to the episcopacy on November 4, 1981.
…. And while many are middle class and even affluent, a large number also populate some of the poorer sections of the See’s larger cities. Thus Gallegos found himself interacting not only with field hands and construction workers but with gang bangers, just like in Watts.
The remarkable thing about this bishop, however, is how easily he moved in whatever crowd he happened to find himself. He was an exceptional priest and had a noteworthy ability to charm people with the love of Christ, appropriate for someone whose episcopal motto was, “Love One Another.”
Many in the Anglo community knew him primarily because of his lion-like defense of the unborn. “His advocacy on [the babies’] behalf … was eloquently present in the street demonstrations and in the chambers of the state” Legislature. It is not for nothing that a prominent pro-life institution in northern California is a shelter for unwed mothers named “The Bishop Gallegos Maternity Home.”
On the night of October 6, 1991, Bishop Gallegos and his driver were returning home from tiny Gridley, California, north of Yuba City. (Because His Grace’s eyesight was nearly non-existent, he could not drive himself.) Some stories say they had stopped to help a stranded motorist. o the median, another driver struck him, sending him flying 50 feet through the air. He landed on his head, instantly killing him.
Because of his reputation as the “Bishop of the Barrio,” roughly 300 low rider cars formed part of his funeral procession from the parish of St. Rose where he lived to the city’s gorgeous Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament.
Now that His Excellency has been declared “Venerable,” the next step involves obtaining two miracles. The first is required for beatification, when he will be called “Blessed,” and the second for canonization, when the Church will propose him as an example for all the faithful.