It’s been nearly 26 years since Auxiliary Bishop Alphonse Gallegos’ funeral at Sacramento’s Blessed Sacrament Cathedral, but his nephew Rey vividly recalls the fellow who came up to him that day with his family.
“He told me, ‘Your uncle saved my marriage and my life,’” Rey Gallegos said with a smile, while waiting for a Memorial Mass in his late uncle’s honor to begin last June 24 at Mary Star of the Sea Church in Oxnard.
“He told me how messed up he’d been, how my uncle had shown him kindness and brought him back to live a good life. Then he introduced me to his wife and son, who he’d named after Uncle Alfonso, and said, ‘He was the most fantastic man I ever met.’
“And that’s who my uncle was: a man of love and mercy and grace. There was a time I was doing drugs and alcohol myself, and Uncle Alfonso never judged me. All he did was show how much he loved me, because he was all about bringing God into people’s lives.”
The man who brought God, and God’s healing, to so many in such a short time was celebrated June 24 in a church filled with parishioners, family members and members of the Order of Augustinian Recollects, the religious order in which Alphonse Gallegos was ordained to the priesthood in 1958.
Last July 16, Pope Francis declared Bishop Gallegos “Venerable,” an important step on the road to canonization. The life of the man who, in his ministry as priest and bishop, dressed in a 99-cent sombrero and T-shirt to minister at night to gang members, lowriders and at-risk youth in poor areas of Los Angeles and Sacramento, should have a lasting impact on all who proclaim themselves as followers of Christ, Archbishop José H. Gomez said.
“Bishop Alfonso was always seeing the face of God in the poor, the homeless, the immigrant, the prisoner, in everyone he met,” Archbishop Gomez said. “As we celebrate the life of this local saint, let us follow his example, and become beautiful witnesses of God’s love and mercy in our world.”
Following the Mass, Archbishop Gomez blessed a statue of Bishop Gallegos, created by Sacramento sculptor Jesus Romo and located in the garden of St. Augustine Priory adjacent to Mary Star Church, where the bishop often went on retreats during his priestly ministry.
Born in New Mexico, Alphonse Gallegos moved with his family to Los Angeles and attended San Miguel Church in Watts, where he built an altar in their house, prayed the rosary daily and dreamed of becoming a priest. He entered at Augustinian Recollect Monastery in Kansas City in 1950 and, despite severe myopia, persevered in his studies until he was ordained in 1958.
In 1972, he returned to San Miguel as pastor, working day and night to bring young people back to church, arranging for sports equipment and academic supplies for the parish school and earning his reputation as a “priest of the lowriders” for his fearlessness in meeting with those that society regarded as “seedy elements” and “bad influences.”
He did the same when he became pastor of Cristo Rey Church near Glendale in 1978, then moved to Sacramento as director of Hispanic Affairs for the California Catholic Conference. In 1981, he was named auxiliary bishop of Sacramento by Pope John Paul II, and served the diocese until his death in an auto accident on Oct. 6, 1991. His funeral procession included hundreds of lowriders.
His episcopal motto, “Love one another,” drew many to him in life and afterward. Reports of people who have said they were healed from illnesses after praying for Bishop Gallegos’ intercession led, in 2005, to a movement to declare him a saint. The cause for his canonization received its biggest boost last July with Pope Francis’ declaration.
At the start of the June 24 Mass, Augustinian Recollect Father Samson Silloriquez, postulator of the cause, read a Decree of Heroic Virtues for Bishop Gallegos.
“Father Alfonso was an authentic image of Christ, who loved the little ones, the poor, the immigrant,” said Father Silloriquez. “He was attentive to the needs of all, responding quickly and generously, and he left an indelible memory on all he touched.”
Including his nephew Rey, son of the bishop’s older brother Leonard, who was one of many who responded to his uncle’s never-ending love and relentlessly positive attitude.
“Everyone has his own definition of a saint,” said Rey with a smile. “In my mind, Uncle Alfonso is already a saint, for all he did to help me and so many others.”