Rosa Gonzalez clearly recalls how, when her father Jes√∫s Mercado hosted family gatherings at his home in Jalisco, Mexico, they would always start with a private Mass. It was the 1930s, the time of the Cristero War, when Catholics were persecuted by the Mexican government.
On July 6, Gonzalez — a devoutly Catholic grandmother — followed in her father’s footsteps, this time at her own home, located in a high-end gated neighborhood in Chatsworth.
About 200 people attended the welcoming Mass of the relic of Santo Toribio Romo, one of the martyred priests during the Cristero War. In his lifetime, Romo fought for workers’ rights and upon his death became an intercessor of immigrants and border crossers, thus earning the title of unofficial patron of immigrants.
Beginning July 7, the relic — a bone from the saint’s left ankle — will visit six local parishes (three in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, one in the Diocese of Orange and two in the Diocese of San Bernardino) before arriving at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels for the annual Mass in Recognition of Immigrants on July 20.
Bringing the relic to the United States was no easy task, said Father Martin Federico Rizo Soto, chaplain of Santo Toribio Romo Sanctuary in the small town of Santa Ana de Guadalupe in Jalisco, who presided at the July 6 Mass.
First, there was additional paperwork sought by the airline. And the 5-foot-2 box carrying the 4-foot-5 wooden statue of the saint in which the relic is encased was too large and heavy.
But according to Herminda Gutierrez, a St. Ferdinand parishioner who traveled with Gonzalez to Jalisco to bring the relic to Los Angeles, “once again Saint Toribio proved why he has become a beloved saint of immigrants. When the men [airline staff] opened the box and saw the saint, something mysterious happened.”
They recognized the statue and, overcome by emotion. “as if their hearts were touched by something special,” they immediately accelerated the process.
“They had already told us we couldn’t carry that box on the plane, but he, Santo Toribio, wants to be here at this critical time for immigrants in this country,” said Gonzalez, a eucharistic minister at St. Catherine of Siena in Reseda.
Determined to succeed
Before leaving for Mexico, Gonzalez “had a feeling” that bringing the relic would be a hassle, but she was determined. Even her husband and two grown-up sons doubted that she would succeed.
Her devotion to Santo Toribio grew after observing her parents’ devotion and support to the Cristeros, she admits. But although she is part of an affluent family — her husband Luis Gonzalez co-owns the Vallarta Markets chain in Southern California — she knows first-hand “how it feels, longing to visit your parents and not being able to do so because you do not have documents to cross the border.”
She married her husband (a U.S. resident) in Jalisco, and the year they arrived in the U.S. immigration laws changed, meaning partners of residents were no longer granted immediate residence. She applied for the residency, but had to wait 10 years to receive it. Today she is a proud U.S. citizen with U.S.-born children and grandchildren, and steadfastly devoted to Santa Toribio.
“Prayers to him will do more than rallies and marches,” she asserted. “He will move many hearts” during his time in Southern California.
Giving his life for Christ
During the July 6 homily, Father Rizo Soto highlighted the martyr’s love for vocations, which grew in him at the age of 7 while preparing for first Communion, and was encouraged by his older sister Quica Romo, who sacrificed her life to be able to provide for his priestly formation.
“He was an example of Christian life. He was willing to give his life to Christ and for the peace of the Church in a moment of persecution,” said the priest, who directs the Casa del Migrante (Migrant’s Home) Santo Toribio in Santa Ana de Guadalupe, a 30-bed shelter that receives thousands of migrants per year, including families and unaccompanied minors, most of them hailing from Central America.
The future saint’s “social awakening” started during his formation from 1912 to 1923, following renovations of the Church led by Pope Leo XXIII.
“At that time he already believed in immigrants,” continued Father Rizo Soto. He became a playwright with the play “Vámonos al Norte” (“Let’s go North”), a critique and reflection about Mexico-U.S. migration.
Sitting on the first row of the makeshift chapel at the Gonzalez home, 21-year-old Arizona State College student Zelig Gutierrez, Herminda’s son, paid special attention to the priest.
Zelig was introduced to Santo Toribio by his grandmother, an ardent Catholic who lived in Jalisco and was always sending the saint’s prayer cards to her beloved grandson, who gradually learned about the saint’s miracles and love for workers.
After his grandparents passed away the name Santo Toribio resonated. He thought it was the perfect way to honor them.
“It’s fulfilling, a privilege [to have his name],” he told the Tidings. “It is a blessing, and right now as I touched the relic I felt happy. I know that wherever I go everything will be fine.”
“I think it will be a great support for our Central American brothers and sisters to know that Santo Toribio is here for them, that he is alive and gave his life and blood for others,” said Herminda, still very emotional. “Many people go to his sanctuary to thank him. It’s very impressive.”
Santo Toribio’s relic will tour through the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and the Dioceses of Orange and San Bernardino, visiting a total of six parishes. For more information visit http://www.radiate.la/santotoribio.