A couple thousand of Father Raul Cortes’ closest friends are expected at St. Catherine of Siena Church in Reseda March 17 to celebrate his 50th anniversary as a priest with Mass, music and opportunities to contribute to a scholarship fund tuition assistance project he started at the parish school.The oldest of 14 children born into a musical family in the town of San Jose de Gracia, Jalisco, Mexico, Father Cortes helped teach sacred music classes and was the piano accompanist at the seminary in Guadalajara after arriving there as a 13-year-old with a group of 13 young men from his small town. 

Though he says the townspeople felt he was the least likely to stay in the seminary, he was the only one from his cohort to persevere in his priestly formation. His vocation, he says, “is a mystery,” and he gives God the glory for his 50 years of ministry following his ordination at the Guadalajara Cathedral on March 17, 1962.

Father Cortes, 78, who plays piano, accordion and recorder, juggled his first parish assignment with teaching music at the seminary. He went the extra mile to reach out to parishioners, learning to ride horses so that he could minister to the people in surrounding towns.

He was creative in drawing people into the life of the Church, using music and sports. At one assignment, he built two sports stadiums, organized 32 teams and brought national soccer stars to the parish regularly.

Father Cortes obtained a green card to visit family members who had emigrated to the U.S., and, after some years vacationing annually in the states, he received permission from his bishop to serve across the border.

In 1981, Father Cortes was assigned to Our Lady of the Valley in Canoga Park. He celebrated Mass in Spanish --- hardly the norm then in the West Valley --- which drew crowds of several thousand. When he was transferred to St. Linus in Norwalk, the Filipino community there embraced him as well.

Since 1994, he has served as an associate pastor at St. Catherine of Siena, which is now “twinned” with St. Bridget of Sweden a few miles east down Sherman Way in Van Nuys. He has taught music in the parish school and runs a nearby non-profit music school where children and adults can learn how to play instruments for a nominal hourly fee.

Besides giving children the gift of music, which he says creates “clean minds and noble hearts,” Father Cortes has been working on creative ways to provide access to Catholic education, regardless of a family’s economic status. Two years ago, he helped boost St. Catherine’s school enrollment from 57 to 262 students by encouraging families in the area to send their children to the parish school and raising donations through his many community contacts to provide partial scholarships. His goal is to help raise the school’s enrollment to 300.

He asked those organizing his 50th anniversary to shine the spotlight on the school “which makes good Catholics to replace us,” said Father Cortes. He hopes St. Catherine’s model of creative ways to finance tuition --- including the establishment of its “Circle of Friends” donors with contributors from the parish and local community --- will be an example and model for other enrollment-challenged schools to follow.

So far, “Fr. Raul’s Scholarship Fund Drive” has raised $25,000 toward its goal of $50,000 in tuition assistance to families desiring a Catholic education at St. Catherine of Siena School. Father Cortes says his “dream” is for those celebrating his golden anniversary “to accompany me and support the school.”

His appeal for community support for the parish school mirrors an earlier era of Catholic education in the U.S., where nuns educated the children of immigrants and their sacrifice lowered the price barrier to make tuition affordable.

“In those days, everybody pitched in to build the classrooms that only the families with kids would use,” said Father Paul Griesgraber, pastor of St. Catherine of Siena and St. Bridget of Sweden. “Through his golden celebration, Father Raul is bringing back some of the good of the good old days.”

Father Cortes’ anniversary celebration on March 17 starts at 2 p.m. with Kermés and live entertainment followed by a Mass in the church at 5:30 p.m. At 7 p.m., there will be dinner and a reception with jazz and mariachi bands and dancing. 

For further information on the event or how to make a donation, visit www.catherineofsiena.org or call the St. Catherine of Siena School Board at (818) 343-2110.

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