Just up the street from the notorious Nickerson Gardens housing projects, the church and school of St. Lawrence of Brindisi in Watts form something of a small oasis in a part of LA known for gangs, poverty, and high crime rates.

The pastor here, Father Matthew Elshoff, OFM Cap., is a 67-year-old Ohio native with light blue eyes and the remains of a Midwestern accent. He goes by “Padre Mateo” (as the sign on his office door indicates) and a few weeks ago, while on a pilgrimage to Assisi, Italy, he received the surprise of a lifetime: Pope Francis had named him one of LA’s new auxiliary bishops.

“Francis, come rebuild my Church, Francis, respond to the call of the Church. That's been playing in my head many times over the past three weeks,” admitted Elshoff when asked about the serendipitous timing of the phone call from the apostolic nuncio to the U.S., Archbishop Christophe Pierre.

The Capuchin is the only religious order priest from among LA’s four new auxiliaries, and the first religious priest to become a bishop in LA in more than 35 years.  

He is the first of five children born to Cal and Irene Elshoff, themselves children of German and Hungarian immigrants who settled in Ohio. When Matthew was in the fourth grade, Cal, an architect, relocated the family from Cincinnati to Los Angeles for work. They moved into a house in La Cañada, whose residents, Cal was told, had “Midwestern values.” Elshoff said he had already begun to feel the stirrings of a call to the priesthood by then.

“It was always with me,” said Elshoff, who grew up in a family where “everything revolved around the church.”

Bishop-elect Matthew Elshoff with Cardinal Timothy Manning, the late Archbishop of Los Angeles who ordained him in 1982. (Courtesy photo)

At St. Bede the Venerable School, one of the Sisters of St. Louis who taught him, Sister Marilee, took a keen interest in encouraging vocations among her students. Elshoff caught her eye when he was in the sixth grade.

“She’d say, ‘Hey fella. I think you've got a vocation to be a priest. You want to think about that?”

The nun made an impression on the young transplant.

“Just the way she lived her life, the way she talked about prayer always impressed me and stuck with me,” he remembered.

After St. Bede’s, Elshoff was taught by the Capuchins at nearby St. Francis High School. The friars played a key role in his decision to join the order, as did two books: “The Sands of Tamanrasset,” a biography of now-St. Charles de Foucauld; and “With God in Russia,” Jesuit Father Walter Ciszek’s account of his clandestine missionary work in Soviet prisons and labor camps.

“Those two people, that contemplative dimension and that missionary spirit, was always sort of interwoven, would have an influence on me when I finally decided to join the Capuchins,” said Elshoff.

At 17, just weeks after graduation, Elshoff moved to the Bay Area to begin studying for the priesthood. A decade later in 1982, he was ordained a priest by Cardinal Timothy Manning of Los Angeles. Since then, he’s done everything from working as a vocations director and teacher to serving as marriage tribunal advocate and president of his high school alma mater.

After a six-year-term as provincial for his order, he spent a sabbatical year with the Capuchins in northern Mexico, doing the kind of full-time missionary work he’d always dreamed of since reading Ciszek’s book.

His first parish assignment didn’t come until 2015, when he was assigned as pastor of Old Mission Santa Inés in Solvang, where most of the parishioners are laborers from Jalisco, Mexico.

“That's the parish where I sort of cut my teeth as a pastor,” said Elshoff. “The people up there are pastoral poor, the hidden poor. They’re the ones that are working in the vineyards, in the horse farms, and these large various types of farms. I just fell in love with those people.”

Bishop-elect Matthew Elshoff with St. Lawrence of Brindisi Church parishioners at their annual “kermes” festival the weekend of the patron saint’s feast day. (Carson Van Vooren)

He was assigned in 2018 to St. Lawrence Church, another poor parish where Elshoff believes “the faith is so palpable.” When COVID-19 hit in 2020, Watts had some of the highest hospitalization and death rates in the county. 

“Deaths were big here,” said Elshoff. “If someone wanted to do a funeral here, we did a funeral.”

At the height of the lockdown, Elshoff and his fellow friars responded by processing around the neighborhood with a cross and a monstrance, carrying the Blessed Sacrament.

“People would know that we were coming so they would come outside, kneel in the yard,” he recalled. “They’d be saying ‘confess me!’ and shouting their sins. … I mean, you talk about a remarkable display of faith.”

Elshoff credits his predecessor at St. Lawrence, Father Peter Banks, with showing him — and the people of Watts — what that kind of pastoral approach looked like.

“He put the word evangelization on the map before it was even a common word,” said Elshoff of Banks, who now lives at Old Mission Santa Ynéz. “He taught me to walk the community, the housing projects, to get to know people.”

Also a licensed family and marriage therapist, Elshoff spent two years going to the Cardinal Manning House of Prayer for Priests in Los Feliz one day a week to hear confessions and give spiritual direction.

“He would be able to see how God was calling me to things in ways that were very helpful, things that I wasn’t necessarily seeing,” said Auxiliary Bishop Tim Freyer of Orange, recalling the time a few years ago when Elshoff served as spiritual director at a silent retreat for bishops. “This man just sees the hand of the Lord in everything.”

Tom Hoffarth also contributed to this report.