He was el padrecito, the musical charro priest, and so much more to the thousands of faithful he ministered to — both in Mexico and across the Archdiocese of Los Angeles — during his 50-plus years as a Catholic priest.
When he died on July 30 at 82, Father Ra√∫l A. Cortés, associate pastor at St. Catherine of Siena Church in Reseda, left behind a legacy of love and faith.
“Father Ra√∫l had this beautiful presence about him; I always felt safe and secure knowing that my father, my shepherd, my associate pastor was here,” said Clarissa Martinez, director of liturgy and music at St. Catherine’s. “And whenever he was in his office, there was always a constant flow of people of wanting to see him.”
The seemingly tireless priest never turned people away, even after 53 years of service as a priest, noted Martinez, adding that she believes his unwavering faith and enduring devotion to his parish community “can only be attributed to his faithfulness to God … to his strong relationship with the heavenly Father.”
Father Cortés was born in the town of San Jose de Gracia, Jalisco, to José and Alta Gracia, who were both devout Catholics. After entering the seminary in Guadalajara at 13, his teachers recognized his natural musical abilities and sent him to study at a music conservatory. After he was ordained in 1962 at the age of 27, he juggled his first parish assignment with teaching music at the seminary.
Over the nearly 20 years that followed, Father Cortés earned the love and respect of the people he served wherever he was assigned. He listened to their problems, offered help however he could, and often used music or sports to help draw more people into the Church. He often strapped on his piano accordion to play secular tunes, such as the Mexican standard “Cielito Lindo.”
During one particular assignment, Father Cortés even helped build two sports stadiums, organized 32 teams, and invited national soccer stars to visit his parish.
Ten years after first visiting family members who had immigrated to the U.S., Father Cortés made the bold decision to leave Mexico in order to minister to his people on the other side of the border. In 1981, he was assigned to Our Lady of the Valley in Canoga Park, where he led among the first all-Spanish language Masses in the San Fernando Valley, which initially drew crowds of several thousand.
Father Cortés later served at St. Linus in Norwalk for several years, before being assigned to St. Catherine of Siena in 1994. Four years later he renovated some property he had inherited into a non-profit music school for children who couldn’t afford music lessons. “Music,” he was known to say, “creates clean hearts.”
In celebration of his golden anniversary as a priest in 2012, Father Cortés launched a $50,000 scholarship fund drive to benefit the children of St. Catherine of Siena School, to help realize his dream of making a Catholic school education accessible to every boy and girl, regardless of their socio-economic status.
“In a nutshell, he was el padrecito, he was a dear priest to the community, and he had that special draw to the families,” said Martinez, who described his spiritual and community outreach as “very inter-parish” as well as intergenerational. “People [of all ages] would go to him for prayers, or to ask him to do sacraments for their families — [people even came] to see him from different parishes.”
“Father Ra√∫l was el padrecito to everybody; it was beautiful,” she said.
About 120 family members of Father Cortés were on hand for his vigil, funeral Mass and burial, including six surviving siblings, nieces and nephews and other relatives. Throughout the course of the overnight vigil — which began at 8 p.m. on Aug. 9 and ran until the funeral Mass the next day at 11 a.m. — nearly 1,500 men, women and children showed up to pay their final respects to el padrecito.
During the funeral liturgy, a standing-room only crowd filled St. Catherine’s, with approximately 1,200 mourners in attendance. Archbishop José H. Gomez celebrated the Mass, accompanied by Auxiliary Bishop Gerald Wilkerson and almost 20 clergy members. Graveside services were held immediately afterward at San Fernando Mission Cemetery in Mission Hills.
Father Cortés is survived by his siblings Alfonso, Ana Maria, Elisa, J. Jesus, Carmen, and Josefina, and many nephews and nieces. Condolences may be mailed to: St. Catherine of Siena Church, 18115 Sherman Way, Reseda, CA 91335.