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A walk along L.A.’s Claretian Way

Los Angeles

If streets had subtitles, there’s a long, winding road in downtown Los Angeles that could read: César Chàvez Boulevard/Claretian Way.

César Chávez, who deserves his boulevard, wouldn’t object. When organizing, he frequently used the top floor of the Claretians’ House of Studies near the University of San Francisco as a safe house.

And he radicalized several young Claretians in the process, all of them with strong Los Angeles connections, including Fr. Richard Estrada and Br. Modesto Leon, and the late Fr. Luis Olivares.

Olivares rose to national prominence in the 1980s when he declared the downtown 18th-century adobe plaza church, La Placita (Our Lady Queen of the Angels), a sanctuary for refugees fleeing the wars in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala.

A walk along Claretian Way (Chávez’s boulevard) would pass Estrada’s base for Jovenes Inc. -- originally an outreach to underage immigrants, today deep into homelessness issues -- in an angular, wood-fronted building at Chávez and Broadway.

Next, where the boulevard intersects Main, one block in there is La Placita itself. Its outdoor ceramic tile shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe, with its candles that burn through the night, attracts the sorrowful, the hopeful, lost and penitential at all hours. The area’s homeless -- who get a coffee and bread breakfast and seven-days-a-week lunch at La Placita -- view these things with unblinking eyes, then turn their gaze elsewhere.

Our Lady Queen of Angels Church is surely one of the busiest in the country, with 300 to 400 baptisms every weekend, a dozen quinceaneras (celebrations of young women reaching age 15), and a minimum half-dozen weddings.

Farther along Chávez Boulevard, not far from the Twin Towers -- Los Angeles County’s 11,000-population twin jails -- is Claretian Fr. Art Gramaje. He is headed inside, a volunteer chaplain who is also the Claretians’ Western Province vocations director, and prior to that, one of two priests doing community outreach in a tough section of Long Beach.

Gramaje, wearing his trademark porkpie hat, dark shirt and white slacks, poses alongside a bail bondsman’s highly decorated limo -- the closest thing to an open-air art gallery in this part of town. Beyond, six women wearing yellow prison jumpsuits work with a concrete mixer to build a decorative wall to set off the prison’s reception area. It’s a Tuesday. Gramaje has confessions. Sundays he says two Masses.

Crossing César Chávez Boulevard at almost any time of day is Br. Modesto Leon. Just back from testifying before the state legislature in Sacramento, Leon is the energy and inspiration and executive director behind 18 Los Angeles alternative schools -- including an innovative all-girls academy -- for gang members or other youths in trouble with the law or the educational system.

To work with the Spanish-speaking

The Claretians came to the Southwest 100 years ago to work with the Spanish-speaking. They’ve taught, they’ve run parishes, but in the main they’ve stuck like limpets to parishes and tough jobs in gritty areas from Texas to Washington state.

They’ve got a great track record -- and the same big problem as all religious orders in the Western world. The jobs are getting more demanding, and the numbers are getting fewer. The Claretians’ Western province (which includes Texas, Arizona and California) is down to 81 members, and half of those are past retirement age; the Eastern province has about 40 members.

Like most religious, the Claretians operate in two worlds, the sacred and the profane. Rarely, however, is the divide, even the inseparability, more obvious than in the Western Province Claretians’ Hancock Park retreat center chapel here.

For those at prayer, the altar is ahead. If they glance to their right through the huge plate glass windows, the enormous block letters planted in the not-so-distant hillside spell out “Hollywood.”

These Western Province Claretians marked their centenary last September. They spend more time in the world than in the chapel. But that doesn’t mean the “religious” aspect of their religious life is minimized. (As most religious congregations are quite aware, those preoccupied as public hell-raisers on behalf of the poor aren’t necessarily the easiest members of the domestic community.) So the Claretians have a cluster of little communities, including Annunciation Church in Long Beach and Casadáliga House (named for the famed Brazilian Bishop Pedro Casadáliga Plá of São Félix, a Claretian). The provincial, Fr. Roland Lozano, lives with the La Placita community.

On the cutbacks in parish work, Claretian Fr. John Raab explained it this way: “We are in tears because we are leaving many important places and parishes, but leaving with immense satisfaction as well. We know that we have assisted in a great growth in leadership and sense of community, especially through the diaconate. We’ve been part of the huge expansion of our congregation in Nigeria, with 220 members, second only to Castile’s 229. Our challenge now is to transfer First World resources to our Third World organizations as they send missionaries worldwide and integrate young Third World Claretians into our older organisms.”

Raab didn’t know how prescient he was when he added, “Missionaries always have to say goodbye. [St. Anthony] Claret [founder of the Claretians, officially the Sons of the Heart of Mary, CMF] was always on the move -- in Catalonia, the Canary Islands, Cuba and even the Court of Queen Isabella II of Spain.”

Saying farewell

Raab himself was saying farewell, about to leave for ministry to the unchurched in former East Germany. He hadn’t finished packing his bags before his orders changed: He’s now in Sri Lanka.

Jovenes’ founder, Estrada, describes founder Claret as “a five-foot tall dynamo from Spain. Real energetic, an extravert, a little guy with a big ego. Brilliant mind, way ahead on social issues, traditional in church teaching.”

Claret’s high energy level is evident in the Claretians’ street-level ministries.

The Jovenes organization came about because the Central American wars greatly added to the refugee stream of youths and children. They’d arrive by immigrant osmosis in Los Angeles, lost, hungry and greatly at risk.

Estrada, part-time chaplain at Central Juvenile Home, started working with the Mexican consul, a community clinic director, a couple of concerned attorneys and volunteers, and was soon running temporary shelters -- without a license.

Throughout upheavals and battles that deserve their own history -- not least being run out of the Claretians’ Dominquez former seminary for filling the empty beds with kids -- permanent shelters were established.

Two decades later the work has shifted to homeless advocacy. But Jovenes and Estrada haven’t slowed. This year he opens Olivares Pleasant Avenue Center for services to marginalized youth.

The Boyle Heights site will have a computer lab, education and art studio instruction. Art has always been a key factor in Estrada’s programs. The Olivares Project is seen as a stabilizing element in a tough community.

Jovenes has a women’s self-development project at Casa-Mex apartment complex, a Mujeres Work Force project, small shelter settings for low-income women and depends on a constant hunt for funds.

True to his Chávez-influenced roots, when Estrada marked his 25th anniversary at La Placita with an interfaith prayer service recently, it included an outspoken protest against U.S. war plans in Iraq, a plea for new initiatives for peace in the Middle East, and the launching of an institute to protect the rights of immigrant, homeless and indigenous people.

The worldwide Claretians in 1999 marked their 150th year since their founding. The Western Province responded with a storefront drop-in prayer center and community outreach in Long Beach. Great idea, poor location. No parking.

It was a new venture, perhaps too quickly founded and, inevitably, too soon closed. The two younger Claretians assigned there were soon needed elsewhere: Fr. Paul Keller, in his late 30s, in San Antonio; Gramaje, now in his early 40s, on the provincial council.

César Chávez Boulevard is more than a Los Angeles artery. More than a living link to a Claretian ministry, it’s sort of family. In 1927, in Yuma, Ariz., it was a Claretian who baptized the baby César.

Arthur Jones is NCR editor at large. His e-mail address is arthurjones@attbi.com

Related Web site

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National Catholic Reporter, February 28, 2003