For a parish serving the one-square-mile area that is the Town of Guadalupe, Our Lady of Guadalupe produces some impressive numbers.
Our latest directory lists registration at 2,175 families. That alone places it among our larger parishes. Considering the town’s website says the Native American and Hispanic community only has about 5,500 residents, it’s a fairly Catholic town.
And if you want to get connected with the town, the parish can help with that too. It’s one of the four physical places that town meeting notices, agendas and minutes are posted.
In spite of the parish size, a single priest — and faithful deacon — has been serving there. That changed this summer when Franciscan Brother Louis Khoury moved in. He will be ordained a priest at the parish this morning.
He will remain there supporting Franciscan Father Alberto Villafan. The pair has their hands full. Our Lady of Guadalupe has three Sunday Masses, Br. Khoury said plus regular weddings, confessions, quinceañeras and Mass on Saturdays.
The soon-to-be Fr. Khoury is already hoping to have a third Franciscan join them soon to better meet pastoral needs.
Fr. Villafan offers even more insight into this beautiful parish in “God Has Plans for Us… and God is in Charge.” He wrote the article for the Sept. 27 edition of OFM.FYI, a weekly e-newsletter of the Franciscan Friars Province of Saint Barbara.
It’s 7 o’clock Saturday morning – another typically muggy August day in Phoenix. Friar Alberto Villafan has been upsince 5 for his morning run and breakfast before gathering his things for the drive to the parish. Our Lady of Guadalupe, in the town of Guadalupe, is a thirty-minute drive and a world away from from St. Mary’s Friary in downtown Phoenix. It’s going to be another busy day for Alberto—a morning retreat with 40 choir members, followed by a chat with the deacon (Santino Berasconi) about a scheduled baptism. Then, a quick lunch with deacon/friar Louis Khoury at nearby Rosita’s café: “the best jamaica I ever tasted!”. After the meal, another baptism followed by a 3pm wedding, followed by a quick rest, some phone calls,and prep work for the 7pm Vigil Mass. With luck, Alberto will be home before 9. In time to get to bed for another 5am wake-up call.
Welcome to the life of Friar Alberto, pastor at the 100 year- old church and parish of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Alberto has been here just six weeks and already he has a handle on things and some definite idea of what he would like to do — but, perhaps just as importantly — how he would like to do them:
“poco á poco. One step at a time. I want to get to know the people and secure their trust first. That’s the most important thing. I’m happy moving from the ground up — starting with catechesis right away while I am still new and the people are most open to fresh ideas.”
There are hopes, dreams, and plans for all sorts of projects, of course, ranging from basic repairs to the house he hopes to move into along with Louis in a few weeks, if all goes well.
“I was so surprised when I was asked to come to Guadalupe. I never even considered it as a possibility. I thought that I would be working in a parish in Los Angeles instead,”says the 50 year-old native of Chavinda, Michoachan, Mexico. Alberto studied at the ESL program of the province of St. Barbara— Casa San Félipe—before entering postulancy (early formation) in 1993.
He was ordained a priest in 2005 and has worked in both St. Francis Parish (Los Angeles) and more recently at St. Elizabeth Parish (Oakland) for six years prior to his current post. Deacon Louis, who assists Alberto, is scheduled to be ordained a priest at the parish on October 22. “We’ve been a parish for 100 years and this is the first ordination ever! It’s so exciting!” said one parishioner.
The parish itself has a rich history, founded by Friar Lucius Zittier, who helped the indigenous Yaqui people of northern Mexico escape persecution and possible extinction by securing them land for a reservation and helping them to immigrate to the United States. The Franciscan presence in the area has continued unabated ever since, and most recently, Friar Joseph (Joe) Baur retired from his ministry here after some 30 years of service.
“We’ve been praying for a priest,” explained one parishioner. We thought that when Padre Joe would leave, we wouldn’t get any priest at all and they we close the parish. We thought that the Franciscans would abandon us! But now we have Padre Alberto… and Fray Louis, the diacono. Can you imagine? Two Franciscans in Guadalupe! Que milagro!”
“I guess this is my honeymoon period,” Alberto reflects. “But I have to say I am so happy right now and I really enjoy every minute of it.” He has a special love of liturgy and sacramental ministry. “I am grateful for my experience at the Franciscan School of Theology (FST). I am practicing what I learned there. It gave me the resources to do and to enjoy what I am doing right now.”
Education and spiritual formation are top priorities for the new pastor: I want to make sure the acolytes do what they are trained to do and that they do it properly. I tell them: ‘You need to do your ministry with love and with joy.’ This same advice is imparted easily to choir members and other ministers as well: “I ask them: ‘Do you want to shine? I don’t want people who just want to shine for themselves. I want everyone in the ministry to work with each other so all of us can shine!”
Plans are afoot for more ministry retreats: I want to do retreats for each group — the altar servers, the choir, the lectors—all of the ministers. I joke with them: “Come to the retreat I am organizing for you, or else I will give you a penance!”
There are also long-terms hopes for reaching out to the teens and young adults: “ I hope we can build up the religious education program — catechism classes, Confirmation preparation, and then a youth group. I know there are big problems with the young people in the community—with gangs, drugs, and alcohol.” Typically Alberto is down to earth, realistic, and methodical in his approach — again, step by step, poco á poco.
As every pastor knows, there are some things that just can’t wait — like a leaky church roof, for example, and long-term deferred maintenance needs that must be addressed — now! “We need a lot of work done. At first, we were told we would be saddled with a big debt — $30,000 — if the Diocese made all the repairs. But I convinced them that the people would help. That brought things down to just $8,000 and we hope to move in to the friary in just a few weeks from now.”
While Alberto is not afraid to step in when needed, he is also clear that he wants to share responsibilities with the lay members of the parish: “I want the people to trust me with money, so I am forming a committee to deal with all the expenses. I want to give them the clear message: I am not in charge of the money in the parish.” He is quick to recognize the generosity of the community and trusts that they will be given the resources they need:
“Of course, we need money. I tell the people: ‘Thank you for whatever you are able to offer.’ And then, we have gotten so much from people outside of the parish in donations—especially from the Casa in Scottsdale! People brought us beds, furniture. A woman came to me: Father, I heard you need a car. Here are the keys and here is the title. It’s yours. She gave me a car that belonged to her husband who passed away. Just like that, she gave me the car!”
Alberto is also grateful for the support received from his fellow Franciscans and particularly by the new Provincial administration: I am fine with where the Province is going. With the administration we have, I trust that they are going to make good decisions for our future. And I can see that they have already made sacrifices to come to visit the friars — to visit our houses.” As for the future? Friar Alberto is confident and clear: “God has plans for us. And God is in charge.”