“Bishop of the Barrio” — California’s Venerable Alphonse Gallegos
On July 8, 2016, Pope Francis authorized the Congregation for the Causes of Saints to promulgate a decree recognizing Bishop Gallegos’ heroic virtues and declaring him Venerable.
The new auxiliary bishop was never in his office. He had, as one, journalist put it, “taken it to the streets.” As he had in southern California, he walked the streets of Sacramento’s Latino neighborhoods, talking with youth and visiting families. On Friday and Saturday nights, he always stopped by the gatherings of “lowriders” hanging around street corners. He admired the mechanical skills they had to trick out their cars, encouraged them to put those talents to good use, blessed their automobiles and invited them to church. And he did it all a genuine warmth and a smile.
Bishop Alphonse Gallegos got the nickname, “Bishop of the Barrio.”
He had himself grown up in a barrio, the Spanish word for neighborhood often applied to Hispanic parts of American cities. His family was originally from Albuquerque, New Mexico, and part of the area’s Latino culture with roots reaching back to when the state was part of the Spanish Empire. Their faith was deep, too. At home, they had daily catechism classes after finishing their homework and prayed the Rosary after dinner. Alphonse’s father was a carpenter and the Gallegos family took St. Joseph as their patron. Every year on his feast, they threw a huge party for the neighbors.
Alphonse had been born with severe myopia. To get better treatment for him and more opportunities for his 10 siblings, the Gallegos family moved to Watts, California, outside of Los Angeles. The town also had colonial roots, too, and by the 1930s it had become a transport hub for the railroad and a melting pot of ethnicities and immigrants. Alphonse attended public school where he could take special sight-saving classes.
As he got older, he became an altar server and took private Latin classes with the Augustinian Recollects at their parish, St. Michael’s Church. He wanted to be a priest. At age 16, he had eye surgery that significantly improved his vision, at least temporarily, so that he was able to graduate from a regular high school. In 1950, he entered the Augustinian Recollects and went to Kansas City, Missouri, for his novitiate. He made his first vows in 1951 and his final vows in 1954.
In 1972, he was sent back to Watts as pastor of St. Michael’s. He made education the pillar of his strategy for the parish. They had a school, but he knew that with most of his parishioners living below the poverty line it needed additional financial support. He expanded his reach from Watts to Hollywood and brought the enrollment up to 350 students. He was there, too, every morning to greet the students and to see them off on the afternoon. He embedded his vision of the deeper purpose of Catholic education in the teachers and administrators. He wanted all the students to leave St. Michael’s with a deep sense of their dignity as a human person, pride in their cultural heritage and an authentic relationship with God.
In 1979, he was asked to become the director of the newly-created Hispanic Affairs Office of the California Catholic Conference. He was obedient to decision of his superiors, who would miss his presence in the monastic community, but told him to accept the position. In 1981, he was appointed auxiliary bishop of Sacramento.
As auxiliary bishop, he placed in charge of the Hispanic ministry in diocese. He continued many of the activities that had characterized his years as pastor and his work at the California Catholic Conference, including his walks around the barrios and his visits with lowriders. He was rarely seen at the chancery as he was always visiting someone, whether a simple member of the diocese or a civic leader whose ear he was bending.
He seemed to have a hand in everything. He fundraised for little girl in Peru who needed a liver transplant, launched a campaign to help illegal immigrants apply for legal status when the requirements were loosened, and advocated for bilingual education. He marched with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers and maintained an ongoing friendship with the labor leader. He joined the protests to stop the shipment of nuclear warheads to the Trident submarine base and joined pro-life demonstrations. He gave two annual daylong retreats at the Folsom Prison.
His concerns had a wide span, but he spent a lot of time in the migrant worker camps. He would say Mass outdoors for the workers and their families, gathering the children close to the altar. He visited with these workers without a permanent home and organized catechesis in preparation for the sacraments. This would lead to the mobile pastoral teams that continued their work after his death.
He died suddenly in a car accident on Oct. 6, 1991. At his funeral, some 300 lowriders helped form one of the longest funeral processions Sacramento had ever seen.
On July 8, 2016, Pope Francis authorized the Congregation for the Causes of Saints to promulgate a decree recognizing his heroic virtues and declaring him Venerable. In order for him to advance to the next step in the sainthood process of beatification, his canonization cause will need to identify a healing miracle worked through his singular intercession that is validated by Rome.