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2,000 gather to mourn activist Father Olivares.

LOS ANGELES -- About 2,000 mourners, many of simple means, overflowed San Gabriel Mission March 22 to pay their respects to a priest they loved, a man who gave them hope and voiced their deepest concerns.

They came to celebrate Claretian Father Luis A. Olivares, who died March 18 at age 59.

Olivares had been pastor of Our Lady Queen of Angels Church -- known as "La Placita" -- until 1990, when he announced that he had contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion during a visit to El Salvador. He died of complications from AIDS two days after being checked into a local hospital.

Mourners included civil rights and union activists, church workers and celebrities. United Farm Worker leader Cesar Chavez, whose work on behalf of the Latino grape pickers first drew Olivares to the picket lines, was one of many Southern California organizers to attend the funeral. He eulogized his friend as did Martin Sheen, a Hollywood actor who supported many of Olivares' efforts on behalf of undocumented workers.

Cardinal Roger Mahony did not attend the funeral but issued a statement: "He fed the hungry, welcomed and sheltered the homeless and the stranger in our midst, instructed the ignorant and revered the dignity of every human person."

The body rested near the altar for more than an hour before the Mass began. Hundreds filed past, touching the coffin, which was draped in a red, white and black United Farm Workers flag. Many, some holding young children, bent over to kiss the body of the priest, who was clothed in Roman collar and black suit and wore a button saying in Spanish, "No grapes."

"He was our conscience. He challenged us. He was a voice for the poor," fellow Claretian Father Matthew DiMaria said as he gazed down upon the coffin.

Dozens of priests concelebrated the Mass of Christian Burial as a Mariachi band led people through the liturgy. Inside and outside the church on the balmy afternoon, people prayed and sang, many holding back tears.

"He was at the bed of my father when he died, said La Placita parishioner Celia Bojorquez Trujillo. "He stayed there with us. He waited with us. He prayed with us. I will never forget this man."

Mercedes Morales, also of La Placita, said: "This was a man who reminded me of San Salvador's Archbishop (Oscar) Romero."

In 1985, La Placita became the first Catholic church in the region to declare itself a sanctuary for Central American refugees. The church staff's opposition to U.S. policy in Central America resulted in repeated death threats from groups claiming links to Salvadoran death squads (NCR, Dec. 22, 1989).

Besides his work with refugees, Olivares built up one of the most extensive ministries to Hispanics in the United States. In 1989, Olivares estimated that about 11,000, mostly Hispanics, attended Masses at La Placita each Sunday. On weekends, staff members baptized about 200 babies and heard about 80 hours of confessions.

Olivares was a leading force behind the United Neighborhoods Organization, a grass-roots group that has organized Latinos around a variety of social justice issues. Olivares also protested working conditions of street-corner day laborers and promoted union organizing among immigrants.

"He called a spade a spade," said organizer and friend Larry Ramirez, standing behind the church. "That's what made him so powerful."

Jesuit Father Allen Figueroa Deck said Olivares' life should inspire others to fight for justice. "There's a whole new wave of immigrant people whose rights aren't being respected," Deck said. "Priests who are willing to speak out are important." Deck, a theologian, is president of the National Catholic Council for Hispanic Ministry.

The Mission of San Gabriel, run by the Claretians, where the funeral Mass was celebrated and where the body was laid to rest, is 13 miles east of downtown Los Angeles and the parish where Olivares served in the late 1980s. Some mourners clearly thought the Mass ought to have been held in the parish where Olivares served as pastor.

Said one man of those who planned the funeral service, "Even in death they did not trust him." He echoed the unsubstantiated charge that some church and city officials, knowing the lighting rod Olivares had been, preferred a funeral away from the center of the city.

In the church parking lot, unnoticed, actor Ed Asner stood alone. Asked about what drew him to the church the afternoon, he called Olivares "a great man." He added, "How nice to witness a great man, a saint, who did not have high office but came from among the people to become a true hero."

Said Asner, referring to the recently released U.N. report on human rights in El Salvador, which confirmed massive government abuse: "How nice it was that he (Olivares) could see the granite walls crumbling before he died. He is smiling upon us right now."
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Title Annotation:Luis A. Olivares
Author:Fox, Tom
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Obituary
Date:Apr 2, 1993
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