A 100-Year-Old Priest Was Nudged From His Parish. He Has No Plan to Retire.

BEAUMONT, Texas — The priest needed a hand while tugging on layer after layer of vestments. He carried a magnifying glass to help him read a handwritten list of prayer intentions. But as he jingled a bell to let the congregation know that Mass was beginning, he abandoned his walker and cane, singing along with the choir as he ambled up the center aisle toward the altar.

“He knows the difficulty of our life — it’s not easy,” the Rev. Luis Urriza said in Spanish, describing Jesus’s familiarity with the struggles of his followers.

“He has been tested in all manners,” Father Luis said. “Exactly like us.”

In fact, Father Luis faced a test of his own, perhaps his most daunting. At the age of 100, nearly 70 years after he had established the humble Cristo Rey Parish to nurture a small but burgeoning Latino community in southeast Texas, he was now being forced to leave it behind.

Not long after his birthday in August, the Catholic bishop of Beaumont told him that the time had come. Another, younger pastor was taking over at Cristo Rey. His order was sending Father Luis off to a new assignment in Spain, his home country, to join other priests serving in a church near Madrid.

He did not want to leave. His parishioners organized a march hoping to convince the bishop to change his mind. “Viva Cristo Rey!” they chanted. “Viva Padre Luis!” But the decision stood.

This was the test — of the vows of obedience he had taken eight decades ago, and in the trust he placed in God’s will.

“I’m here doing what any priest who is 40 or 50 years old would do,” Father Luis said.Credit…Callaghan O’Hare for The New York Times
Parishioners at a Mass celebrating Father Luis.Credit…Callaghan O’Hare for The New York Times

He believed it was a divinely charted trajectory that led his mother to take him to a monastery in Spain when he was 12 and that ultimately brought him to Texas. Now, he was being uprooted again. He hoped that he would be steered in a direction where he could keep working and be useful, even if others expected him to rest.

“God does things you don’t understand,” he said. “Maybe they need me over there.”

When he turned 75, Father Luis handed in his resignation, just as every Catholic priest was required to do. That was in 1996. From then on, it was up to his superiors to decide each year whether he would continue as pastor of Cristo Rey.

Twenty-five years later, he has, undeniably, slowed down, but he regularly gets around without his walker or cane. The first few steps are the hardest, but then he gets going. He sometimes grasps for words in English, but he blames that on decades of speaking mostly Spanish. He still prepares his own dinner in the rectory, stirring a splash of oil from Spain into his canned chicken noodle soup before he microwaves it. Just three years ago, he stopped driving himself around on errands and to visit the sick at the hospital.

Father Luis bristles at the notion that his advanced age makes him unsuited to lead his parish.

“I’m here doing what any priest who is 40 or 50 years old would do,” he said.

Still, the work can be demanding. Even more so when the parish is as bustling as Cristo Rey.

“There is a reason why we don’t still run companies or businesses or parishes at 100,” said Bishop David L. Toups of the Diocese of Beaumont. He described Father Luis with his congregation like a “grandfather with his children, with his family, growing weaker.”

Bible study before Mass.Credit…Callaghan O’Hare for The New York Times
Sharing a moment with Miguel Angel Guerrero. More than 900 babies have been baptized at Cristo Rey in the past six years. Credit…Callaghan O’Hare for The New York Times

“It’s harder to do the things that he would have done in years prior,” Bishop Toups said, “but his love for his people remains.”

The Catholic Church in Beaumont is experiencing a generational shift. Bishop Toups, who arrived last year, is 50. The pastor of the cathedral in the diocese retired this year after 41 years of priesthood, and the longtime pastor of another parish died in August at 87.

Still, even as many at Cristo Rey acknowledged that a future without Father Luis was inevitable, the decision to remove him shook and angered them. There was even more confusion when the Order of Saint Augustine insisted that he move back to Spain.

“It’s unfair, it’s an injustice to him,” said Angelica Perez, who joined the church after arriving from Mexico more than two decades ago.

“We love you, Father Luis,” she told him when she visited the church last week. “Know that.”

“I love you,” he replied.

“We know that, too,” she said.

On the Friday before his final Mass this month, women from the church were in his bedroom in the rectory, digging through his dressers and closet, tossing out worn undershirts, looking through old photographs and carefully folding vestments sewn by his sister into a suitcase. “This suitcase is 70 years old!” Silvia Rodriguez said, laughing.

The walls of his office were bare. The photographs and mementos that had covered the paneling had been packed. But he was behind his desk, working. He shuffled to the front door every time someone rang the bell and asked him to hear their confession. He answered the phone — “Cristo Rey!” — and gave callers directions to the church.

“Aye, mamma mia!” he huffed with every interruption.

Cristo Rey is a simple church, sitting off a busy street behind a Family Dollar store, alongside railroad tracks transporting trains that blare their horns during Mass.

Silvia Rodriguez helps Father Luis prepare for his move to Spain.Credit…Callaghan O’Hare for The New York Times
Father Luis in his younger days.Credit…Callaghan O’Hare for The New York Times

Inside, the parish is emblematic of the vitality that young immigrant communities from Latin America and elsewhere have brought to the Catholic Church, even as it has been buffeted by scandal and many have drifted away from institutional religion. That energy was reflected in the handwritten ledgers in Father Luis’s office: 920 babies have been baptized since Oct. 10, 2015, according to the most recent volume; more than 120 children received first communion this year.

The church attends to more than just the spiritual needs of its parishioners, many of whom are trying to find a toehold in a new country. It hosts health fairs, mental health programs, bilingual forums with political candidates, clinics for undocumented people and workshops on applying to college or getting help with hurricane recovery.

“There are so many things we do here,” said Jacqueline Hernandez, 30, who has come to Cristo Rey since she was 5. “It’s a hub of resources.”

When Father Luis arrived in Texas, he quickly found that there were dozens of Mexican American families in need of a church of their own.

The necessity then was rooted in more than language.(In those days, Mass was always said in Latin.) Some churches were segregated, with Hispanic and Black worshipers crowded into pews in the back.

At first, a family let Father Luis celebrate Mass inside their home. The pastor at another parish in the neighborhood with a congregation of mostly Italian American families offered to let them gather in a small hall. “Never in the church!” Father Luis said, a slight he saw as indicative of the disdain that other priests had for his parishioners.

He cobbled together the money to build Cristo Rey in the early 1950s. Bingo proceeds paid for the supplies to add a church hall. “We built the hall ourselves, the people,” Father Luis said. “I was a younger man at that time.” In the early days, without the help of a choir, he played the organ and belted out hymns.

Today, roughly 35 percent of people in the Beaumont diocese are native speakers of Spanish, Bishop Toups said. Although they are spread across nine counties, Cristo Rey has been the heart of that community, even for those who no longer regularly worship there, a point not lost on the bishop.

“We will send priests to continue to shepherd and walk with and accompany the people at Cristo Rey for future generations,” Bishop Toups said. “The reality in the life of the church is that ministers come and go, the bishops come and go, priests come and go, but the church remains.”

Even though he wasn’t continuing as pastor, many in the parish wanted Father Luis to stay close. They could care for him. “He’s survived Covid, he’s survived wars,” Ms.7 Hernandez said. “We definitely want him to get the treatment and respect that he deserves.”

A band member sheds a tear during one of Father Luis’s final Masses.Credit…Callaghan O’Hare for The New York Times
Removing his vestments after leading his last Mass at Cristo Rey.Credit…Callaghan O’Hare for The New York Times

Yet he does not want to be the one cared for. The appeal of the assignment in Spain, he said, is that he has been assured that there will be work, particularly with a growing immigrant community.

“It’s something beautiful,” he said. “God’s calling you to do this work.”

On Oct. 17, Father Luis led the congregation through prayers at the Sunday morning Mass one final time.

After communion, parishioners commandeered the microphone.

“I know your hearts are pounding,” one man said. “We have Father Luis in our hearts and he’ll always be present here with us.”

“Even though I won’t be here,” Father Luis replied, “I’ll never forget you.”

After Mass, Father Luis stood by the door as hundreds funneled through, each person pulling him into a hug, tapping elbows and huddling for pictures. Teenagers pushed their way back into the church to ask for his blessing. They wept as he raised his hand and mumbled a prayer.

“OK, OK, OK, OK,” he said, playfully bopping each of them on the forehead.

A cluster of parishioners followed him as he went to the sacristy: more photos, more hugs. He finally peeled off his vestments and plopped into a chair. “I’m tired!” he said with a heavy sigh.

But then a woman walked up and asked Father Luis to hear her confession. He shooed everyone from the room but her.

Orlando Mayorquin contributed reporting.

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