Flores, Patrick Fernandez
Patrick Fernandez Flores
American Archbishop Patrick F. Flores (born 1929) became the first Mexican American to rise to a high rank in the Roman Catholic Church in the United States. When appointed Archbishop of the Archdiocese of San Antonio in Texas, he became the head of the largest provinces of dioceses in the country. Throughout his life and career, Flores was greatly admired and well-liked, as he supported civil rights causes, actively helped the poor, and sought to bring together people and leaders of other faiths.
In 2005, Galán Incorporated, a film production company, announced that it wanted to produce a documentary about Roman Catholic Bishop Patrick F. Flores. The chosen subject matter seemed highly appropriate for a motion picture, as Flores is a charismatic figure whose life and legacy offer the kind of drama and inspiration that makes for a compelling narrative. Flores rose from humble beginnings to become America's first Mexican-American Catholic Bishop. In his early life, Flores was a migrant worker and cantina custodian but, after he entered the priesthood, he rose to the highest levels in the church hierarchy. Along the way, his career was filled with accomplishment, controversy and even danger.
Early Life and Career
Flores, the seventh of nine children born to Patricio and Trinidad Fernandez de Flores, was born on July 26, 1929, in Ganado, Texas. Flores attended Ganado Elementary School, Pearland Elementary School and Christian Brothers' Kirwin High School in Galveston, Texas. In 1946, when he was in the tenth grade, Flores wanted to drop out of high school when his father became ill and could not work. He was persuaded against that route, however, when a nun convinced a bishop to finance his education at the Catholic school. His education thus salvaged, Flores diligently applied himself to his studies and completed a three-year program in two years. He managed to accomplish this even while studying Latin on the side.
To earn money for his family and himself, Flores worked in a cantina, picking up empty beer cans from the floor and sweeping up cigarette stubs. The working environment coupled with his chores compelled him to want to make the whole world a cleaner and more habitable place, and he felt the best way he could do that was by becoming a priest.
Intent on following his calling, after he graduated from Kirwan, Flores entered St. Mary's Seminary in La Porte, Texas in 1949. He later attended St. Mary's Seminary in Houston. He never wavered in his decision to become a priest. Once again displaying academic ambition, he completed eight years' of seminary education in seven. When he completed his work at the Houston seminary, he took his holy vows. He was ordained into the Catholic priesthood at St. Mary's Cathedral in Galveston on May 26, 1956, by Bishop Wendellin J. Nold.
Now known as Father Flores, he celebrated his first mass at the Guardian Angel in Pasadena, Texas. Shortly afterward, he was assigned to the Diocese of Galveston-Houston, where he served as an assistant pastor in several parishes.
Concerned with the plight of the poor and oppressed, Flores began displaying activist inclinations in the early 1960s, when he directed the Christian Family Movement in the Galveston-Houston diocese and the Bishop's Committee for the Spanish Speaking, a ministry that encouraged bilingual congregations. At the end of the decade, in October 1969, Flores joined forty-seven other Hispanic priests to establish PADRES, an organization that draws attention to the problems of Hispanics in the church. In between, he received his first pastorate, at the Guardian Angel Parish in Pasadena, in 1963; in 1967, Flores became pastor of St. Joseph-St. Stephen Parish in Houston.
In May of 1970, Pope John Paul VI made Flores the auxiliary to the archbishop of San Antonio. Later that year, he became a bishop, the first Mexican American to attain that high a position in the Roman Catholic Church. Being bilingual, and coming from a poor background himself, Flores managed to develop a strong relationship with the parishioners.
Also in May of 1970, Flores was appointed chairman of the Texas State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and in July he became national chaplain for the League of United Latin American Citizens.
Even in such positions of respect and power, Flores remained humble and continued directing his activities toward helping the less fortunate. In 1972, he co-founded the Mexican-American Cultural Center in San Antonio and served as its honorary chairman. He then helped form the National Foundation of Mexican American Vocations and the National Hispanic Scholarship Fund, which helped hundreds of young people to obtain a college education. The following year, he helped raise more than $20,000 for earthquake victims in Mexico, and then he joined picketers at a supermarket who were protesting the stocking of nonunion lettuce and grapes.
Flores' activities did not go unnoticed. Time magazine named him "an emerging leader of America" in 1974. He gained more media attention in 1976 when he helped establish "Telethon Navideno" (Nativity Telethon), a broadcast event held on the first Sunday of December to raise money for indigent Latino families. Proceeds paid for emergency rental finances, utilities, and medication for single women with children, the elderly, the unemployed and the sick. By this time, Flores had spent twenty years in the priesthood. However, as humanitarian as his aims were, his activities were not without personal danger. In August of 1976, he visited Ecuador to attend a conference, but he ended up being held at gunpoint by the country's army for 28 hours with 56 other prelates.
In May of 1978, Flores returned to San Antonio when he was appointed the bishop of the diocese. Then, on October 13, 1979, he was named by the Pope to be the archbishop of the diocese. As the archbishop, Flores became the leader of nearly one million Catholics in the largest province of dioceses in the United States. The diocese encompassed a large territory that reached from the Texas-Mexico border and into the uplands of Texas. In addition, the appointment made Flores the highest-ranking Hispanic American in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in the United States.
Despite that distinction, throughout his career, Flores never thought of himself as an ethnic role model. Instead, he felt his role was to administer to people of all racial, cultural and ethnic backgrounds, in particular the poor. Well-liked, influential, and inspirational, Flores was affectionately given the nickname of the "mariachi bishop," as he enjoyed bringing a celebratory quality into his ministry, which included Latino music and dance.
In his high-ranking position, Flores never became pompous or overly pious. Often, he was referred to simply as "Patrick" or "Patricio." His efforts were as tireless as they were humanitarian and often required great tolerance and even courage. His character and accomplishments were greatly appreciated and, in 1979, he was invited by President Jimmy Carter to take part in the Camp David discussions. In 1983, he was one of four bishops called upon to represent the United States Catholic Church hierarchy at that year's Synod of Bishops in Rome. During his 10-week stay, he extended an invitation to the Pope to visit San Antonio. The Pope eventually followed up on the invitation on September 13, 1987, when he was Flores' house guest in his apartment on the Catholic chancery grounds.
Also in the 1980s, Flores became a member of the Hispanic Caucus Committee (1980) and he founded Catholic Television of San Antonio, the first diocesan television station in the United States (1981). In January of 1985, he was one of three American bishops invited to visit Cuba as part of a courtesy exchange for the Episcopal Bishops Conferences. He returned to Cuba a year later, as the only U.S. Bishop invited for the week-long conference to discuss the future of the Catholic Church in Cuba.
Recognized for his Work
During the 1980s and 1990s, he received several significant honors for his work. In 1985, he received the Ellis Island Medal of Honor, during the celebration of the Statue of Liberty's 100th Birthday, and he received the Hispanic Heritage award for leadership in 1986. In October of 1989, Flores became the first San Antonian to receive the Anti-Defamation League's Ben and Julie Rogers Ecumenism Award, which is given to religious leaders for promoting clerical harmony and cooperation. In 1995, he received the Distinguished Churchman Award by the San Antonio Council of Churches and the Ford Salute to Education award. In 1999, he received the B'nai Brith International Humanitarian Award.
By the end of the 1980s, he was back on the international stage. In 1988, he was one of three U.S. bishops to meet with church and government leaders in Mexico. In the following year, he participated in a summit meeting between the Vatican and thirty-six U.S. archbishops. At the event, he was one of 10 bishops chosen to address the participants. Through July and August of 1990, he toured Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary to prepare a report on how Americans could help support the churches and its people.
Supported Controversial Causes
In the 1990s, as all throughout his career, Flores lent his support to numerous causes, some of them controversial. In 1993, he established a support group for "Parents with Sons on Death Row" to provide parents with spiritual and financial support as well as transportation to visit their sons at the Huntsville State Penitentiary. In 1999, he became involved in a land-use lawsuit that went all the way to the Supreme Court. Flores represented the congregation of Beorne, Texas, who demanded rights to a permit from the city to enlarge a church that had been declared a historic property. In January of 1999, he raised money to help keep the San Antonio Metropolitan Ministry shelter dining room open. He even donated two months of his own salary.
Flores was also involved in a campaign against violence. When the Texas concealed handgun law went into effect in 1996, he put up red-and-white "no guns" signs, written in English and Spanish, to indicate that no weapons were permitted on church property.
In 2001, during a reinvigorated campaign to ensure that theology teachers at seven Catholic institutions in his archdiocese remained true to the faith, Flores proposed a loyalty oath that would affirm intent to teach authentic Catholic doctrine. Flores displayed his characteristic openness and tolerance, though, when he refused to expel teachers who refused to sign the oath.
Flores' open-mindedness and tolerance extended to people of all faiths and drove his desire to bring them together in a commitment to spiritual faith. This led to some rather significant inter-denominational efforts. In 1997, when famed evangelist Dr. Billy Graham brought his religious crusade to San Antonio for a four-night event at the city's Alamodome, Flores taped radio spots in English and Spanish to help promote Graham's appearance. Grateful for the support, Graham credited Flores with generating a large response from the area's Catholic Hispanics.
In 2000, during a joint Catholic-Protestant service at Trinity Lutheran Church in San Antonio, Flores and Lutheran bishop James Bennett publicly embraced, a symbolic gesture that commemorated the abolition of long-standing doctrinal condemnations that Protestants and Catholics once issued against each other during the Reformation. "When I'm with non-Catholic ministers and rabbis, I feel at home with them and they feel at home with me," Flores told reporters from the San Antonio Express. His various outreaches earned him praise and recognition, including several honorary doctorates.
Involved in Hostage Situation
Flores' strong skills as a spiritual counselor came into play in June of 2000, when he was at the center of a potentially deadly hostage crisis. In a situation that made national news, Flores and his secretary, Myrtle Sanchez, were taken hostage by Nelson Antonio Escolero, an unemployed, 40-year-old Spanish-speaking immigrant from El Salvador who equipped himself with a hand grenade.
Escolero had been living in the United States legally for many years but was not a citizen. He was afraid he would get deported after being charged with driving with a suspended license, and he demanded that Flores help him. After Escolero entered the chancery office, he ripped out the telephone and threatened to detonate the make-shift hand grenade. (Police later reported that the device was a "fake.")
An office employee who had escaped turned on a silent alarm that alerted police. A nine-hour standoff then ensued, involving police, SWAT teams, FBI negotiators and Escolero's wife and son. The incidence attracted 100 spectators who stood in 90-degree heat to see how the situation would play out.
During the standoff, Flores, through his calm and understanding counsel, convinced Escolero to release Sanchez. Later, Escolero agreed to release Flores. Neither Sanchez or Flores were harmed, but medical attendants at the scene took the precaution of removing the archbishop by stretcher. This was prudent, as Flores was seventy years old. He spent a night in a hospital for observation, and then was released.
Demonstrating his characteristic compassion, Flores publicly forgave Escolero and expressed his sympathy for the man's problems. Later, Flores told America magazine, "I forgive. In this I have no choice. If I want to be forgiven, I have to forgive."
Addressed Sexual Abuse in his Archdiocese
Throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Catholic Church in the United States endured wide-scale accusations of sexual abuse committed by its priests, as well as allegations of subsequent cover-ups by high-ranking church officials. Flores' own diocese was not immune.
In particular, he faced accusations that the diocese covered up a child molestation scandal involving two of its priests, Father Xavier Ortiz-Dietz and the Reverend Federico Fernandez. In June 1998, the church had arranged a four-million dollar settlement with the families of seven boys who had been sexually abused by Ortiz-Dietz between 1987 and 1992.
In June of 2002, after a national policy was established to suspend priests known to have abused minors, Flores announced that he wanted to make the policy even stricter by asking the Vatican to defrock all such priests in his archdiocese. On February 29, 2004, Flores, who by this time had headed the Archdiocese of San Antonio for 25 years, apologized to parishioners when national figures related to priests and sexual abuse became public.
Reached Mandatory Retirement Age
By the early 2000s, Flores was nearing the mandatory retirement age, and he starting thinking of stepping down. By this time, his health was also beginning to become a concern. In March of 2001, he underwent emergency septuple bypass surgery. In July of 2004, he was treated for a bout of Meniere's disease. He was hospitalized for the condition in November of that year.
In July 2003, Flores prepared his official letter of resignation that he would later send to the pope. In December of 2003, he began making plans to step down as archbishop, as his next birthday (July 26, 2004) would bring him to the mandatory retirement age of seventy-five.
In December 2004, the Most Reverend Jose. H. Gomez, an auxiliary bishop from Denver, Colo., succeeded Flores as archbishop.
Before his retirement, some church officials reportedly proposed that Flores should be elevated to the position of cardinal. There was even some talk of his election to the papacy. Flores disregarded such suggestions with his characteristic humility.
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