A Brief Biography of the Life of Bishop Alphonse Gallegos, OAR
Bishop Alphonse Gallegos, OAR
A Loving Family
The Augustinian Recollect religious and future Auxiliary Bishop of the Diocese of Sacramento, Alphonse Gallegos, was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on February 20, 1931. He was one of 11 siblings, lovingly cared for by their parents, Joseph and Caciana Gallegos. Alphonse was born with a severe myopic condition which was one of the reasons for the family's move from their ancestral home in New Mexico to the Watts district of Los Angeles. Medical assistance was forthcoming and after two radical surgeries, Alphonse's near-blindness was partially corrected and his schooling was continued. The Gallegos household was one of prayer and deep faith. The recitations of the Rosary and catechism lessons were the order of the day. St. Joseph was chosen as the patron saint of the family.
An Altar Boy and the Augustinian Recollects
Even a near-blind child has dreams and aspirations. Alphonse came to know, as a parish altar boy, the Augustinian Recollect Friars who had taken charge of the newly established parish of San Miguel. The small church soon became "home" to the Mexican-American population of the Watts "Barrio". The Gallegos family was among the pioneer families of the parish. The Spanish-speaking Recollects were also at home in Watts. They were on the verge of extending their ministries to the Spanish-speaking in the U.S., a Catholic Church apostolate that would be of major importance in the 20th century. Young Alphonse discovered his call to religious life and the priesthood, memorizing the altar boy's Latin of those days, and confirming his friendship with the Recollect religious. On September 2, 1950, Alphonse left the parish neighborhood where he had been active as a leader of the Catholic Youth Organization and entered the novitiate of the Augustinian Recollects in Kansas City, Kansas. Following the normal process of the novitiate leading to the profession of the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, Alphonse advanced to the priesthood, but not without obstacles. During his theological studies at Tagaste Monastery in Suffern, New York, his already marginal vision deteriorated. The retina of his left eye had atrophied leaving him with only light perception in the damaged eye. Questions arose concerning his preparation for the priesthood. He was highly regarded by the community for his holiness, humility, and community spirit, but there were doubts about his academic readiness for ordination. After much soul-searching on the part of his superiors he was approved for the priesthood and ordained on May 24, 1958.
First Years of Priesthood
Fr. Alphonse's first priestly assignments were in the houses of formation of the Augustinian Recollects. He served as hospital chaplain and chaplain to the various communities of religious sisters while at Tagaste, and in 1966 went to the Monastery of St. Augustine as Prefect and Master of Novices. Upon his return to Tagaste in 1969, he undertook a serious program of higher studies to meet the challenge of the changes inspired by the Second Vatican Council. He continued to struggle with vision problems but, with great tenacity and personal courage, was determined to further prepare himself to be of service to the Church and to God's people.
Pastor of San Miguel in Watts
In the summer of 1972, Fr. Alphonse was named pastor of his home parish, San Miguel in Watts. Much had changed in his old neighborhood. The riots of the 60s had left a divided and frightened neighborhood. Many of the old Mexican-American families had moved to better locations but, at the same time, the new migrants, many illegal, kept pouring into the "barrio". The new pastor dedicated his energies to revitalizing a declining community concentrating on the education of the children, the strengthening of the family, and the evangelization of the youth. It was in Watts that Father Al became known as the "chaplain" of the "low riders", the street gangs of Latino youth who dedicated their talents to customizing their cars. His Friday and Saturday night visits to the street corners became legendary. Working with his fellow-religious, Fr. Gallegos revitalized the "barrio" leading the members of the Parish Council to send a letter to his superiors stating: "It is a very rare occasion that anyone can take hold of a community that is spiritually dying and with the grace of God make it reborn through that person's faith in Our Lord and love for his people."
A Hispanic Bishop for Sacramento
Fr. Alphonse's enthusiastic ministry in one of the most depressed areas of Los Angeles did not go unnoticed. After a brief but happy stay at Cristo Rey Parish, he was appointed director of the newly-created Division of Hispanic Affairs of the California Cathoic Conference. After two years dedicated to coordinating the efforts of the Catholic bishops and pastors on behalf of the surging Hispanic migration into the state, he was elevated to the episcopacy as Auxiliary Bishop of the Diocese of Sacramento and was ordained bishop on November 4, 1981. It was the beginning of a labor of intense dedication to the people of Sacramento especially among the migrants, the various minority groups, the poor, and the youth. His advocacy on behalf of the unborn was eloquently present in the street demonstations and in the chambers of the state government. Nor did he forget the weekend meetings with the "low rider". His reputation for service to all, pastoral concern, and personal humility and holiness marked with an ever-present cheerfulness grew among the faithful. His tragic death in an automobile collision on the night of October 6, 1991, was profoundly felt by the people of Sacramento. There was a massive display of mourning in the capital city for this near-blind shepherd, champion of the unborn and the unwanted, a sign of deep love and respect. The statue of Bishop Alphonse Gallegos, O.A.R., occupies today a prominent place of honor in the graceful Bishop Gallegos Square.
Fr. John Oldfield, OAR
***For a much more detailed life of Bishop Gallegos sees Bishop of the Barrio.