Archbishop emeritus Patricio Fernandez Flores of San Antonio died Monday at the age of 87, prompting many to remember his role in supporting Mexican-American and Latino Catholics.
One response came from Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, who succeeded Archbishop Flores as Archbishop of San Antonio and who remembered him as “my good friend and mentor.”
“Archbishop Flores lived a long and good life and through his priesthood and ministry he touched many people with his love for life and his love for Jesus Christ,” the Los Angeles archbishop said Jan. 10. “He was a beautiful example for me of a priest and a bishop. I will always be grateful for his generosity and kindness to me.”
The former San Antonio archbishop died Jan. 9 from pneumonia and congestive heart failure at the Padua Place residence for retired priests in the city he served.
He was the first Mexican-American to become a U.S. bishop. His life was marked by advocacy for Mexican-Americans and civil rights –and a harrowing hostage situation when he was held captive for nine hours.
Archbishop Flores also hosted St. John Paul II’s visit to San Antonio on Sept. 13, 1987 and rode with him on the popemobile in front of the Alamo. The visit included a Mass for a crowd of 330,000 people, the largest public gathering ever held in Texas.
The future archbishop was born July 26, 1929 in Ganado, Texas, 35 miles northeast of Victoria. He was the sixth of nine children born to migrant workers Patricio Flores and Trinidad Fernandez de Flores. He wanted to be a priest from a young age and often prayed the rosary while walking up and down the road in front of his family’s house, a statement from the Archdiocese of San Antonio says.
He grew up 17 miles from the nearest Catholic parish, in an area with poor roads. Without reliable transportation to get to Sunday Mass, the family would pray the rosary regularly.
The family regularly attended liturgies said by a missionary priest, who gave Flores religious instruction. Acting on his own initiative, the boy then began to teach catechism to area children.
During the summers, the family sometimes all worked picking crops in the field. They lived on an 82-acre farm, growing okra, corn, and cotton, and often prayed as a family for rain. Some years they would travel throughout the state to pick crops.
Flores also took up music. As a teenager he staged entertainment events to raise funds to fight discrimination against Mexican-Americans in education. The efforts helped pay for a legal case that won marginalized Mexican-American children the right to attend the regular public school.
During his studies to prepare for seminary, he was arrested for arson. Police attempted to force a confession from him before he was exonerated.
He was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Galveston in 1956 and served at several Houston-area parishes.
During his life he became prominent in the Cursillo movement and co-founded PADRES, an association of priests that aimed to address problems Hispanics faced in the Church and in society. As a bishop, he founded the Mexican American Cultural Center in San Antonio and the National Foundation for Mexican-American Vocations.
Archbishop Gomez said Archbishop Flores was “a pioneer and role model not only for me but also for a generation of Hispanic priests and Latino leaders.”
“He knew the struggles of Hispanics in this country, and he was a friend to the farmworker and a voice of conscience for dignity and human rights. He taught all of us to celebrate our heritage and traditions and encouraged us to share our faith and values proudly and to become leaders in our communities.”
Archbishop Flores was ordained a bishop in 1970, serving initially as Auxiliary Bishop of San Antonio. He was appointed Bishop of El Paso in 1978, then named by St. John Paul II as Archbishop of San Antonio the following year.
In 1981, he co-founded Catholic Television of San Antonio. He served on several bishops’ committees concerning immigration and Latin America, and he also chaired the Texas Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
On June 27, 2000 Archbishop Flores was held hostage for nine hours in his chancery office by a man with a fake hand grenade. The man, born in El Salvador but a legal U.S. resident, had been arrested for driving with a suspended license and feared he would be deported. The man surrendered.
Archbishop Flores retired in 2004. That year, he reflected on his priesthood.
“I’ve spent 48 years as a priest, and I have loved it all. If I had the chance to start all over again, I would not hesitate,” he told Today’s Catholic newspaper. “I might have prepared better academically and in some other ways. But I have literally found great satisfaction in simply being a priest – being a bishop is simply assuming additional responsibility.”
“I have found it very challenging and very satisfying. So I’ve been happy at it and will continue to be happy.”
The archbishop received many honors and recognitions. He was the subject of a 2007 documentary “A Migrant’s Masterpiece”, which considered his life in the context of Latino history in Texas and the Texas civil rights movement.
Funeral services will be held at San Antonio’s San Fernando Cathedral.