May 18, 2022

Chronicle: A priest died of COVID-19. The worshipers were shot in his honor

There is no public memorial for Father Francisco Valdovinos, a beloved Catholic priest from this unincorporated Coachella Valley town, who died of COVID-19 at age 58.

The member of the Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity arrived in 2018 to serve at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe and immediately fell in love with the locals. The bald, burly, mustache-haired Mexican immigrant lobbied politicians to provide better services to his working-class congregation, and organized literacy and law classes himself.

His home-cooked sermons filled the church every weekend, and the priest frequently visited the region’s agricultural fields with lunches for the campesinos, many of whom were from his native Michoacán.

When the pandemic ravaged the eastern Coachella Valley last year, Valdovinos turned its quaint parish into a food distribution center and testing site. He handed out masks by the tens of thousands and offered a social-distancing Mass, while appearing on Spanish-language radio to urge listeners to take the pandemic seriously and get vaccinated once it becomes available.

When news emerged in December that COVID-19 had struck Valdovinos, parishioners kept watch outside the hospital where he was dying. Over a thousand people prayed during a Facebook Live session. A January caravan to honor his life meandered around Mecca, with cars and trucks carrying messages in Spanish such as “Thank you for everything” and “We miss you”.

“The community cried when he died,” said Conchita Pozar, 32, a leader of the large indigenous Purépecha community in Coachella Valley. “He went beyond what most priests do. He could have just given Communion at Mass and that would have been good. But he pushed everyone to do more. His legacy is now in our hearts.

There is no public memorial in Mecca for Father Francisco Valdovinos. There is no need for it. Evidence of Mecca’s gratitude to him was everywhere when I visited last week.

Hand sanitizers were placed on a table in the foyer of Our Lady of Guadalupe and near the sacristy. Red and blue stickers six feet apart marked the sidewalks and benches. Signs around the church campus in English and Spanish and affixed with a sticker of la virgencita urged everyone to wear masks. In town, everyone seemed to be wearing them, from women attending an evening Zumba class in one of Mecca’s few malls, to men hanging out in what passes for downtown. city ​​or children playing baseball under the lights of the sports complex.

The most lasting tribute to Valdovinos, however, was not easily seen: Mecca’s COVID-19 vaccination rate. News reports following his death have cited residents who have vowed to roll up their sleeves in his honor. And they did.

According to figures from Riverside County Public Health, 108.4% of Makkah residents are fully vaccinated – a statistical impossibility explained by the fact that many Coachella Valley residents have been vaccinated in the city. California Department of Public Health records are more accurate – the most recent data shows that 93% of residents of ZIP code 92254 which encompasses Mecca and the small communities of North Shore and Desert Camp are fully immunized.

It is only one of two postal codes to reach this mark in the Inland Empire, where only 53.4% ​​of residents are fully vaccinated, and barely half in San Bernardino County. And Mecca is part of an exclusive California coronavirus club: only 4% of the state’s 1,741 zip codes have achieved 90% full vaccination.

“When Father Valdovinos died he raised the consciousness of people in our community to come out and be shot,” said Assembly member Eduardo Garcia (D-Coachella), who represents the region. and honored his sacrifice on the floor of the State Capitol shortly. after his death by adjourning a meeting on his behalf. “For their health, yes, but also out of respect for his life. “

“It was just building momentum,” said Maria Machuca, a former school counselor and longtime community organizer. “It’s just a big loss – we don’t know what he could have done. We must therefore continue what he has done.

Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mecca, California.

(Gustavo Arellano / Los Angeles Times)

Valdovinos was born in 1962 in the pueblo of Santa Ana Amitlán in a family of lime producers. He studied to become an electrician in his youth. Then, a year later, members of the Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity (also known as the Trinity Missions), a congregation of Catholic men devoted to poor and marginalized communities, came to his hometown.

“He saw the good we have done and decided to join us,” said Rev. Guy Wilson, ST. who inspired Valdovinos to become a priest. “He was already determined to help. “

Valdovinos was ordained a priest in 1994 and ministered in Puerto Rico and Costa Rica before finding his way to social justice in Tallahassee, where he traveled over 300 miles on weekends to visit labor camps and settlements. prisons in northern Florida. He moved to Our Lady of Victory Church in Compton in 2007, where Valdovinos decided to tackle violence in the town with adult education classes, health fairs and counseling for young people. .

“How can you stop violence without work, without education, without food, without housing, without transport? “He told LA Daily News in 2015.” It’s a culture of violence, from generation to generation, in which they are used to living this way. “

Three years later, Trinity Missions asked Valdovinos to lead Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mecca. Wilson was then pastor of Our Lady of Soledad Church in Coachella and recalled the initial hesitation Valdovinos felt.

“He never wanted to quit any assignment he was working for,” Wilson said. “When Francisco saw that something had to be done, he put all his energy into it and you are not going to take it away from him. But in Mecca, Francisco really found his home.

At his first mass in the desert, more than 50 of his former Compton devotees showed up to say a final farewell. Machuca was in the audience that day.

“It was an indicator of ‘Oh yeah he’s going to be good for us’,” she said.

A few days later, Valdovinos showed up unexpectedly at his office. “He said, ‘We have a lot of work to do together,’” Machuca said with a laugh. “And we did.”

A sign urging people to wear masks at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

A sign urging people to wear masks at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mecca, California.

(Gustavo Arellano / Los Angeles Times)

Valdovinos has connected its own social service networks to existing ones in Mecca. These connections were vital when the pandemic finally struck. Our Lady of Guadalupe distributed over 250,000 pounds of food last year, and the sight of a masked Valdovinos handing out grocery bags to families or pushing a cart full of bags and boxes made him a used to the English and Spanish language. TV shows.

Wilson last saw Valdovinos in December, just before his friend contracted COVID-19.

“We talked about his plans and the needs in Mecca, and I said, ‘Francisco, just be careful,'” Wilson said. “You are with people all the time. His death hit us hard because he was so good at what he did.

Two days after her death, Trinity Missions released a short video in her memory that is as close to a personal manifesto as Valdovinos never proposed.

From inside Our Lady of Guadalupe, the priest said, “You can preach. But we have to show, with action.

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