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From Spain to Texas and, at age 100, back to Spain: Meet Fr. Luis

PADRE LUIS

Gentileza

Jesús V. Picón - published on 11/05/21

He still hears confession, baptizes, and celebrates Mass (and overcame COVID-19) ... It seems the secret to his life of fidelity is nothing complicated.

At 100 years of age, Fr. Luis Urriza lives intensely. Even the New York Times has been struck by his lifestyle. He seems unstoppable, and continues to be an active priest. Seemingly miraculous health radiates from him, and he speaks with impeccable lucidity.

He says that the ailments of life are nothing, for he has witnessed great wars in the world, conflicts and world crises. God manifests His power in it all …

Fr. Luis spent so many decades in Beaumont, Texas, as you’ll hear below, that it was not easy for his parish family to say goodbye. And yet his first spiritual family, the Augustinians, had called him home to Spain.

Aleteia spoke with him before he left the United States. He tells us how he’s been faithful to his vocation for 100 years, through the Spanish Civil War, WWII, and more than one pandemic. His testimony can’t help but inspire us. ( Text is redacted for length.)

Fr. Luis, thank you for granting us this interview for Aleteia. Tell us about yourself.

I have my birth certificate here. I was born on August 19, 1921, in Lerin, Navarra, Spain. which is a small, very beautiful town in the mountains.

What does reaching this age mean to you?

Of course I don’t think much about it. God doesn’t want me to go away with Him yet.

How would you describe your life? What have you made of it? If you had to give an account to God, what would you tell Him about these hundred years?

Many things. As I already said, I was born in Lerin, Navarre. I lived in the village, and I was a big troublemaker. Then I went to the Seminary when I was 12 years old.  After a few years there, the [Spanish] civil war came, and all the seminarians older than me had to go to war; I was left at the door.

And, while they were in the war, I was assigned to teach in the school we had for children; I was 16 or 17 years old, and I taught little children at the school.

After the war ended, we continued in the seminary.We finished the classes and spent a year in Escorial because there were no teachers; at Escorial they had killed more than a 100 priests.

Then we returned to our cities. When I was already a priest, I spent two years with the young people, teaching Latin, Greek, music and many other things, everything! I felt very tired, because I was doing too many things.

Then the pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Port Arthur, Texas, was determined that I should come here to be the organist. But it turned out that I was called to do my military service; so I spent two years in the military service in Spain.

Did you carry a rifle while you were there?

No, I was a chaplain. I officiated at Mass and gave classes to the soldiers.

At the end of the two years, as the priest at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe was determined that I should come to Port Arthur, I decided to come to be the organist. And I’m still teaching music lessons.

And did you know English then?

I didn’t know a thing. I had to learn. When I came to the United States I was between 27 and 28 years old. And I stayed.

The problem is that when I arrived here, another priest came from Puerto Rico, who was also an organist, and he took my place. I was left with nothing, with no position here. There were seven or eight priests in the house, and we did nothing, practically nothing but say a Latin Mass somewhere. 

The bishop asked me if I wanted to work in Beaumont, Texas. I didn’t even know Beaumont existed, but I started to find out what was in Beaumont and I found out that there were between 200 and 300 Hispanic families, and there was no church for them in Beaumont.

So I wrote a letter to my superior in Spain telling him about Beaumont, and he told me to take care of the Hispanics here. 

So you belong to a religious congregation?

Yes, to the Augustinian Fathers.

Who is their founder and what is their charism?

St. Augustine! Our charism is education and mission.

And, well, continuing with my story, I showed the letter of my superior to the bishop, and he told me: “Start celebrating Mass tomorrow at a house.” Since there was no church, I had to start from the beginning. You can imagine all the work I had to do to find out where the Hispanics were, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

And with how many families were you able to start the Mass?

With about 15 or 20 families. And, yes, we started at a house, and that house still exists.

Whose house was it?

The Pantoja family.

They lent it to you?

They lived in it, and I went to their house to say Mass on Sundays.

This house was behind a church called St. Joseph, the Italian parish, and later they gave me a small, small space to say Mass on Sundays. We celebrated Sunday Mass there for about two years, until we bought a 6-acre lot, which is the one we have now, and we started to build the church. 

What is the name of the church?

Christ the King.

And, when we finished it, we had no place to do other activities, and one day I saw an advertisement in the city newspaper where it said that they were selling barracks. The barracks were soldiers’ residences, which were obviously already unoccupied.

I went to the city to ask about the barracks, and they answered me, “How many do you want?” I hadn’t even seen them, so I thought for a moment and said, “Give me 2.” So they gave me two barracks.

Turns out the barracks were 120 feet long, and they were 2 stories and all furnished.

And at a good price?

No way, I got them for free!

Why?

I don’t know why, but they gave them to me. We had to bring all the material and everything that was in those houses to our place, and we sold everything inside. It took us several months to bring the material, but it was very good material, very good wood. With the money from the sale we made the floor of a hall, 80 feet by 40 feet. The hall was started by the men of the parish; we did it little by little, working on Saturdays and Sundays. It was all free.

And when we were almost finished with the hall, a man I didn’t know, an Italian, came to me and said: “Father, do you want us to do bingo?” I did not know what bingo was. I asked him what it was for, and he answered that it was to make money. So, when the bathrooms were ready, we started bingo. And we did very well! We had bingo for several years, and with the money we built the house where we (the priests) live now, a very nice house.

It’s a two-story house, brick, very nice. And when we finished the house, the following year they sent me to another place. I didn’t get a chance to enjoy the house.

That’s God’s way …

From here I was sent to a town called Waxahachie, Texas, near Dallas, where I stayed for a few months only; we had small missions there. And from there they sent me to San Antonio, Texas, where I had to build another church.

We bought 14 houses, then we sold some of them and we kept the land to build the church, the hall and the school. The church was called San Miguel, St. Michael. 

It is a very nice, modern church. It took me a long, long time to build it because the people in the Archbishop’s office didn’t like the idea. But they finally did it for me. I was there for 11 years, in San Antonio.

After those 11 years a team called Movement for a Better World came to San Antonio, and they offered retreats in all the churches. The Movement’s retreat helped me a lot, and I joined them. They sent me to do training for 6 weeks, and I stayed with them in Washington, where we had 2 Movement houses.

What was the training for?

To lead retreats of the Movement for a Better World, which is mostly dedicated to seeking unity. It was founded by Fr. Lombardi; he died already. He was an Italian Jesuit.

I spent a year and a bit with the Movement. We went from Washington to the churches where we were called, and I was sent to start this Movement in Spanish in New York.

I was very happy and I liked the Movement very much, but my superior called me to tell me that they needed me again in Beaumont. And I came back to Beaumont! It was 1977.

How many years have you been a priest?

77 years.

Do you feel protected by Christ the King?

Of course I feel protected by Christ the King, of course! And by the bishop too.

Do you live in community, Fr. Luis, or with some brothers?

I used to live alone, but now I have a priest here from Nigeria, also an Augustinian. He speaks Spanish quite well; he was in Canada first.

Are you still a member of the Augustinian religious order?

Yes. We have another church, Guadalupe, where I was going to go initially; that was the first Augustinian church.

What happened to your parents and siblings, did they stay in Spain?

My parents stayed in Spain; and I couldn’t go to see them because they only let us go on vacation every 10 years. So I went 10 years without seeing them, but finally I was able to go to Spain and see them, because they were both still alive. 

How many baptisms have you performed, how many First Communions have you presided over, and how many weddings have you officiated?

 Whew! Last year alone I performed 187 baptisms. More than any church in Beaumont.  

And confessions?

They come to confession every day; I told them to come at any time they want, and they’re coming at all hours.

This year we had 104 first Communions. There weren’t many marriages; 10 or 12 a year, but it’s also more than in any other church.

This year we had 84 confirmations.

Surely some of those you baptized have already brought their own children to you?

Yes, many of them tell me: “Father, you baptized me.” I met a woman who told me, “Father, you baptized my daughter, who’s now 36 years old.” There’s also a priest whom I baptized, and he says to everyone he meets, “Father Luis baptized me.”

During a hundred years the world has changed a lot. Tell us what has been your experience: a civil war in Spain, the Second World War, the Vietnam War, etc. So many things … A pandemic that has just happened! What do you think of all this history?

It’s a lot of years, but I don’t think about it, I’m going to get as far as God wants me to go, that’s all. 

One goes through so many things; wars and more wars—and this pandemic, but also one that happened before. Terrible things, but here I am. 

What do you think has been the key to your success in remaining faithful to your vocation?

Well, that God wants me here, that’s all. That God wants me here and has given me the health to be here and to go on. And happily, too! Until God wills it.

What is the key to health and life?

The key is to work. I don’t stop. There’s no time to waste.

And with what final message would you like to end this interview?

May everyone follow the rules of the Church and be faithful to the Church; may everyone be brothers and sisters, and may there never be any racism.

One more question; how would you like to be remembered? Perhaps as a cheerful, helpful priest?

Cheerful yes, always, always!

Tags:
Priesthood
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