“THE [50-year] celebration will be good for me, but it is more important to build the school [St. Catherine of Siena in Reseda] to make good Christians, good Catholics to replace us…my dream is for you to accompany me and to support the school.” – Fr. Raul Cortes, 2012.
“The church was dead,” said Olga Calderone, St. Catherine’s health director, as quoted by Mitchell Landsberg of LA Times on May 26, 2010. This was until the cultures of Latino, Filipino and Whites were brought together in St. Catherine of Siena in Reseda.
Fr. Raul Cortes will celebrate 50 years of priesthood this March 17, 2012. In St. Catherine of Siena’s promotional website, they describe Padre Raul’s history as the history of Spanish Catholicism in the Valley. He loves working with the school children, said Fr. Hernan Canete. Fr. Raul is credited with reviving the enrollment at St. Catherine, quadrupling the population from a sagging 55 to now 260 school children with a vibrant music program. But, Fr. Raul credits the pastor, Fr. Paul Griesgarber, for giving him the assignment of reaching out to these Spanish-speaking parents who doubted that tuition scholarships were available, based on needs. “I like it here with Fr. Paul,” he said. Fr. Paul kept referring to Padre Raul as “our hero.”
In Mexico, Padre Raul is known for promoting soccer, education and the fine art of music. In his parish in San Ignacio Cerro Gordo in Jalisco, he organized 32 teams to compete in soccer and the community to raise funds (including some folks from the United States) where he served.
There, he built two stadiums, one for baseball and another for football/soccer, named “Campo Deportibo Fr. Raul Cortes.”
A parishioner brought in a letter written by Maria Vitoria Matines, a teacher, who has known Padre Raul since she was 9 years old, all the way back from Atotonilco El Alto, Jalisco: “He was active with the youth, the children, [he taught them] how to play football, soccer. It was a joy for him to see the youth enjoy life as the children they are. He was in good fellowship with the community.”
One of his parishioners called him a “Charro” (A charro is a Mexican horseman dressed in an elaborate and traditional costume, as defined by Yourdictionary.com).
In one of his assignments, he rode his horse for 14 hours, crossing canyons, until he got to a dying man in a small town in Mexico. This man was important, he said, as he was part of the indigenous community and needed the Sacraments. The person died a week later.
Padre Raul (as he is fondly called) is awed by the power of God’s sacraments. We in turn felt awed that he was referred to as a Charro for the Divine because of his fortitude and vigor in serving God as a priest for 50 years.
Discovering God’s call
“It was not easy to discover God’s call,” he said. He fondly credits his mother, Altagracia Anguloo Cortes, for making him choose his vocation. She would stay all day in the church, he shared.
He felt God’s presence, as he sang in the choir. Coming from a family of musicians, he grew up with music in his blood. He learned notes, lyrics and played on the piano and even studied accordion from an Italian teacher.
Bishop Antonio Sahagun served as his mentor. He was invited to pilgrimage tours, with one at a camping trip of 8 seminarians in the mountains of Colima. The bishop was a constant presence in his formation, including personal guidance by Cardinal Jose Salazar on how to become holy.
Fr. Raul was ordained on March 17, 1962.
He felt happy while in the seminary, as he continued with the choir and took piano classes. He acquired a solid foundation in music that he became an assistant to a music teacher who went to the Conservatory of Music in Guadalajara.
Later, he taught sacred music to the seminarians in formation.
His first assignment as a deacon was to teach the seminarians, in Totatiche, Jalisco, Mexico and directed the program. It was the first program of its kind. He was then assigned to Temastian, Jalisco, Mexico.
“I was anxious to be a priest, everybody called us Father, but we were just catechists assisting small towns of Guadalajara. But after being ordained, I was sent to the world to prove myself. There were many temptations, girls followed us, but me and my classmate were always together.”
“I was a pastor of Rivera de Guadalupe, Yurecuaro, Michocan, Mexico where I had a school. I invited 9 nuns in Guadalajara from Verbo Encarnado to run the school. It was like making charriadas, taming the wild horses within. I like organizing a choir for the church. We all went to sing at a concert for the Cardinal. I also organized soccer. I prepared the soccer fields for the young people and I got 32 teams to come to this small town in Mexico. Then, I selected the best from these 32 teams to compete with the teams in Guadalajara and later a national competition. I participated in the Bible Congress, as the Bishop of Mexico asked me to organize a choir as part of an International Bible Congress where 162 voices formed a symphony,” he added.
His journey to and in the US
He continued his journey, “I got to the US, after my father, who has lived here since 1926, petitioned our family. My brothers came, one by one. Then, me. I got permission from my bishop to get my green card, but he would not let me leave. So, I vacationed in the US once a year to keep my green card. When he [bishop] passed away, I got permission to serve in the US by the new bishop for a year.”
While his priesthood in Mexico was vibrant and joyful, he spoke of his pastoral assignments in San Fernando Valley as challenging and difficult. “I served for 7 years at Our Lady of the Valley. I celebrated the first Spanish mass in the [San Fernando] Valley. ½ of [the] parishioners who lived in [the] West Valley heard about the Spanish mass and the Spanish priest, and they would come to Our Lady of the Valley. But, my pastor told me he did not want this to be a Spanish Church. He assigned a lay leader to take care of the Spanish community and I was told to report to him.”
Emma Verberian credits Padre Raul for starting a music school in Canoga Park. It started with students making a donation of $5 to learn how to play the piano and any musical instrument. Today, it is a thriving music school with 200 children.
He was then transferred to St. Linus, where he served for five years. There, the pastor spoke of his halting English homily. He credits the Filipino parishioners who welcomed him and integrated him into this Church. He learned to preach his homily in both English and Spanish.
He was then transferred to St. Catherine of Siena in Reseda, where he has been for 17 years, predominantly Latino, Filipino and Caucasians. Under one pastor, he described himself as “lightning rod interceptor.” He heard complaints and smoothened out the conflicts so they would not blow up like lightning. He said that he has found a home with Fr. Paul Griesgraber. He thanks the Divine Providence for providing a community to welcome his talents. “My wishes are coming true, as I grow with Fr. Paul”, he said.
Padre Raul is a mighty charro, who rides his horse to serve God with his finest music, he continues to work with school children, even at his ripe 78 years of age! May this vigorous charro produce more charriadas to play music for God!
PS: Special thanks to Rosemary Leon for helping with the interpretation.