Archbishop Patricio Fernandez Flores, 87, fourth archbishop of San Antonio who was the first Mexican-American elevated to the hierarchy in the Catholic Church in the United States, died of pneumonia and congestive heart failure on Jan. 9, 2017 at Padua Place Residence for retired priests in San Antonio. He had previously been briefly hospitalized at Baptist Medical Center.
The sixth of nine children of Patricio Flores and Trinidad Fernandez de Flores, he was born July 26, 1929 in Ganado.
From the hot, humid cotton fields of the Coastal Bend region to the campus of the archdiocesan Pastoral Center in San Antonio is an awesome distance. And, it can be a yawning gulf for a Mexican-American child, a son of illiterate migrant workers. Such was the route of Patricio Flores’ life journey.
The young “Ticho” Flores (his family’s nickname for Patricio Flores) always knew he was going to be a priest. Guadalupe Flores, the archbishop’s youngest brother, noted in a 2004 Today’s Catholic newspaper interview that “Ticho” was always saying, “I’m going to be a priest. I’m going to the seminary.” His brother Alfred added, “He never varied from that from the time he was a youngster. That was his dream.”
The archbishop’s younger sister, Mary Moreno, remembered “Ticho” going up and down the road in front of the family home in Pearland, praying the rosary. “He was always very close to God,” she added.
She also recalled his ardent pleas to his mother to let him become a priest, something she was initially against, as she feared that if he entered the seminary they would never get to see him again due to the distance and cost of travel.
When his sister Mary was given parental permission to marry at a young age, it gave Patricio new fuel for his pleas: “If you let Mary get married, why can’t you let me be a priest?”
Reminiscing about their childhood, Guadalupe recalled a family rich in love, if not material possessions. “Store-bought toys were few and far between,” he said. The young Flores children played the usual children’s games — marbles, tag, and hide-and-go-seek.
There was no Catholic parish in the rural community of Pearland, the nearest being 17 miles away in Houston or in Alvin. Roads were poor and the family lacked reliable transportation, so in place of Sunday Mass, the family would regularly gather to pray the rosary.
At that time, there was a missionary priest, Father Frank “Panchito” Urbanovsky, who traveled about setting up an altar and celebrating Mass for migrant farmworkers from a trailer pulled by his truck, and the Flores family attended these liturgies. This priest would also give religious instruction during his stays, and Guadalupe recounted how young Patricio eventually took it upon himself to teach catechism to the area children.
“I studied catechism under him,” says Guadalupe, noting that his brother taught him so well that, when the time came, he was able to go straight to the priest at church, was summarily examined and made his first Holy Communion. At one time, Patricio’s religion class numbered 10 students.
Young Patricio had a light side as well, and loved to sing and dance, sister Mary recalled. The two were repeat winners in a dance contest in Houston, performing the Mexican Hat Dance.
Patricio also dabbled in music, his siblings recalled, acquiring a marimba from a family of entertainers who were touring from Monterrey. At one time, Patricio also played the piano and had an accordion. Guadalupe noted that their parents frequently sang at home and their father played music as well. “It was never a ‘sad sack’ house,” he said.
Mary remembers the teenage Patricio helping stage numerous entertainment events to raise funds to fight education discrimination in their area. At that time, the area school for Mexican-Americans, which only included grades one through eight, had one teacher for all grades and a wood-burning stove for heat.
Fund-raising programs were presented in several towns on two or three truck beds, with an admission charge of 50 cents to watch children perform music, dances and skits. The boys’ attire consisted of jeans, shirts and red bandanas, while the girls were dressed in white blouses with brightly colored skirts and sashes sewn by their mothers, who also sold tamales during the events. Enough money was raised to hire a lawyer, and eventually the legal case for educational equality was won and Mexican-American children were allowed to attend the regular public school.
The Flores family lived on an 82-acre farm, growing okra, corn and cotton, and Guadalupe recalled the family practice of their gathering out in the fields to pray for rain. “The rosary was one of the strong things,” he added. “We depended on the crop.”
At times, the family would travel throughout the state — from Corpus Christi to Lubbock — picking crops such as mustard, carrots, and turnips, then return home in October, when the children would resume school.
“When we were done working at the end of each day, we each went our own way,” Alfred added. “And Patricio would walk one mile and then another, reading his Bible all the way.”
In his 1987 biography The Mariachi Bishop, by Brother Martin McMurtrey, SM, Archbishop Flores conceded that he would never have persevered in his lengthy pilgrimage to the priesthood without the friendly and determined guidance of Sister Benitia Vermeersch, CDP, foundress of the Missionary Catechists of Divine Providence, who recognized both his talent and his vocation and took him, in 1947, to be interviewed by Bishop Christopher Byrne of the Galveston-Houston Diocese. With the encouragement of that nun and bishop, Flores completed three years of high school in two calendar years — earning academic honors — while studying on the side for the-then required Latin for the seminary.
While he was successful in his studies, controversy found him. He was arrested for arson and held incognito by Pearland police trying to force a confession until his sister Mary located him in jail and notified Bishop Byrne. Patricio was exonerated, but of his own ordeal, Flores cared deeply for the incarcerated and often celebrated Masses in jails and prisons.
After Flores’ ordination to the priesthood by Bishop Wendelin Nold on May 26, 1956 in the Diocese of Galveston-Houston, he served as assistant pastor of Holy Name Parish in Houston, and pastor of Guardian Angel Parish and also of St. Joseph-St. Stephen’s Parish, both in Houston.
In addition, he served as director of the Christian Family Movement, and as director of the Bishop’s Committee for the Spanish-Speaking, a ministry that encouraged bilingual congregations.
He was also prominent in the Cursillo and co-founded PADRES (Padres Asociados para Derechos Religiosos, Educativos, y Sociales) — Priests Associated for Religious, Education, and Social Rights — an organization meant to draw attention to the problems of Hispanics in the church and society. Both were then controversial Hispanic movements.
When he was called to Washington by the Vatican’s U.S. Apostolic Delegate Luigi Raimondi in 1970, Father Flores expected a reprimand, not a promotion.
Instead, on May 5, in San Antonio, he was consecrated at the age of 40 as the first Mexican-American bishop of the United States. The event produced a tremendous display of Hispanic devotion and admiration. His episcopal motto was Laborabo non mihi sed omnibus, “I will work not for myself but for others.”
In 1972, Bishop Flores was instrumental in establishing the Mexican American Cultural Center in San Antonio, a national center for pastoral education and language studies for Hispanic ministry, particularly ministry to Mexican Americans. He also founded the National Foundation for Mexican-American Vocations.
He then founded the National Hispanic Scholarship Fund in 1976, which has helped thousands of students earn their bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees.
On May 29, 1978, Bishop Flores was installed as prelate of the Diocese of El Paso. He servedin that capacity for only 15 months until October 1979, when the pontiff named him archbishop of San Antonio, at that time the largest ecclesiastical province in the United States.He was installed on Oct. 13, 1979. Pope John Paul II conferred the pallium on Archbishop Flores on May 25, 1982.
During his tenure, Archbishop Flores served as a member of the Immigration and Refugee Department of the United States Catholic Conference, chairman of the Church in Latin America Committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, and chairman of the Texas Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
Archbishop Flores was one of only four bishops elected to represent the hierarchy of the United States at the 1983 Synod of Bishops in Rome, and, in January 1985, was one of three American prelates invited to visit Cuba on a courtesy exchange between episcopal bishops’ conferences.
In February of the following year he returned to Cuba, the only U.S. bishop (along with six other prelates from the Caribbean and other Latin American regions) who were invited for a weeklong conference on the future of the Catholic Church in Cuba.
The preeminent event of Archbishop Flores’ years’ as prelate of San Antonio was the visit of Pope John Paul II to the archdiocese on September 13, 1987, as part of his nine-city tour across the United States.
The Holy Father celebrated a two-and-a-half hour Mass for a crowd of 330,000 people in a field in west San Antonio that is now the site of John Paul Stephens High School. The number of faithful gathered at the liturgy still holds the record for the largest gathering in the state of Texas.
The archbishop and the pontiff also paraded aboard the popemobile in front of the Alamo, spoke at Guadalupe Plaza near the heart of the city, and Pope John Paul II spent the evening at Assumption Seminary after speaking there to a Polish delegation from Panna Maria.
The year prior, the archbishop was awarded the Medal of Freedom (Ellis Island Medal of Honor) in honor of the Statue of Liberty’s 100th Birthday in 1986, and that same year he received the Hispanic Heritage Award for leadership.
In 1995, he was awarded the Ford Salute to Education Award sponsored by the Ford Motor Company.
He received the American Jewish Committee’s Human Relations Award as well as honorary doctoral degrees from Our Lady of the Lake University, the University of the Incarnate Word, and St. Edward’s University in Austin.
Social concerns issues were of particular importance to Archbishop Flores. In 1996, he co-founded Teletón Navideño. The proceeds from this telethon went to abandoned women with children, the elderly, the unemployed and the infirmed to help pay emergency rent, utilities and medication. In 1985, he began sponsoring an annual benefit breakfast for the Bexar County Battered Women’s Shelter.
In 1993, the archbishop initiated a fund-raiser to send handicapped children to World Youth Day in Denver to see Pope John Paul II, and that same year he established a support group for parents with sons on Death Row. It provided transportation for parents to see their sons in Huntsville State Penitentiary at least twice a month.
Heeding Pope John Paul II’s call regarding the New Evangelization and transmission of the Gospel, and with insight into immense possibilities of the new field of cable television, Archbishop Flores co-founded Catholic Television of San Antonio in 1981, making the Alamo City among just three (arch)dioceses in the United States with its own TV station at that time.
Archbishop Flores’ suit against the city of Boerne in his bid to expand St. Peter the Apostle Church there led to the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision City of Boerne v. Flores (1997), which struck down certain provisions of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 as unconstitutionally exceeding the powers granted to the Congress under Section Five of the Fourteenth Amendment.
On June 27, 2000, Archbishop Flores was held hostage for over nine hours in his office in the Chancery by Nelson Antonio Escolero, a native of El Salvador and a legal U.S. resident. Escolero had been arrested for driving with a suspended license and feared that he would be deported. Armed with a fake hand grenade, he also held the archbishop’s secretary Myrtle Sanchez for the first two hours of the stand-off. Police hostage negotiators had been in contact with Escolero throughout the day, but were taken by surprise when he released Archbishop Flores and surrendered in the evening.
Throughout the crisis, which was extensively covered on live television, viewers of many faiths prayed and hoped for man held in high esteem.
After more than 25 years of service as archbishop, he retired on Dec. 29, 2004. He stepped down on Feb. 15, 2005 upon the installation of his successor, Archbishop José H. Gomez.
In an interview with Today’s Catholic newspaper in preparation for his retirement, Archbishop Flores was asked what he remembered most from his tenure leading the archdiocese.
He stated, “I think my priesthood as a whole. 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. 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.”
In October 2007, A Migrant’s Masterpiece, an hour-long documentary depicting Flores’ life, premiered in San Antonio. Directed by Hector Galan, it sought to place the archbishop’s life in the context of the history of Latinos in Texas and the Civil Rights Movement in Texas. The film used rare archival film and interviews with the Flores family.
Following Archbishop Flores’ retirement, he resided briefly at Casa de Padres retirement center for priests of the archdiocese, but spent the past several years at the Padua Place residence for priests needing medical assistance.
Funeral arrangements are pending, but services will be held at San Fernando Cathedral.