Alfonso Gallegos was born during hard times. The Great Depression of the 1930’s was worldwide. It was made more excruciating in the United States of America when the dry spell, the longest in modern American history, struck the Great Plains, affecting mainly the Midwest and the Southwest, the states of Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico. These areas became known as the Dust Bowl.
The lack of economic stability and the fear of starvation led people to flee their homelands in search of better opportunities. Thousands fled to California, which itself was reeling from high unemployment and low wages. This economic situation led to social unrest, worsened by the government’s default on spending that adversely affected all public services including education.
It was then during this time in a place not far from California, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, that the baby boy Alfonso was born. It was February 20, 1931. At the age of 7, the little boy and his family took the lead of the many others and moved to Watts, Los Angeles, California hoping for the better. Watts was a home to a growing community of Mexicans and Mexican American migrants. It was among them that Alfonso grew up until he left his home in 1950 to enter in the seminary of the Order of Augustinian Recollects in Kansas City. He was ordained priest in 1958.
Four years after his priestly ordination, he was assigned as pastor in his home parish in Watts. Here he dedicated his primary attention to the out-of-school youth who were prone to drugs and criminal activities. But the young Father Alfonso did not judge them, must less evaded them. Rather he spent time with them and encouraged and even helped them to go back to school and obtain university degree. This move brought about a change of life to many who heeded his encouragement. His pastoral care improved the environment of the area. Church attendance increased, crime rates dropped and people felt safe to go around. He infused hope into the community.
Aware of the growing population of the Hispanic migrants in California, in 1979 the California Bishops Conference named Alfonso Gallegos as the first Director of the Hispanic Affairs, California Catholic Conference. Its main objective was to organize and implement programs for the benefit of the Spanish-speaking migrants coming to the United States. In these Hispanic Affairs, Gallegos kept up with legislation and issues affecting the Hispanic community and provided this information to the Bishops. His appointment in 1981 as Auxiliary Bishop of Sacramento was a recognition of the new demographics and a response to the need for ecclesiastical leadership for this rapidly growing Hispanic population. Gallegos was the first Mexican-American Bishop to serve the Church in Sacramento since 1861.
He visited and stayed with the migrants in the labour camps, spoke out for them before the government legislators and assured them of the welcoming embrace of the Church. He would spend various nights during the week with the youth in the parks, befriended gang members by talking to them, encouraging them to leave behind drugs and criminal activities and strive for a better future. He blessed the cars of the “low riders” and rode with them. He championed the right of the unborn children. Everyone had a place in his agenda, the poor, the sick, the aged and those in prisons regardless of their creed, colour and culture. He was a Bishop always on the move, spending most of his time with his flock. As one witness during the diocesan process testified, “Bishop Gallegos was always trying to be there for every one, that at times, he would forget to take care of himself”.
Now a day, the world needs shepherds whose life is configured to Christ; shepherds who do not ask for what they stand to gain but what they can give to others; shepherds who do not seek to win people for themselves but to lose themselves for others. People want to see a joyful zeal in the ministers of Christ, ministers who carry out their task with enthusiasm, thus, giving credible witness to the Gospel message. Bishop Gallegos´ life is a response to these noble aspirations. Although throughout his life he had to bear the serious effects of his myopic eye problem, never for an instance did he lose his optimism. His wide smile was a constant mark of his personality. “What a beautiful day!” was his usual expression. He was not a scholar nor considered an intellectual but his preaching touched people’s hearts because God had first touched his own. He chose as motto for his episcopal coat of arms “Love one another”.
Asked how he wanted to be remembered, Bishop Gallegos said, “I would like to be remembered as having helped the young people how to appreciate who they are and to value the life God has given them. I would also like to be remembered as having appreciated people and all that they have to offer in making the world a better place to live in” (The Sacramento Bee Magazine, January 18, 1987).
A vehicular accident in the evening of October 6, 1991 claimed the life of this Hispanic Bishop at the age of 60. Earlier during the day, he joined a march against abortion, visited a young AIDS patient and finally administered the sacrament of confirmation to 71 candidates. His funeral claims the record attendance of grieving people in the diocese of Sacramento up to now.
A year after his death, a street connecting the State Capitol Building and the Cathedral of Sacramento was named “Bishop Gallegos Square”. It serves as bridge to bring the teaching of Jesus to the lawmakers, reminding them that one of their important and sacred duties is to help the migrants find a better place for themselves and for their families. His bronze statue stands in this same place. On March 27, 2010, his mortal remains were transferred to a new tomb in Our Lady of Guadalupe National Shrine.
Considering his saintly life and his intercessory prayers before the Lord, the diocesan process for his Cause of beatification and canonization was opened on December 4, 2005 at the Cathedral of Sacramento. After interviewing 130 witnesses and gathering the pertinent available documents, the process was concluded on November 5, 2006. The Congregation of the Causes of Saints in Vatican approved the validity of the diocesan process on July 4, 2008. The Positio on his life, virtues and fame of sanctity was submitted to the same Congregation on June 27, 2014. The Theologians approved his heroic virtues on March 17, 2016. The Congress of the Cardinals and Bishops gave their affirmative votes on July 5, 2016. Finally, on July 8, 2016, Pope Francis authorized the Congregation of the Causes of Saints to promulgate the decree attesting to his sanctity of life and the heroic practice of virtues.
With a miracle attributed to his intercession he can be declared blessed and with one more he will be due for canonization. For now we rejoice and content ourselves with the assurance of his sanctity as the Church recognizes the Bishop of the Barrio as Venerable Alfonso Gallegos.