Column: This priest died of COVID-19. His faithful were vaccinated in his honor

There are no public monuments to Father Francisco Valdovinos, a beloved Catholic priest in this unincorporated town in the Coachella Valley who died of COVID-19 at the age of 58.

A member of the missionary ministers of the Holy Trinity came to serve in the shrine of Maria Guadalupe in 2018 and immediately fell in love with the locals. The bald, stout, bearded Mexican immigrant pressured politicians to provide better services for his working-class assembly, and he himself brought literacy and law courses.

His home sermons filled the church every weekend, and the priest often visited the farm fields in the region with a lunch for campesines, many of which came from his native Michoacán.

When the pandemic broke out last year through the eastern Coachella Valley, Valdovinos turned his picturesque parish into a distribution center and testing ground. He distributed masks to tens of thousands and offered a socially distanced mass while appearing on Spanish-language radio to urge listeners to take the pandemic seriously and get the vaccine when it becomes available.

When news emerged in December that COVID-19 had infected Valdovinos, parishioners watched over the hospital where he was dying. More than a thousand people prayed during the Facebook Live session. A January caravan in honor of his life roamed Mecca, with cars and trucks with messages in Spanish such as “Thank you for everything” and “We miss you”.

“The community cried when he died,” said Conchita Pozar, 32, the leader of the large indigenous community of Purépecha in the Coachella Valley. “He has surpassed what most priests do. I could just give communion at Mass and that would be fine. But he forced everyone to do more. His legacy is now in our hearts. “

There are no public monuments to Father Francisco Valdovinos in Mecca. There is no need for any. Proof of Mecca’s gratitude to him was everywhere I visited him last week.

Hand sanitizers were on the table in the lobby of Our Lady of Guadalupe and near the sacristy. Red and blue stickers spaced six feet apart marked sidewalks and benches. Signs around the church campus in English and Spanish and affixed with a sticker la virgencita urged everyone to wear masks. In the city, they seemed to be worn by everyone, be it women on an evening zumba class at one of the few shopping malls in Mecca, men hanging out on the aisles toward the city center, or children playing baseball under the lights in a sports hall complex.

The most enduring tribute to Valdovinos, however, was not immediately apparent: the rate of vaccination against COVID-19 in Mecca. News after his death quoting residents who vowed to roll up their sleeves in his honor. And they did.

According to Riverside County Public Health, 108.4% of Mecca’s population is fully vaccinated – it is statistically impossible to explain the fact that many residents of the Coachella Valley have been vaccinated in the city. Records from the California Department of Public Health are more accurate – the latest figures show that 93% of the population of zip code 92254, which covers Mecca and the smaller communities of North Shore and Desert Camp, are fully vaccinated.

This is just one of two zip codes that have reached this limit in the continental empire, where only 53.4% ​​of the population is fully vaccinated and in San Bernardino County barely half. And Mecca is part of an exclusive California coronavirus club: only 4% of the country’s 1,741 zip codes have achieved 90% complete vaccination.

“When Father Valdovinos died, he awakened the consciousness of the people in our community that they went there and shot themselves,” he said. Assembly Member Eduardo Garcia (D-Coachella), representing the region, and soon after his death honored his sacrifice at the State Capitol by adjourning the meeting on his behalf. “For their health, yes, but also out of respect for his life.”

“He was just gaining momentum,” said Maria Machuca, a former school caretaker and longtime community organizer. “It’s just a big loss – we don’t know what he could have done. So we have to continue what he did.”

Shrine of Mary Guadalupe in Mecca, California.

(Gustavo Arellano / Los Angeles Times)

Valdovinos was born in 1962 in the pueblo of Santa Ana Amitlán to a family of lime growers. As a young man, he studied to be an electrician. Then, one year, members of the missionary ministers of the Holy Trinity (also known as Trinity Missions), a Catholic male congregation dedicated to poor and marginalized communities, came to his hometown.

“He saw well what we did and decided to join us,” said the Reverend Guy Wilson, ST. He is a pastor at Sacred Heart Church in Camden, Miss., Vicar of missions for the Trinity missions and was part of the delegation which inspired Valdovina to become a priest. “Even then, he was determined to help.”

Valdovinos was ordained in 1994 and served in Puerto Rico and Costa Rica before finding his social justice in Tallahassee, where he drove more than 300 miles on weekends to visit labor camps and prisons across North Florida. In 2007, he moved to Our Lady of Victory Church in Compton, where Valdovinos decided to fight violence in the city with adult education courses, health fairs and youth counseling.

“How can you stop violence without a job, without education, without food, without housing, without transportation?” he told the LA Daily News in 2015. “It’s a culture of violence from generation to generation in which they are used to living like this.”

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

“He never wanted to leave any mission he was working on,” Wilson said. “When Francisco saw that something had to be done, he put his energy into it and you didn’t want 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 congressmen in Compton finally said goodbye to him. Machuca was in the audience that day.

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

A few days later, Valdovinos appeared unannounced in her office. He said, “We have a lot of work to do together,” Machuca said with a laugh. “And we did it.”

A sign urging people to wear masks in the shrine of Maria Guadalupe.

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

(Gustavo Arellano / Los Angeles Times)

Valdovinos connected his own social networks Existing in Mecca. These connections were crucial when the pandemic finally hit. A lady from Guadalupe distributed more than £ 250,000 in food last year and the sight of a masked Valdovin handing out food bags to families or pushing a cart loaded with bags and boxes has become a regular in local English and Spanish. television shows.

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

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

Two days after his death, Trinity Missions released a short video in his memory that is as close to a personal manifesto as Valdovinos ever offered.

From inside the Lady of Guadalupe, the priest declared, “You can preach. But we have to show by our actions. ”

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