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The Last Fight Of Father Olivares : For Years He Challenged the Catholic Hierarchy and Fought for Immigrants, farm Workers and the Poor. Now His Opponent is AIDS

December 16, 1990|MARITA HERNANDEZ | Marita Hernandez is a Times staff writer

A FEEBLE, DISHEVELED OLD MAN shuffles into the study of the graceful, Spanish-style religious residence in Hancock Park. The elderly man, a retired priest who lives here, wears a watch cap and several day's stubble on his face. Clearly senile, he laughs uproariously as he recites, over and over, a nonsensical rhyme about Pancho Villa.

Across the room, Father Luis Olivares watches silently, sitting crossed-legged at a large wooden table that dominates the study. "Si, como no, " Olivares finally says, kindly humoring the old priest. "Yes, of course."

But Olivares squirms in his chair. It is an unsettling moment for the controversial social crusader who suddenly--since he was stricken with AIDS last summer--finds himself idled, his world drastically shrunken, confined for the most part to this residential complex where he is convalescing. "Sometimes I say to myself, it would be better if I just went ahead and died," Olivares says. He is not afraid of death, he adds, but the thought of becoming dependent on others for his every need terrifies him as much as the stigma the disease carries.

Daily, however, a steady stream of friends and admirers try to lessen his burden. Bishops and government leaders write or visit. Hollywood personalities drive up to the religious center in Jaguars and Mercedes-Benzes to take Olivares to lunch at the finest restaurants. Women of humble means from his old downtown church bring him home-cooked meals, and groups of his parishioners awaken him on occasion with morning serenades and cheers. And with loving silence they shelter their fallen leader from the rumors that now surround him.

Olivares and his doctors believe that he, a diabetic, was infected through the use of improperly sterilized needles on one of his many trips to refugee camps in Central America. But inevitably, his vow of celibacy has come into question, and he anguishes over the possibility that innuendo will undermine his life's work.

Olivares thought that he knew all about being poor and dejected. Hadn't he opened the doors of his historic downtown church, Our Lady Queen of Angels, to homeless immigrants and Central American refugees? Hadn't he championed the cause of farm workers and helped shape a poor and powerless East Los Angeles flock into an influential citizens lobby? Hadn't he clashed with the archbishop himself in pressing these causes?

But suddenly, at 56, the priest who had become the voice of activism in the Los Angeles church finds his role reversed as he faces the cruel prospect of becoming one of the powerless outcasts he has long defended.

The tall, now gaunt Olivares wanders the halls and gardens of the stately residence, sometimes in desperation, he says, "not knowing what to do with myself." A striking man, he remains elegant in fine tweed coats or guayaberas , but there is a vulnerable, almost brittle quality about him; his confident stride has become tentative, his balance and vision blurred by meningitis, a complication of AIDS.

Yet if his spirits seem dampened, Olivares remains open to the world. He continues to grant interviews. "Everybody wants to know how a priest feels when he gets this," he says with good-natured sarcasm.

Before his diagnosis, Olivares occasionally appeared at AIDS fund-raisers. In recent months, however, he's put AIDS at the top of the list of causes to which he devotes his time; last month, he appeared as grand marshal at an AIDS benefit in East Los Angeles. And AIDS patients he has never met call for appointments, hoping for some special insight or wisdom. So far, he has been unable to provide it. "Most of the time, I don't know what to say. This is all new to me," he explains. "You try to live out your remaining time doing whatever good you can. That's what I'm looking for now."

During interviews this fall, Olivares' strength ebbed and flowed as he battled the illness that sent him to the hospital for frequent blood transfusions. His speech was slow, and he found it difficult to remember dates and details of his past.

Though he won't complain, Olivares repeats the words of others who bemoan the unfairness of his predicament. From the hundreds of letters he has received, Olivares quotes a New York Protestant minister he has never met who wrote that when he read that Olivares was ill, he literally screamed. "Why?" the minister demanded to know of God. "Why does He afflict people who are doing good?"

As Olivares faces this, his toughest battle yet, he sees his many triumphs paling. "I've been trumpeting this identification with the people in my ministry. Yet, have I really been poor? Undocumented? Homeless?" he asks himself in one of his deepest moments of reflection. "Then the Lord sends this along and here I am." For the first time in his life, the veteran strategist for social change seems at a loss.

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