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'With Padre Olivares, One Always Felt Stronger'

March 20, 1993|PATRICK J. McDONNELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Before the noon services began, a friend approached Manuela Estrada. Had she heard the news? Padre Luis Olivares was dead.

"All during the Mass, I prayed to God that he would open the gates of his kingdom for el padre ," a distraught Estrada said Friday at the parish complex of historic Our Lady Queen of Angels Roman Catholic Church in downtown Los Angeles. "It makes us all sad. He helped so many people."

Word of the renowned priest's death from AIDS complications spread quickly through the church known as La Placita, where the charismatic Olivares served as an activist and often-controversial pastor for nine years during the 1980s. Tempering the grief at the church and elsewhere was a prevalent sentiment that Olivares' spirit and his work will carry on after his passing.

"His legacy is people--the people he has mentored and helped," said Father Richard Estrada, a longtime colleague and fellow member of the Claretian missionary order, who rattled off the names of priests, nuns and others nationwide whose social consciences were nurtured by Olivares. "If there were more leadership like Louie around, this would be a much better world."

Estrada is part of a coterie of longtime associates who saw Olivares transformed from a church bureaucrat to a social crusader who used his position to administer to poor immigrants.

Politicized by the concerns of farm laborers in the 1970s, Olivares put his evolving activist beliefs into action at Our Lady of Solitude Church in East Los Angeles and later at La Placita.

"I clearly remember this man with silk suits and cuff links, driving a big black LTD," said Estrada, who was a seminarian when he met Olivares in 1974. "Before long, he was out on the corner of Soto and 8th (streets), wearing his boots and carrying a picket sign."

The loss of the priest resonates with particular force in Los Angeles' expatriate Central-American community, which swelled during the 1980s as warfare and economic tumult drove many people north.

"With Padre Olivares, one always felt stronger," said Haydee Sanchez, a longtime Salvadoran activist who helps run a shelter for homeless immigrant youths in Los Angeles.

Times have changed at La Placita since Olivares' departure in 1990. Church authorities, citing fire and health hazards, no longer allow the scores of homeless immigrants to sleep on the grounds and linger in the Colonial-style plaza, although daily meals are still distributed.

"It's not the same anymore," said Omar Jimenez, a 22-year-old Mexican immigrant who says he sleeps in a park across the street along with other migrant men. "The father was a good man. He is missed here."

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