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Fund Drive to Keep Alive Priest's Legacy : Aid: Supporters of immigrants rights activist Father Luis Olivares, who died last year, hope to establish a $1-million endowment. The purpose is to benefit grass-roots advocacy programs in Los Angeles.


During the 1980s, Father Luis Olivares achieved a lasting reputation as an uncompromising advocate for an often unpopular cause: improving the plight of Central American refugees and illegal immigrants.

Before his death a year ago, Olivares turned his Downtown Los Angeles church into a sanctuary for refugees, denounced U.S. policy in Central America and called on employers to ignore a federal law banning the hiring of undocumented workers.

Although friends say Olivares' spirit lives on in the work of those he inspired, many have spoken about the need for a more formal structure ensuring long-term assistance for his broad social agenda.

Supporters last week launched a drive aimed at creating a $1-million endowment--known as the Luis Olivares Legacy--to help grass-roots initiatives serving the millions of immigrants and refugees in the Los Angeles area.

"This is a mechanism to continue the work that my brother started," said Henry Olivares, who heads the legacy's board of advisers.

The legacy's first grant, a modest $2,500, was awarded to the Centro Pastoral Rutilio Grande, a church-run, social service organization that Olivares helped found 10 years ago to serve the needs of new immigrants. The center, on the grounds of Blessed Sacrament Church in Hollywood, includes a shelter for the homeless (recently occupied by immigrant families who lost their homes in January's earthquake). It is named after an activist priest murdered during the civil war in El Salvador.

According to organizers, a national climate of hostility toward newcomers underscores the need to carry on Olivares' mission.

"I can't think of a more important time to get involved in such a legacy, to reawaken the spirit of Luis Olivares," said actor Martin Sheen, one of the late priest's admirers who helped kick off the endowment campaign.

If supporters succeed in raising $1 million through direct mail and other appeals, they say it could generate $50,000 to $475,000 in interest to be disbursed annually. Even a few thousand dollars can make a big difference to groups operating on shoestring budgets, officials said.

"A grant of $5,000 can be a lifesaver," said Madeleine Janis-Aparicio, former director of the Central American Refugee Center.


The legacy plans to support nonprofit, community-based organizations that work with Latino immigrants and refugees in Los Angeles. Areas of concern include literacy, AIDS, human rights, homelessness and unemployment.

Beyond grants, fund organizers seek to convey a symbolic message of concern by invoking the name of the charismatic priest, a Texas native of Mexican descent.

"More than the money, this is a statement of faith," said Jack Shakely, president of the California Community Foundation, which will administer the Olivares endowment.

The fund will provide an alternative to major foundations and other big-wallet donors, who are often leery of backing politically sensitive causes. Most beneficiaries of the Olivares fund are likely to oppose official efforts to seal the U.S.-Mexico border, reduce the flow of asylum-seekers arriving in the United States and otherwise curb immigration.

During the 1980s, Olivares enraged church and government authorities with his denunciations of Washington's policies in Central America. In 1985, Olivares declared his Downtown parish church, Our Lady Queen of Angeles (commonly known as La Placita) as Southern California's first public sanctuary for Central Americans.

"Louie was absolutely committed to helping refugees and immigrants," said Father Michael E. Kennedy, who worked with Olivares at La Placita and Blessed Sacrament.

Among the many who remember, with gratitude, is Marta Pineda, now 34, a former shrimp packer in El Salvador who says she fled her homeland after fellow unionists were threatened and killed. Pineda arrived in Los Angeles in early 1988, with a newborn daughter, Jasmin. Like many others, she turned to La Placita, which placed her in a church shelter near Blessed Sacrament Church. She remained a year.

"I had no place else to go," Pineda said during an interview last week, accompanied by her daughter, now 6, and her 4-year-old son, Jesse.

Olivares died on March 18, 1993, of complications from AIDS, apparently contracted through an improperly sterilized needle during a visit to Central America. He was 59.

On the anniversary of his death, former friends, colleagues and admirers gathered at Blessed Sacrament. Mariachis accompanied the memorial service, just as the Mexican melodies had resounded at 11:30 a.m. Sunday services in La Placita during his tenure. For Olivares, though, church teachings extended well beyond weekly celebrations of the Mass.

"When I come to my final judgment, the Lord is not going to ask how many times I went to Mass," Olivares once said. "I know what I will be asked: 'When I was hungry, did you feed me? . . . When I was naked, did you clothe me? . . . When I was a foreigner in your midst, did you take me in?' "

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