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Cover Story : A Man and His Mission : The Catholic Church Never Thought a Devout Parishioner Would Stand Up to Its Plans to Reach Out to the Asian Community--Until Eddie Ramirez Came Along

March 24, 1994|DENISE HAMILTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Each morning, Eddie Ramirez slides a well-worn holy card into the left pocket of his shirt, snugly over his heart.

The card depicts El Santo Nino de Atocha, the Mexican Child Jesus, whom Ramirez credits with saving his life when as a teen-ager he was given six months to live.

Now 72, Ramirez isn't shy about whom to thank for his recovery from tuberculosis or the success that once seemed elusive to the son of immigrant cannery workers. Phrases such as "Praise Jesus" and "Thank the Lord" issue from him in loud, continual exclamations. In his dining room stands a makeshift altar complete with Bible, rosary and lighted candles.

Just about everyone who knows him, including his pastor at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Monterey Park, thought until recently that Ramirez would have sooner missed Sunday Mass than challenge the church.

Yet in the past six weeks, Ramirez has metamorphosed from pious parishioner to strident critic. He led the fight against the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles' plans to turn his parish into a center for evangelical outreach to the Chinese community--and wrung apologies and concessions from church leadership that at first flatly refused to change its mind.

Latinos, who dominate the membership at St. Thomas Aquinas, saw the outreach plan as an effort to take their church away from them, despite vows to the contrary by the archdiocese. The Latino parishioners were especially concerned because the plans called for transferring Father Brian Cavanagh, the one priest who spoke some Spanish, to bring in two Chinese-speaking priests.

"We're fighting this takeover," Ramirez said. "It makes us feel that we're not important, that we've been denied representation as Spanish-speaking people."

Ramirez is still fighting, despite several compromises made by Cardinal Roger Mahony 11 days ago during a surprise visit to St. Thomas Aquinas: Cavanagh would stay on temporarily, the cardinal said, and parishioners would be involved in the outreach plan.

After Mahony's visit, some opponents pledged to work with the new priests.

Not Ramirez. That Sunday, he walked up to Mahony and called him a Pharisee, invoking a Biblical parable about hypocrites.

"Jesus is on our side, and the Cardinal is not being righteous," Ramirez said one morning last week, sipping coffee in his home. "This is only buying more time, and it's a lot of rhetoric. I don't see anything of substance."

he archdiocese has had equally harsh words for Ramirez, whom it accuses of inflaming passions and spreading rumors.

"The reading I get is that most of the parishioners are quite happy," said Father Gregory Coiro, director of public affairs for the archdiocese. "But there is this core group with Eddie Ramirez as their spokesman who are determined to get their own way."

After a meeting Friday with Mahony, Ramirez softened his words. He won't stop fighting for his people's rights, he said, but he will watch to see what the church has in mind.

Ramirez's fight against the archdiocese isn't as out of character as it might seem for a devout Catholic. In 1970, long before affirmative action became a household phrase, Ramirez ran for governor in the Democratic primary against Jesse Unruh, who lost to Ronald Reagan in the general election. Although Ramirez knew he would not win, he entered the election to draw attention to the plight of Latinos, whom he believed were not adequately represented in politics.

Standing 6-foot-1, with blue eyes and brown hair combed straight back, Ramirez cuts a striking figure.

"He has charisma, he can convince and motivate people," said Monty Villajin, a fellow parishioner at St. Thomas Aquinas. "We really appreciate what he did for us."

Ramirez is used to beating back obstacles to achieve his goals.

Born in Sacramento to Mexican immigrants who worked in canneries, Ramirez was the only one of 11 siblings to receive a formal education. When the family moved to Los Angeles, Ramirez enrolled at Roosevelt High School, where he read so fast that teachers sent him to the library during reading lessons so he could plunge ahead on his own.

Ramirez said he was one of about five Latinos to enroll at UCLA in 1940. Always good in math and science, he decided to become a pharmacist. To make ends meet, he sold fruits and vegetables door-to-door in East Los Angeles, lugging wooden crates filled with produce.

In 1943 he developed tuberculosis and was sent to a Sylmar sanitarium, where doctors saw abscesses the size of silver dollars on each lung and gave him six months to live.

But "our heavenly father had other plans for me," Ramirez said. His pious mother brought him a novena of the Santo Nino de Atocha, the Child Jesus. He said the prayers for nine days and sensed the tide turning.

"I felt the presence of Jesus," Ramirez recalled. "I cried like a baby. I knew I was going to get well." Six months later the doctors told him his lungs were completely healed.

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