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Faith and Purpose in the Twilight Years

Elderly priests at an order in Compton find a sense of family as their days of service draw to an end.


The priests' steps are slower than they used to be as they move around the historic Dominguez Adobe in Compton, which once served as their seminary when they were young men and now shelters them in retirement.

The peaceful setting offers a place to reflect after lives spent in poor communities around the country, building recreation centers, encouraging youth, lighting the fires of community activism--or simply listening to heavy hearts at confessions.

Some of the priests, like Father Celestino de la Iglesia, 94, bear the scars of battle. He was mugged and hit on the head near the Phoenix parish where he last served. Some have simply grown old and fragile, like Father Basilio Frisone, 86, who was once a legal advisor at the Vatican and is now going blind. The other priests help him move about. Father Bernard Stacy, who for years ministered to immigrants in the South Bay, died recently from cancer at 78.

The Claretian order--whose trademark is its activist work within Mexican American communities in such places as Los Angeles and Chicago--partly converted the adobe six years ago to a retirement facility for its increasing number of older priests.

In a "profession" that doesn't feature 401(k) plans and in which some priests serve at their parishes well into their old age, retirement is a loosely defined concept.

"When you're a priest, you die with your boots on," says Father Pat McPolin, 83, who was instrumental in transforming the part of the historic adobe complex where many of its present residents attended seminary in the 1930s and '40s. "We decided to focus on a need: 'What do we do with our elderly priests? Why do they have to be in a parish when they're 80 years old?' "

While priests are priests all their lives, different religious orders and diocese priests have varying rules on the age of "retirement"--though usually well beyond the legal age of 65. Traditionally, retirement for many priests simply means a reduction in their parish work. Father John Aranz, for instance, died five years ago at 91 while still serving at La Soledad Church in East Los Angeles.

The rules also vary about where priests can retire from active parish work, said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Diocese priests have more options because they can plan for retirement individually using the modest salaries they have received during their parish work, and are allowed to live with relatives. Religious-order priests, however, take the vow of poverty in addition to those of chastity and obedience--meaning any earnings from their work go to the order, which in turn takes care of them. In retirement, the Claretian priests each receive a $210 monthly allowance from the order.


With fewer and fewer young men entering the priesthood since the 1960s, the national average age for diocese priests is 59, and 63 for priests dedicated to an order, said Amy Bailey, research coordinator for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. Today about 23% of all diocese priests are living in retirement, but no count is available for those in an order, Bailey said.

As working priests near retirement age en masse, the church could feel the pinch.

"People are living longer, and these are issues that are also going to affect the church," Walsh agreed.

For the fathers at Dominguez, retirement just means a different way to carry on the Lord's work.

"Part of the meaning of the priesthood is not only active work, but we believe very much in the power of priestly prayer," said Father Robert Bishop, 59, the superior at the adobe. "And, of course, when you talk about the most personal meaning [of retirement], one has to begin thinking about the answer you're going to give before God--and your reward."

Indeed, the 15-acre facility with well-trimmed lawns and flower beds amid an industrial area just east of Carson is a pleasant place to reflect. Eighteen priests live there, sharing meals and masses with room enough to accommodate five more.

A Very Long and Storied History

Rancho Dominguez Adobe has seen many transformations, from the original home of Juan Jose Dominguez's family--one of the pioneer families of Los Angeles in the late 1700s--to a seminary for the Claretians beginning in 1922, to a retreat center for teenagers in the 1970s and a base camp for priests who worked with the homeless, the poor and the sick in the 1980s.

Recognizing that retirement was a concern for his order, McPolin suggested that the adobe seminary be changed to living quarters.

Leading the adobe as its superior at the time, and having once been the order's Western province superior, fund-raising had become one of his strengths. He'd amassed a Christmas-card list of 800 friends--and potential contributors--from the descendants of the Dominguez family and South Bay politicians, Hollywood celebrities and Mexican entertainers he met during his two decades in Chicago, where his first assignment began in 1943.

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