Father Richard Estrada, 67, is a Los Angeles native who was baptized at Placita and credits the priests and nuns who marched for civil rights in the 1960s as inspiring him to join the priesthood. He helped plan the massive 2006 immigration marches, takes water to the desert for immigrants and runs Jovenes Inc., a program to care for the homeless and at-risk youth, including those who are immigrants.
And Father Rosendo Urrabazo, a 57-year-old San Antonio native, spent 12 years in Rome working for the worldwide Claretian order before returning to Los Angeles six months ago for his second stint at Placita. He is focused on developing lay leaders through community organizing.
Their service to migrants goes well beyond political battles over immigration. On any given week, the priests conduct about 30 Masses, weddings and quinceaneras for more than 10,000 people, hear 10 hours of confessions and baptize hundreds of babies.
The church staff and more than 80 volunteers offer English classes, a health clinic, food distribution for seniors, hot meals for the homeless, legal aid, income tax help and a 12-step program to help people overcome addictions.
On a recent weekday, for instance, the plaza was filled with children in their Sunday best preparing for baptism, and later in the evening, a line of 300 hungry and homeless women and men waiting to be fed.
One man, a 46-year-old Mexico native and U.S. citizen, would give his name only as Salvador because, he said, he did not want others to know of his dire straits. He said he was laid off from his $11.57-an-hour job assembling airplane parts a year ago and hasn't been able to find work since. He has run through his savings and is now living on the streets, depending on La Placita for evening meals.
Despite the occasional hate mail chastising the church for aiding unauthorized immigrants, Estrada said the Claretians will continue to serve them as a demonstration of their faith in action.
"The church will not turn its back on immigrants or to the people with AIDS or to the child who is homeless," Estrada said. "If we do that, we might as well shut down."