Why Father Brown, a Barrio Logan icon, is leaving town

2018-03-12 | The San Diego Union-Tribune

March 12--Monday marks the end of era in Barrio Logan, as Father Brown retires to Northern California.

Quick read:

* A San Diego native, Richard Brown became a priest after illness sank his maritime ambitions.

* An Anglo raised in an English-speaking home, Brown is fluent in Spanish and devoted to Mexican culture.

* His parishioners are equally devoted to him. "He's our pope," one said.

* In the 1970s, he created the "Blessing of the Lowriders," an annual car show, fiesta and benediction.

* He led Barrio Logan's Catholic school, baptized enough babies to populate a small city, organized hundreds of dances and played a mean game of tennis. But it's game, set and match for the 90-year-old parish priest.

A legendary priest's long, unlikely love affair with Barrio Logan's Our Lady of Guadalupe: Here's the full story:

If God exists -- and Richard Brown has no doubts -- the Almighty pulled off a slick move more than 70 years ago.

As an undergraduate at Vallejo's California Maritime Academy in 1946, Brown suffered severe intestinal problems. From his sickbed Brown alerted the heavens that, for the right price, he would abandon his fledgling merchant marine career.

"If I ever get out of here," he prayed, "I'll become a priest."

You can almost hear the celestial choir: Deal.

He recovered, left the academy and made good on his promise. On Monday, the Rev. Richard Brown leaves the church (Our Lady of Guadalupe) and neighborhood (Barrio Logan) he's served most of his life. A month shy of his 91st birthday, he's flying north to a Jesuit retirement home in Los Gatos.

"It's a beautiful place," he said. "And I know a lot of the guys there. All the Jesuit priests go there."

Maybe so. But few Jesuits have gone where Father Brown went.

"He was an exception," said Vivian Toscano, 56, Our Lady of Guadalupe's coordinator of parish ministry and a lifelong member of the congregation. "He's different in how he's focused on the youth and his devotion to Catholic education."

The little priest, longtime parishioner Rafael Alvarez said, cast a giant shadow: "Father Brown is an institution. He's our pope."

The Pontiff of Barrio Logan served Our Lady of Guadalupe for 45 years, including 35 as pastor. In semi-retirement, he devoted several years to Lemon Grove's St. John of the Cross before returning to Our Lady as senior priest in 2010.

Across his crowded clerical career, Brown baptized 20,000 infants, organized hundreds of dances for teens, blessed countless lowrider cars and their drivers at Chicano Park and counseled the riskiest of the area's at-risk youth.

"He works among the hardest core gang members in Barrio Logan," said Rachel Ortiz, executive director of Barrio Station, a youth and community center. "And everybody loves him."

Only 5-foot-6 in his prime, he was a driven basketball player with a wicked hook shot and zero tolerance for other forms of on-court wickedness.

During one bruising game, another player took the Lord's name in vain.

"Hey," Brown shot back, "you're talking about my boss."

He had his employer's back. After all, they had an agreement.

Jibberish

An Anglo who grew up in an English-speaking household, Brown seemed an unlikely choice to lead Our Lady of Guadalupe, a parish that was founded a century ago to serve San Diego County's Spanish-speaking believers.

Yet the Hispanic culture, with its strong emphasis on faith and family, struck a chord with Brown. "It was just like my family," he once told an interviewer.

His father, a tuna cannery worker, died when Brown was in elementary school. Dorothy Brown, widowed with five children, raised them all to respect education and the Catholic religion. All three of her sons entered the priesthood.

First though, he enrolled at the California Maritime Academy where he was nicknamed "Dauntless" Brown.

"I wasn't afraid to talk back," he said.

Nor was he afraid to pursue his dreams. After his recovery, his mother encouraged him to examine the Jesuits, a religious order with a devotion to education. Learning that the pastor of Our Lady was a Jesuit, he introduced himself to the Rev. Gerald Fader.

Fader steered Brown toward the order's California headquarters in Los Gatos and urged him to learn Spanish. He completed his seminary studies and then traveled to Mexico City, where he hired a language tutor. After his first sermon in Spanish, he stood outside the church and awaited the reviews.

"How did you like my sermon?" he asked one churchgoer.

"I didn't understand a single word," she said.

Brown redoubled his efforts, both in the language department and with the local youth. His club for Catholic teens was popular for its dances, especially when Brown engineered an appearance by a Mexican movie star, César Costa.

After five months in Mexico City, Brown returned to San Diego and Our Lady. He arrived in the parish office after a tennis match, wearing sweat band, T-shirt and shorts.

"What do you want?" the secretary asked.

"I'm going to be the new parish priest here," he said.

When a heart attack killed Fader two years later, Brown became pastor.

Beyond stereotypes

As a teen, Brown loved to dance. While he abandoned this pastime after donning a clerical collar, he saw it as a good outlet for the parish youth. He offered teens a sacred-and-secular deal: attend Mass and receive a free ticket to an afternoon or evening dance.

"He provided a social setting where you could go and you were safe," said Toscano.

Not always safe. A 1971 dance was marred by fights and the wounding of one 17-year-old boy, shot in the leg.

While the dances continued, Brown became more involved in issues of law enforcement and juvenile justice. He served on a police advisory commission, and assisted community organizations like Barrio Station.

Then, in the mid-1970s, the lowriders came calling.

"The stereotype of lowriders was associated with gang culture and we wanted to change that image," said Rigoberto Reyes, who wrote the 2017 history "San Diego Lowriders" with Alberto López Pulido. "At the time, Father Brown was one of the only ones to support us."

With the car clubs, Brown inaugurated an annual "Blessing of the Lowriders," a combined auto show, fiesta and benediction in Chicano Park. In 1979 he went a step further, offering Our Lady as a meeting space for what became the San Diego Lowrider Council.

"We are still together and are the oldest lowrider council in the country," Reyes said. "That's something to be proud of and that's due to Father Brown."

Brown never had any doubts about these men. "They're really good guys," he said.

Finishing school

Perhaps Brown's toughest challenge has been keeping the parish school afloat.

"That's a really difficult thing to keep going," said Msgr. Ned Brockhaus, one of Brown's closest friends. "He's always hustling around, trying to get money."

Knowing that Golden Hill's Our Lady of Angels School faced similar financial pressures, Brown and Our Lady of Angels's pastor, the Rev. Donald Kullek, joined forces. In the early 1970s, they opened Our Lady's School in Barrio Logan.

Brown still had to scramble for money, but he "has an unyielding faith that our Blessed Mother will provide, hence the name, Our Lady's School," Toscano noted. "Time after time the school had come to the brink and Our Lady provided."

Brown now walks with a cane, but until recently he was an avid tennis player. Brockhaus, a frequent opponent, gave Dauntless Brown another nickname: "Slasher."

Toscano had still another term for him: "Peacekeeper."

Brockhaus suspects his old friend would like to remain in San Diego, cheering for his beloved Padres and helping out at Our Lady of Guadalupe. But he's been ordered to the Los Gatos retirement center that Brockhaus calls "Jesuit finishing school."

So Father Brown is going. Obedience is part of the deal.

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