Diocese mourns loss of Hispanic Ministries Director Lourdes Garza

Bishop Stika, Cardinal Rigali lead funeral Mass as regional, national Latino communities pay tribute to Chancery official

By Bill Brewer

Maria de Lourdes Garza, the Diocese of Knoxville’s director of Hispanic Ministry since 2004 who passed away July 9 at age 63 after a long, courageous battle with cancer, was remembered at a Mass of Christian Burial as a bridge-builder who tirelessly served the local, regional, and national Hispanic communities.

She also was remembered as a faithful servant of God who experienced redemptive suffering in the last years of her life, offering up her pain to God for others, and who lived by the personal credo “Nothing will separate us from the love of Christ.”

Bishop Richard F. Stika encouraged everyone attending the funeral Mass at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus to be like Lourdes Garza, to “be a pontiff.” The bishop noted that Ms. Garza had a special devotion to one pontiff, St. John Paul II, and explained that the word “pontiff” means bridge-builder, a term he emphasized to describe Ms. Garza.

Bishop Stika, who celebrated the Mass on July 15, praised Ms. Garza for her work to help grow the Hispanic community in East Tennessee and nationally. Joining the bishop for the Mass of Christian Burial were some 20 diocesan priests and nearly two dozen deacons and women religious. Cardinal Justin Rigali concelebrated the Mass.

Father Arthur Torres Barona, associate pastor of Sacred Heart, translated the bishop’s homily into Spanish, and Father Michael Nolan, pastor of St. Thérèse of Lisieux Parish in Cleveland, gave an a cappella rendition of the Celtic Song of Farewell during the final commendation.

Also attending the Mass were Father Rafael Capo, director of the Southeast Pastoral Institute, who concelebrated; Olga Villar, director of the Office of Hispanic Ministry in the Archdiocese of Mobile, who represented the National Catholic Association of Diocesan Directors for Hispanic Ministry; Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero; and Patricia Inéz Robledo, the city of Knoxville’s business liaison. A rosary was said for Ms. Garza on July 14 at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Lenoir City. A private burial service was held July 16.

“How much suffering can a person endure? For those of you who knew Lourdes closely, you know these last three years or so, suffering from stage IV ovarian cancer, she suffered greatly,” Bishop Stika said. “I think she really understood the importance of redemptive suffering…she offered it up. She believed in the power of Jesus. She believed there was something greater than herself or something greater than this world, something greater than the pain and suffering of ovarian cancer, or the pain that surrounds us in this world.”

During the Mass, it was revealed that Ms. Garza is being honored at the Southeast Pastoral Institute (SEPI), a Catholic missionary organization based in Florida that evangelizes, educates, organizes, and forms Hispanic leaders throughout the Southeast to promote cultural unity, for her leadership and work within the regional Hispanic community.

Also, the National Catholic Association of Diocesan Directors for Hispanic Ministry awarded Ms. Garza its prestigious “Pioneer of Hispanic Ministry Award” and was to have presented the award to her at a ceremony in late July. The national award will be presented posthumously.

Bishop Stika encouraged everyone to honor Ms. Garza through their own actions.

Bishop Richard F. Stika is joined on the altar at Sacred Heart Cathedral by Cardinal Justin Rigali and priests and deacons to celebrate the funeral Mass for Lourdes Garza.

He said Ms. Garza sought to be a bridge-builder by assisting those entering the United States, bringing people together.

“Pontiff. Bridge-builder. Lourdes. She devoted her life to bringing cultures together; cultures that make our Church universal; cultures that make our Church beautiful and wonderful, knowing that we can go to any nook and cranny in any corner of the world to celebrate the great miracle, the Eucharist,” Bishop Stika said.

“The beauty of our nation, the beauty of the world, the beauty of God is that no two people are alike. We are all created in the image and the likeness of God. Does God look Latino? What does He look like? He looks like us. What does Jesus look like? He looks like us,” Bishop Stika said. “She [Ms. Garza] always reminded me, and she really didn’t have to, that we are not different cultures under one roof when we have a Spanish Mass, or an English Mass, or a Korean Mass, or a Vietnamese Mass. We are not all these cultures under one roof. We are just one Church.”

Speaking to Ms. Garza’s children, Jose Perez and Lupe Perez, Bishop Stika noted that Ms. Garza wanted to make sure that those who came into the United States from other places, “whether they had papers or not, no matter how they wound up here,” were recognized as God’s people and welcomed, regardless of whether they were Mexican, Argentinian, Kenyan, Ghanaian, or Polish, or from any other country.

Lourdes Garza and Bishop Richard F. Stika share a light moment about hats during a service at Sacred Heart Cathedral.

“When we see another person, we see someone created in the image and likeness of God. We see another Christ. We see Jesus. We see the beauty of the Church. Lourdes did that so well, Jose, Lupe, and your family, whether here in the mountains of East Tennessee, or in California, or maybe even farther back.”

Ms. Garza’s parents immigrated to the United States from Mexico City when she was 12 years old. She began evangelizing at an early age as a young Catholic. Prior to arriving in the Diocese of Knoxville in March 2004, she worked for 12 years in a large Los Angeles parish ministering to the needs of that community.

She dedicated more than 24 years of her life working for the Church in an official capacity.

Bishop Stika, who described Ms. Garza as having a great love of people, said he wishes she did not have to suffer so much with her illness. But he emphasized how she lived her life in recent years in redemptive suffering.

“She knew her suffering was not without purpose. She was willing to offer that suffering in union with the suffering of Jesus because nothing would keep her from the love of Christ. Even though she suffered greatly, she passed gently into the night,” he said. “So if you want to honor Lourdes, be a bridge-builder, be a pontiff. Especially reach out to people that you don’t know in other cultures, in other situations, rich and poor, young and old, in whatever language they may speak. If you want to honor her, honor them.”

Mr. Perez, Miss Perez, and Diocese of Knoxville Chancellor Deacon Sean Smith gave eulogies to Ms. Garza.

Deacon Smith described how Ms. Garza’s rich bi-cultural experience added richness to her ministry.

Ms. Garza is shown on a Vespa scooter accompanied by friends Gladys and Juan Herrera.

“How grateful we are to our Lord for leading Lourdes to East Tennessee and for all the good she accomplished here through God’s grace,” he said. “Lourdes was more than an office director ministering or working for a cause. It was not an occupation, but one of prayer in action, lived from the innermost convictions of her deep faith. Such was the care and love that she provided to the Hispanic community. Many here came to refer to her affectionately as ‘Mother.’”

Deacon Smith said Ms. Garza was never at a loss for words, never bashful, and was very passionate in her ministry, working for justice for immigrants, for the unborn, as well as for all of God’s children.

“To put her work in perspective, consider the fact that the Diocese of Knoxville has over 66,000 registered Catholics, but that Lourdes’ ministry was to a population of Catholics that, though not registered in a parish, exceeds over 80,000 or more. You have to remember that Tennessee ranked third in the United States for Hispanic population growth in 2010, and it was to this growing population that Lourdes felt most called to help feel welcome,” said Deacon Smith, calling her a “beautiful ray of light that shined in the body of Christ” and a missionary light of Christ to countless people.

Her work spanned the height and width of East Tennessee, from the All Saints Academy in the inner city of Chattanooga to the migrant field ministries at Camp St. John in Washington County and Our Lady of Guadalupe Chapel in Unicoi County. She would coordinate field Masses for farm workers and meet with government and law-enforcement officials to help erase prejudices and create respect and understanding, according to Deacon Smith.

“Lourdes was a true missionary,” he said.

Jose and Lupe Perez remembered their mother, saying Ms. Garza told them that her funeral would not be about sadness, but rather lots of colorful flowers. Among the flowers at her funeral, co-workers at the Diocese of Knoxville Chancery individually placed carnations in a basket that was placed before a statue of Mary.

Ms. Garza’s children, Jose and Lupe Perez, eulogize their mother at her funeral Mass.

The Perezes told of how their mother taught them to care about family as well as caring for all others, and noted that she is survived by her parents, two children, six siblings, 14 nieces and nephews, two grandchildren, and 18 great-nieces and great-nephews.

“Our mother made it a point to build a unique bond with each and every one of us, all the way down to the youngest ones. She cared for us kids with unimaginable love,” they said, describing their mother as both tender and, on occasion, tough. “Our mother was a fighter in every sense of the word. We cannot say this enough. As children we witnessed and often partook in helping our mother stand up for what she believed in, whether it was protesting a casino in our local community or praying outside the abortion clinic in the East Tennessee winter.

“The passion she had for her beliefs was rigid, and she was not afraid to show it. She was a champion for the Hispanic community in East Tennessee. She did this through active daily ministry by giving a voice to a population of East Tennessee Hispanics and their local parishes, actively pursuing and sometimes fighting for their rights to practice their faith while they integrated into the parish population and maintained their cultural beliefs.

“However, that wasn’t enough for our mom. She volunteered countless hours by working with numerous nonprofit organizations to fight for equal rights for Hispanics in East Tennessee. Her fight led to national recognition by Catholic Extension and local recognition as a graduate of Leadership Knoxville.”

They said that lastly, Ms. Garza was a fighter of cancer, who battled through numerous operations and years of treatment with grit and a fierce attitude.

ardinal Justin Rigali gives the final commendation for Lourdes Garza at the July 15 funeral Mass at Sacred Heart Cathedral as Bishop Richard F. Stika and priests concelebrating the Mass observe. Father Michael Nolan, left, sang an a cappella rendition of the Celtic “Song of Farewell” for Ms. Garza.

Ms. Garza’s family members weren’t the only ones to see that grit, fierce attitude, and compassion. Priests, deacons, women religious, and co-workers also witnessed them, including Father Peter Iorio, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Johnson City.

“I have a deep respect and love for Lourdes. We were like brother and sister of Jesus and of each other in the sense of doing the will of God. I called her ‘Lulu’ and she called me ‘Padre Pedrito.’ She had a wonderful desire to see the Hispanic community grow and be empowered to participate in the full life of the Church. I was very glad to work together with her to realize that vision,” Father Iorio said. “Pope Francis wrote about the joy of the Gospel. She was one who put that joy into practice. It was expressed in the way that she worked, and it also celebrated our faith. Lourdes gifted the Diocese of Knoxville with the beauty of the cultural and devotional life of Hispanic peoples. Even while sick, she continued to offer herself as a resource and leader in much the way I saw St. Pope John Paul II do while he was sick at the end of his life.”

Father Iorio offered a story of an experience he shared with Ms. Garza that made an impact on his faith.

“Four years ago I went on pilgrimage to France. I visited the shrine of Lourdes and especially prayed for her because she was sick at that time and her name was Lourdes. I brought back a lot of the water from that holy shrine. I gave some to her. She told me later that she had gotten so sick, and nothing was working to bring her healing or relief. She decided it would not hurt to drink that holy water from Lourdes. As to whether or not the water was a part of her cancer going into remission, that is for individuals to determine. She and I believe it did. I am grateful to God for a wonderful gift that he gave me and all of us in Lourdes Garza,” Father Iorio said.

Ms. Garza also left a lasting impression on Hispanic Ministry co-worker Blanca Primm.

Lourdes Garza, shown standing second from left, led the Diocese of Knoxville’s Hispanic ministry for Catholics of every age group.

“I am grateful for the years that Lourdes and I worked together in the Hispanic Ministry office. I learned a lot from her, not only professionally but also personally. Lourdes had a gift for offering people the opportunity to use their special talents and strengths to serve the Church. She succeeded in bringing national recognition to our diocese’s Hispanic Ministry efforts. For Lourdes, no project was too big — she was able to transform her dreams into reality, with projects that made lasting impacts on our Hispanic community and their faith lives. I always admired her trust in God, especially after she got sick with cancer. She never stopped believing in His merciful love for her. I will miss her very much,” Mrs. Primm said.

As her children, Jose and Lupe Perez, noted, Ms. Garza was also active outside of the diocese in the larger East Tennessee community, where she developed relationships with community leaders.
Mayor Rogero called Ms. Garza a “great woman of faith and a bridge-builder.”

“She is somebody we all admired greatly, and she is someone that everywhere I went I saw her, not just with Hispanic issues or Hispanic events, but she was somebody who had our broader community at heart as well,” Mayor Rogero said. “I think her greatest legacy is building those bridges in our community.”

Ms. Robledo, who knew Ms. Garza for years and served with her in various community organizations and projects, said Ms. Garza’s death is a huge loss for the community. She said she often counted on Ms. Garza to discuss ideas and brainstorm on community issues and projects.

Ms. Garza’s ideas and input will also be her legacy, according to Ms. Robledo.

“She was a rock. And all that she has done we will continue to build on,” she said. ■

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