A few years ago, the Rev. Richard Brown found himself riding shotgun in a lowrider ’57 Chevy convertible at Chicano Park — the first of several such trips. He was in his mid-80s.
“We’d always put him in the front, the first car,” said Raul Martinez, one of his parishioners at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Logan Heights. “The first time we did it, he was ecstatic. And the people who were out there who saw that — they were just happy. They were clapping — they were cheering him on.”
The cheers continued, mixed with tears, Saturday night as his parish community — including Councilman David Alvarez and state Sen. Ben Hueso — gathered to celebrate the retirement of the 90-year-old “El Padre del Barrio.”
Hundreds attended the event on Father Richard Brown Day (as proclaimed by the San Diego City Council), sharing stories of a clergyman who helped them develop successful careers, get off drugs or simply become the people they are today.
Father Brown is known to his admirers as a priest who transformed lives, their church and their community.
And they said he accomplished all of that with one quality: love.
“They are my family,” Brown said from a blue couch as hundreds of people awaited their turn with him. The line snaked from one end of the church hall to the other at Our Lady of Guadalupe.
People of all ages came to spend a few more minutes with Father Brown at his farewell dinner — a potluck. (Notice of the event went out to 100,000 people, and organizers were worried they’d all show up.)
On Monday, he travels to a retirement home for Jesuit priests near San Jose.
Braving constant rain, people came to take photos, give him mementos and hug him in appreciation for 50 years of loving care.
And some of his beloved young people — now adults — brought their children and accompanied their parents to the dinner.
“Love is the thing that moves the world,” said the priest, who turns 91 in April. “I pray for everyone. I love every person — old person, young person — I love them.”
And it’s that mutual love that has made significant differences in people’s lives.
“He always stopped (during Mass) to acknowledge me, said Martinez, 56. “If you saw me, you’d probably have a misconception of me.”
Though he wouldn’t be pegged for a “church-going person,” Martinez said, Father Brown would take a minute to say hi and shake his hand while walking up the aisle in church.
“That’s a long time,” the parishioner said.
A Klique Car Club member, Martinez said, “He helped me so much in my spiritual life — not judging. His Masses were always about life, about living a Godly life. He always gave us hope.”
When he took the priest on rides, Martinez said he laid on the hydraulics and Father Brown was “like a little kid.”
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“The last time I saw him at the car show in Chicano Park, he was just overwhelmed,” Martinez said. “Too many people surrounded him. They all wanted to touch him. They all want blessings from him.”
Mabel Camacho, down from Tierrasanta, also talked about Brown’s personal touch.
“He never forgets a face, ever — even if you don’t see him here at church. He’s always very loving and let you know that he remembers who you are and comes and says hi to you.”
Camacho has followed Brown since she was a child, seeing him in Lemon Grove when he moved to St. John of the Cross Parish and then back to Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Father Brown was pastor at Our Lady of Guadalupe for 37 years. After serving in Lemon Grove, he returned to his old parish for an additional eight years.
A native San Diegan, Brown attended St. Augustine High School, joined the Merchant Marine and then joined his two brothers in the seminary. In 1946, he become a Jesuit priest after study at California Province of the Society of Jesus.
Brown taught Spanish at Loyola High in Los Angeles and sought permission to go to Mexico City to enhance his Spanish for five months, which turned into a five-year stint.
Back in San Diego, nearby freeway construction eliminated many houses, and Our Lady of Guadalupe was faltering. Brown was recruited to bring youth to the parish.
The Rev. John Auther, current pastor at the church, recalled Brown’s impact.
“He made this parish what it was and what it is to some degree,” Auther said.
Later as a pastor Brown helped combine Our Lady of Guadalupe school with Our Lady of Angels School to retain the parochial school presence.
“When he came here first, the parish was dying, and the pastor brought him because he knew he did really well with youth, because he had been in Mexico,” Auther said.
“And so he built this CYO (Catholic Youth Organization) that all sorts of people my age still talk about — how important it was for them in their growing up …. Everybody met their spouses… It was really very important, and he built up the parish because of that.”
Such guidance gave young people purpose when they otherwise could have gone astray, a youth wrote in an essay read at the dinner.
“Everything my family has is because he believed in many of us, and gave us the means and access to get there. We thank you,” said the essayist, who noted the times Brown said “Don’t worry” about finding money to attend Catholic high school or college.
The depth of feeling was evident throughout the farewell dinner.
Asked what made his mentor so special, Auther paused, taking nearly 30 seconds to compose himself.
Tears streamed down his face as Auther said: “He’s always had a remarkable capacity to communicate how much he loves people, and how special they are to him. With that, how much God loves him, too.”
Auther said now was the time for Father Brown — who had been celebrating the first Mass of the day every day except Thursday — to get a rest in a retirement home.
“We probably should have sent him a long time ago, but we didn’t want to,” Auther said.
Addressing a crowd amid mariachi music were two local politicians.
Sen. Hueso brought a Capitol resolution hailing Brown’s service and said, “I can’t think of anybody in this city that has made more of an impact on this community than Father Brown… Thank you for giving us your life — for every spark of energy that God gave you, you in turn dedicated it to us.”
Councilman Alvarez called Father Brown the “social justice movement of Barrio Logan personified.”
“From the church perspective, [he] always got involved with the community first. And then the community got involved with things that were happening in our neighborhood at large. He really exemplifies that.”
One memory had special meaning to Alvarez.
“I’ve been coming to this parish since I was baptized,” he said. “One of the experiences that I will always remember is, as a 16- or 17-year-old in preparation for my confirmation class, he took all of us … to a bay ride here in San Diego Bay.”
Until then, the future District 8 councilman and mayoral candidate had never been on a bay boat cruise.
“I will always remember that,” he said.
Adela Garcia, a retired IBM executive and influential Hispanic activist, told Times of San Diego about the many young people Father Brown influenced.
“When I look back at a lot of the kids who were in the Our Lady of Guadalupe CYO that Father Brown created in 1968, I see wonderful adults who didn’t just learn how to pray the ‘Our Father’ and ‘Hail Mary,’ but are successful individuals with a strong set of values and who are helping others,” Garcia said.
“There are too many to name, and I would need a book to capture what this holy priest has done for our Barrio,” said Garcia, who met Father Brown when she was in high school.
She called him her spiritual guide for almost 50 years.
“I am who I am because of him,” Garcia said. “He is truly my father and I, along with so many others, hurt knowing that he is leaving our Barrio.”
He set up the Father Brown School Fund to help Our Lady’s School and also to provide scholarships to graduates to attend local Catholic high schools. (People can still donate directly to the school using Paypal.)
Another admirer is Rachael Ortiz, executive director of Barrio Station, whose mission is to discourage delinquency youth violence and gang involvement, and encourage civic responsibility and successful school performance. (Brown was on its board.)
“In our community of Logan Heights/Barrio Logan, Father walked among the youth and the San Diego Lowriders, parks and community centers,” she said. “Up until very recently, Father walked the streets of our community talking with many youth gangs, praying for them and unfortunately burying many as well.”
Ortiz said she got her strength and faith in herself and God from Father Brown “that I may be able to lead or support … people in need.”
The Rev. Gil Gentile, who shared a roof with his fellow priest, said that in his Jesuit community, Father Brown was special because of his “life experience and faithfulness and his prayerfulness.”
“He’s always telling us how he prays for us every day,” Gentile said. “We live next door to each other and every time he passes my door, he says a prayer for me. That must be 20 times a day.”
As Father Brown prepared to leave San Diego, he was asked his message to parishioners.
“They are my family,” he said. “I want them to live according to the Commandments, love their neighbors as themselves and forgive your enemies and pray for them.”
Car club enthusiast Raul Martinez says he won’t forget what Father Brown taught him.
After being drug-free for 26 years, Martinez said, “I’m very blessed and fortunate to sit here and have a different way of life.
“I could never repay Father Brown for what he’s done for me — from the simplest thing, a smile and a handshake.”