Thursday, May 25, 2000

New saint has local kin

By Richelle Thompson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

St. Jose Varela
        A Catholic Loveland family feels a little closer to heaven these days. Pope John Paul II canonized their uncle, a Mexican priest and martyr.

        Now that there's a saint in the family, “maybe we've got an "in' into heaven,” said June Flores, 67.

        The Rev. Jose Isabel Flores Varela crossed Mexico on horseback, hearing confessions, distributing Communion and ministering to the 5,000 Roman Catholics in his parish. In 1927, he was shot and stabbed repeatedly, then bled to death on the floor of his church.

        Pope John Paul II canonized Father Varela and 26 other Mexicans on Sunday in a special service at the Vatican. Twenty-five of the new saints, including Father Varela, were martyrs, victims of anti-Catholic persecution.

        As a saint, Father Varela is in elite company. There are only two American-born saints.

        Father Varela is the great-uncle of Mrs. Flores' husband, Louis Flores Jr. Mr. Flores, 71, grew up hearing about the adventures of his great-uncle. His father, Louis Flores Sr., traveled the countryside from age 10 to 20 with the priest, sometimes on horseback, sometimes on foot.

        And sometimes, if the water rose quickly, Mr. Flores Sr. held onto the horse's tail as they swam through a swollen creek or river.

        “Just in the last 10 to 15 years, we realized ... that all these stories weren't just made-up stories,” said Mr. Flores Jr. “They were really true.”

        According to family lore, Mr. Flores Sr. was stopped by bandits one day while he was taking collection money to the bishop. The would-be thieves were going to take the money and horse, then they pulled up short. One told the others to let him go because he was related to the priest.

        Mr. Flores Sr., now 96, recalled the days with his uncle on Tuesday from his home in Moundsville, W.Va.

        “The best I could learn was from him and my dad,” said Mr. Flores Sr. “I learned from him that in the United States, everybody was equal. He told me that in the United States, they had freedom of religion.”

        Mr. Flores Sr. and his family emigrated to Chicago in 1924. Father Varela was slain three years later at the age of 71.

        From 1926 to 1929, 25 Roman Catholic priests, including Father Varela, were executed by pro-government forces. Acrimony followed the church's opposition to the Mexican revolution.

        Including the new saints, Pope John Paul has canonized 324 people — roughly double the total number of saints consecrated by his predecessors this century.

        “These are people whose lives really have something to teach us,” said Dan Andriacco, spokesman of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. “That's why we single these people out as saints.”

        Mrs. Flores knew long ago Father Varela was a miracle worker.

        Her son, Luis Flores, now 38 and living in Fort Wright, left the Catholic church when he was in high school. For 15 years, Mrs. Flores prayed to Father Varela “every day and twice on Sunday” that her son would come back to the church.

        Five years ago, her son returned. His wife converted to Catholicism and their two children were baptized in the church.

        “I think (Father Varela) was the one who did it,” Mrs. Flores said. Was it a miracle? “To me, it was.”

        Mr. Flores Sr. said his uncle deserves the honor of sainthood.

        “He was a good man,” he said. “I think of him often. I pray for him. He was a good priest. In a town where people would kill each other and drink ... he would quiet everybody and civilize everybody.”


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