Flores, Patricio Férnandez [Patrick] (1929–2017)

By: Adrian Chavana

Type: Biography

Published: December 1, 2021

Updated: December 1, 2021

Patricio “Patrick” Férnandez Flores, the first Mexican American bishop and archbishop of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States, and activist for the Mexican American community, was born to migrant farmworkers Patricio “Pete” Flores and Trinidad (Férnandez) Flores in Ganado, Texas, on July 26, 1929. Working the migrant farmworker circuit throughout South Texas, he picked crops alongside his parents and eight siblings. In 1940 his family moved just outside of Houston to Pearland, where he and his siblings attended the local Mexican school. Segregated from the Anglo school by de facto Jim Crow policies of Pearland Independent School District, poor conditions at the Mexican school, including no running water and overcrowding, prompted students and parents to organize a strike committee. At age twelve, Flores was elected secretary of the committee, and, with the help of LULAC (League of United Latin American Citizens) attorney John J. Herrera, the strike committee filed a lawsuit. After a fire burned down the Anglo school while the case was being litigated, students were integrated in the new facility. Flores faced racial discrimination commonly experienced by people of color in the Jim Crow South, including exclusion from public facilities, denial of services, and racial slurs, all of which shaped his commitment to social justice for the Mexican American community. The migrant farmworker circuit took a toll on his education, and, although his parents stressed education as a means for social mobility, Flores dropped out of high school in the tenth grade.

He turned to the Catholic Church for some sense of stability and assisted Father Frank “Panchito” Urbanovsky, who used a mobile trailer to minister to Mexican and Mexican American migrant farmworkers and service sector employees around the Bryan/College Station area. At age seventeen, Flores, who had a vocation for the priesthood since he was a child, made the decision to become a priest; however, many in the Church questioned the academic potential of a high school dropout. Moreover, cultural and racial barriers in the Church meant that there were very few Mexican American seminary candidates in the late 1940s. A turning point came for Flores in 1947 when he found an ally in Sister Mary Benitia Vermeersch who introduced him to Bishop Christopher Byrne of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston. Both Vermeersch and Byrne encouraged him to enroll in Kirwin High School, a private Catholic school in Galveston. Despite being a few years behind academically, he graduated from Kirwin High School and enrolled in St. Mary’s Seminary in La Porte in 1949. Flores was ordained on May 26, 1956.

His first assignment after seminary was as assistant pastor at Holy Name Catholic Church in Houston’s Near Northside. Although its working-class congregation was predominantly Mexican and Mexican American, he was chastised by his superiors for speaking Spanish to the parishioners. It was a time before the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962–65) allowed Masses in languages other than Latin. In 1963 Flores was sent to Guardian Angel Church in nearby Pasadena where he served as pastor, and he was subsequently pastor of St. Joseph-St. Stephen’s Parish in Houston. In Houston, Flores began to minister to jail inmates, illustrative of his ministry to the poor and most marginalized members of society that would continue throughout his career. He also learned about the Cursillo Movement in Houston. Spanish for “small course,” this movement within the Catholic Church centered on intensive weekend retreats conducted in Spanish and reviving the faith of many Mexican and Mexican Americans throughout the state while simultaneously creating a space for dialogue on issues of social justice impacting the Latino community. After the reforms of the Second Vatican Council allowed Spanish to be spoken in the Church and recognized the importance of attending to the cultural and social needs of parishioners, Flores began speaking Spanish to his congregation and began conducting Cursillo retreats throughout the state. During his time in Houston, he was director of the Christian Family Movement, a marriage counseling program, as well as the state chair of the Bishops’ Committee for the Spanish Speaking, where he worked with César Chávez on issues of migrant farmworker rights. In Houston he introduced the Mariachi Mass, a tradition he took to San Antonio, where he became known as the Mariachi Bishop.

Influenced by both liberation theology in Latin America and the Chicano movement in the United States, Patricio Flores, along with approximately fifty other Catholic priests, many of whom were also part of the Cursillo Movement, cofounded  PADRES (Padres Asociados para los Derechos Religiosos, Educativos, y Sociales) in October 1969 in San Antonio. A national organization dedicated to opening ranks to Mexican American priests within the Catholic Church, it also demanded that the Church be more responsive to the social needs of Mexican Americans in areas including housing, education, and labor. Its list of seven demands, written at its First National Congress in Tucson, was sent to the Vatican, to the Apostolic Delegate in Washington D. C., to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and to several Mexican American social justice organizations. His work did not go unnoticed, and Flores was nominated as auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of San Antonio by Archbishop Francis Furey.

On May 5, 1970, Patricio Flores was consecrated as the first Mexican American bishop of the Catholic Church in the United States. The homily was read in Spanish by Monsignor Balthasar Janacek of Czech heritage, an ally to the Mexican American community. César Chávez offered a reading at the celebration, as did José Angel Gutiérrez and Ramsey Muñiz, key founders of the Raza Unida Party. His elevation to auxiliary bishop brought criticism from some Catholic laity who were concerned that his engagement with Chicano movement politics would prevent him from being a bishop for all—criticism that continued through his elevation to archbishop, although his dedication to social justice never wavered. In 1971 he was appointed chair of the Texas State Advisory Commission on Civil Rights and elected national chair of PADRES. Alongside Las Hermanas, PADRES founded the Mexican American Cultural Center in San Antonio in 1972 on the grounds of Assumption Seminary, offering classes rooted in liberation theology and centering on the needs of the marginalized people across the world. As a supporter of COPS (Communities Organized for Public Service), Flores helped organize around issues of environmental racism and discriminatory lending practices in San Antonio, and in 1975 he founded the Hispanic Scholarship Fund, which, as of 2021, had given more than $650 million in scholarships for higher education.

On May 29, 1978, Flores was consecrated as prelate of the Diocese of El Paso, a position he held for just under a year and a half before being consecrated as the fourth archbishop of San Antonio, and the first Mexican American archbishop in the United States, on October 13, 1979. The former migrant farmworker continued his commitment to social justice for the Mexican American community in San Antonio, where he supported workers in labor disputes and engaged in city politics by advocating more Mexican American leadership. In 1981 he cofounded Catholic Television of San Antonio. As archbishop, he was a member of the Immigration and Refugee Department of the United States Catholic Conference, chair of the Church in Latin America Committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, chair of the Texas Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and in 1983, one of four bishops to represent the U.S. Catholic hierarchy at the Synod of Bishops in Rome. In 1985 he traveled to Cuba with two other U.S. Catholic prelates and met with Fidel Castro and requested the release of political prisoners and permission for Catholic priests to enter Cuba to minister to the Cuban people. His trip represented the first time American Catholic prelates were allowed to enter Cuba since Castro had taken power in 1959. As a result of the meeting, a few dozen priests were allowed to enter Cuba, a five-year trial period of religious tolerance was declared by the Cuban government, and some political prisoners were released. On September 13, 1987, Pope John Paul II visited San Antonio upon a personal invitation from Archbishop Flores. Flores arranged for mariachis to greet the pope at the airport. A crowd of approximately 330,000 people, the largest gathering in state history, attended an outdoor Mass celebrated by Pope John Paul II, and crowds of people lined the streets and watched the pope and Archbishop Flores drive around downtown in the popemobile. This was the first ever papal visit to Texas.

In the mid-1990s Flores’s support of San Antonio Mission Indian descendants in their struggle for the repatriation of human remains solidified an ongoing working relationship between the Archdiocese of San Antonio and the descendants. On November 27, 1999, Archbishop Flores gave the homily at a ceremony to rebury the remains of approximately 125 people, mostly eighteenth and nineteenth-century Coahuiltecan mission residents. He thanked the descendants for maintaining pressure for the return of the remains and conceded that allowing the exhumation of the remains in the late 1960s was a mistake. In June 2000 San Antonio residents prayed for Archbishop Flores when he and his secretary were held hostage by a Salvadoran national in the chancery office. After two hours, his secretary was released, but Flores remained a hostage for nine hours. He was praised for his calm demeanor during the standoff and credited with helping defuse the tense situation. He was released unhurt, and the suspect surrendered.

Flores received many honors during his time as archbishop. In 1986 he received the Hispanic Heritage Award for leadership. He was given Ford Motor Company’s Ford Salute to Education Award in 1995. He also received honorary doctorates from University of the Incarnate Word, Our Lady of the Lake University, and St. Edward’s University. A PBS documentary, A Migrant’s Masterpiece: The Life and Legacy of Patrick Flores, came out in 2008.

After forty-eight years as a priest, including twenty-five as archbishop of San Antonio, Patricio “Patrick” Flores retired on December 29, 2004, and officially stepped down on February 15, 2005. He passed away from pneumonia and congestive heart failure on January 9, 2017, at the Padua Place retirement home for priests in San Antonio. He was eighty-seven. His funeral Mass was held at San Fernando Cathedral, and he was buried in San Fernando Cemetery No. 2.

“Archbishop Patricio Fernandez Flores, 87, dies Jan. 9 of pneumonia and congestive heart failure,” Archdiocese of San Antonio, January 9, 2017 (https://www.archsa.org/news/archbishop-patricio-fernandez-flores-87-fourth-archbishop-of-san-antonio-wh), accessed November 28, 2021. John Davidson, “A Simple Man,” Texas Monthly, July 1981. Richard Edward Martínez, PADRES: The National Chicano Priest Movement (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005). Martin McMurtrey, Mariachi Bishop: The Life Story of Patrick Flores (San Antonio: Corona Publishing Company, 1987). Alston V. Thoms, ed., Reassessing Cultural Extinction: Change and Survival at Mission San Juan Capistrano, Texas (College Station: Texas A&M University, Center for Ecological Archaeology and San Antonio Missions National Historical Parks, National Park Service Joint Publication, 2001).

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Adrian Chavana, “Flores, Patricio Férnandez [Patrick],” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 19, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/flores-patricio-fernandez-patrick.

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December 1, 2021
December 1, 2021

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