Venerable Bishop Alphonse Gallegos, Known as ‘Bishop of the Barrios,’ Also Served in Suffern


Bishop Alphonse Gallegos, O.A.R., who celebrated Mass at Sacred Heart parish in Suffern and went on to serve as an auxiliary bishop in the Diocese of Sacramento, suffered from severely poor vision all his life. However, he displayed a crystal-clear mission as a shepherd for the Lord, especially among poor and low-income Hispanic communities in California. 

He became known as the “Bishop of the Barrios.” 

Oct. 6 marked the 29th anniversary of his tragic death at age 60 in a Highway 99 accident near Yuba City, Calif. His cause for canonization opened in December 2005. Pope Francis declared him venerable in 2016. In the declaration, Pope Francis recognized Bishop Gallegos’ heroic virtues, citing his work with the marginalized and support for members of California modified-car clubs, also known as lowriders. 

Venerable Bishop Gallegos, Los Angeles-raised and a fourth-generation Mexican American, was ordained a priest in the Order of Augustinian Recollects in May 1958 after his seminary studies at the Tagaste Monastery in Suffern. He was appointed auxiliary bishop of Sacramento in 1981. He served in the Archdiocese of New York, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the Diocese of Sacramento. His mortal remains rest in Our Lady of Guadalupe Shrine in Sacramento. 

Before studying at Tagaste, he studied at St. John’s University in Queens and St. Thomas Aquinas College in Sparkill, from which he later received an honorary degree. 

“I knew him when I was a student here at Tagaste in the 1960s. I had him as a director both in Kansas City (Kansas) and here in Suffern,” Father John Gruben, O.A.R., told Catholic New York in a phone interview last week. “We had a novitiate in Kansas City, Kansas, for many years, and he was appointed novice master there.”

Father Gruben is now the prior at the Tagaste Monastery and a parochial vicar of Sacred Heart. He said that in the mid-1970s, he met up with then-Father Gallegos several times when they were both serving at parishes in California.

Father Gruben said he found it “exciting” when Pope Francis declared Bishop Gallegos venerable. 

“He wore quite thick glasses; the extraordinary thing was how active a man he was given his disability. He was a special man,” Father Gruben noted. “He had this tremendous smile that I think was a real projection of his inner belief in faith. He was very community-oriented and he taught at the seminary.”

He said Bishop Gallegos, years after his ordination, was assigned to Tagaste Monastery. He also served in the Suffern area, celebrating Mass and hearing confessions at Sacred Heart, and serving as chaplain at Good Samaritan Hospital in the late 1960s and early 1970s. 

Father Eliseo Gonzalez, O.A.R., is vice-postulator for the cause of Bishop Alfonso Gallegos. “I did not know Bishop Gallegos personally; he died before I entered the religious life,” Father Gonzalez told CNY last week via email from Madrid, where he serves at a parish and is a councilor at the order’s provincial headquarters. 

“I have come to know Bishop Gallegos by listening to the inspirational testimonies of those who did know him, describing the life and virtues of this great human being, while I was a notary of his cause.”

Father Gonzalez served as a parochial vicar at St. John’s parish in Kingsbridge, the Bronx, 2011-2013. He resided at Tagaste while studying at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J. 

Father Gonzalez said Bishop Gallegos’ sainthood cause “is important for the Church in the United States, presenting a model pastor who humbly and lovingly cared for the faithful entrusted to him.”

“His life is one of humility, love and joy. He is very much in line with the current teachings of Pope Francis of going out into the peripheries bringing the Gospel message to all of God’s children. He was able to help so many young people on the right path.”

Marjorie Obrien, 82, a longtime parishioner of Sacred Heart, has done volunteer work at Tagaste for decades. She and her family knew Bishop Gallegos when he was a seminarian and later a priest at the monastery. “He was a family friend. From the very first time we met him, he was a very holy man. He was very considerate, very kind,” Ms. Obrien, who was a witness for Bishop Gallegos’ sainthood cause, told CNY in a phone interview. 

“He had compassion for others. He was a person who always prayed for you. The man was absolutely amazing.”

Bishop Gallegos was especially concerned about poor, uncatechized young people, migrant farm workers and others who lacked support from the community. He often spent his summers living with farm workers in California’s Central Valley. 

Born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he grew up the eighth of 11 children in the Watts area of Los Angeles. He served as pastor of San Miguel and Cristo Rey parishes in the Los Angeles area, and then moved to Sacramento in 1979 and served as the founding director of the Division of Hispanic Affairs of the California Catholic Conference. He began mobile ministry teams that served the state’s farm workers, and he started a Spanish-language radio program to reach farm workers in California and Mexico. 

In 1981, St. Pope John Paul II appointed him auxiliary bishop of Sacramento, where he lived until his death. He served as vicar general, vicar for the Hispanic apostolate and vicar for ethnic communities in the diocese. He served at St. Rose parish in Sacramento and was pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe Shrine in Sacramento. At the time, he was the first Hispanic bishop in the California state capital since 1861. 

Born with a severe myopic condition and nearly blind, Bishop Gallegos had several eye surgeries before entering the seminary.

With his amiable demeanor, he could often be found on weekend nights on Franklin Boulevard in Sacramento talking to the drivers and owners of the area’s famed lowriders (cars with modified suspension systems), blessing their vehicles and offering pastoral advice as he listened to their problems and concerns. An estimated 300 lowrider cars participated in a procession in his honor before his Funeral Mass at Blessed Sacrament Cathedral in Sacramento.

The bishop’s sister, Senaida Kane, in written material provided by sainthood advocates, was quoted as saying, “The family environment in the Gallegos’ household was devout and loving. Our parents showed great concern for our religious upbringing. In an orderly fashion the older children taught catechism to the younger siblings and all gathered daily for the praying of the Rosary.” The five boys and six girls included the bishop’s twin brother, Eloy; their parents were Jose Angel Gallegos, a carpenter, and Caciana Apodaca, a homemaker.

Material from the Sacramento Diocesan Archives describes Bishop Gallegos’ accidental death this way: On the night of Oct. 6, 1991, the bishop and his driver were traveling on Highway 99 from Gridley back to Sacramento. The car suddenly lost power as it neared Yuba City. As Bishop Gallegos got out of the car to push the vehicle off the road, a young woman driving the same road came over the hill and didn’t see the stalled car. She crashed into the vehicle, striking Bishop Gallegos and hurling his body, killing him instantly. 

In 1997, the City of Sacramento erected a monument in his memory.