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Mecca, California, remembers beloved Catholic priest Father Francisco Valdovinos


Many people who live in Mecca, Calif., have been mourning this year for a beloved Roman Catholic priest, Father Francisco Valdovinos. He died January from COVID-19. The father had preached at the sanctuary of Our Lady of Guadalupe since 2018 and tried to help his community through the pandemic. Conchita Pozar is a parishioner at Our Lady of Guadalupe. And with the help of interpreter Rosario Aragon Villarreal, she remembers the late priest fondly.

CONCHITA POZAR: (Through interpreter) He was unique. He was a Catholic priest, and this is my religion. But also, he was involved in politics. He used to say that man has to be spiritually involved but also economically involved, meaning that we all needed to be involved more in politics and also religion.

SIMON: When the pandemic began, Father Francisco adjusted how he held mass.

POZAR: (Through interpreter) At the beginning, he started in Facebook Live. And when little by little, places were opening, he was giving service only for 100 people. And we knew we needed to get in line early in the car just to be able to be in the service. And when more than 100 people were there, then he didn't allow anybody else to go through. It was in outdoors also.

SIMON: And he used the opportunity to offer and encourage COVID testing for his parishioners.

POZAR: (Through interpreter) After the service, he was trying to convince us to go at the back of the church to make sure that everybody was making the COVID tests. He used to say that if you go to the supermarket, you are very sure that you are not transporting the virus. It doesn't hurt. It is just a test in the mouth. It's just few minutes and is saving your life.

SIMON: He was the first person who made testing accessible to people like her, to campesinos, says Conchita Pozar, who's part of Coachella Valley's Purepecha Indigenous community. She says they helped in other ways, too.

POZAR: (Through interpreter) He made available beans and rice. And I really don't know where he was getting those products from, but he used to give all those products to the communities - I mean, beans, rice. And those were not available, and he made them available.

SIMON: She says he took care of everyone, including canine members of the parish.

POZAR: (Through interpreter) He used to help pets. He used to save pets and street dogs. He used to buy food. And those are the dogs that are still inside the church.

SIMON: In late 2020, Father Valdovinos told parishioners to get vaccinated.

POZAR: (Through interpreter) He used to say, when vaccinations are available, go and get vaccinated. This is something we need to do to fight against the virus. If not, if we don't go, then these will continue on and on and on forever. So he used to say vaccines are safe. Please trust the vaccine and please go and vaccinate yourself when vaccines are available.

SIMON: But last December, Father Valdovinos contracted the virus himself and died early this year. Conchita Pozar saw him shortly before he became ill and remembers the last conversation they had.

POZAR: (Through interpreter) He knew that the Purepecha women are not leaders in the community. Only men are. He wanted me to be a leader also, and he wanted me to encourage much more women to join me.

SIMON: And now, months after his passing, the people of Mecca carry forward his legacy - not just by stepping up to lead but getting their COVID-19 vaccines.

POZAR: (Through interpreter) I believe numbers can talk for themselves.

SIMON: Today, more than 90% of the people in Mecca's zip code are fully vaccinated. A hundred percent have received some dosage of the vaccine. Conchita Pozar says she feels that Father Valdovinos is with her every day.

POZAR: (Through interpreter) He gave his life for campesinos. He gave his life for the community. He gave his life for his religion and for his people. So yes, he's very, very alive in our hearts.

SIMON: Conchita Pozar of Mecca, Calif. Her interpreter was Rosario Aragon Villarreal.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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