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Gathering Mary's children

Photo: Stephen Brashear Photo: Stephen Brashear

Mike Calderon’s devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe calls him to serve the Hispanic community

When an earthquake struck Mexico in February 2018, Ygnacio “Mike” Calderon wanted to help.

So he organized a Community Unity dinner at his home parish, St. John the Evangelist in Vancouver. Local restaurants donated food and beverages; local musicians provided the entertainment. Parishioners pitched in with labor.

While the event raised about $10,000 for victims of the quake, Calderon also saw it as an opportunity to bring his community together.

“So many people came with their families,” Calderon said. “We tried to get non-Catholics in and people who had left the church. I dragged them all in.”

Bringing people together has been a lifelong mission for Calderon.

At age 83, he still greets people every Sunday before Mass, works to involve the Hispanic community in the Knights of Columbus, and arranges transportation for the parish’s Thanksgiving meal for the homeless.

Calderon and his wife of 62 years, Ruth, routinely open their home with its 10 acres of land for the parish luau, weddings and parties celebrating quinceañeras (15th birthdays).

His call to serve, Calderon said, comes from a message he received from Our Lady of Guadalupe: “Gather my children.”

“This has just been within me to do what needs to be done,” Calderon said.

‘The root of Hispanic ministry’

Calderon grew up in Austin, Texas, one of 13 children born to parents who emigrated from Mexico. The family had to work hard to put food on the table. “I worked in the fields, picked cotton and all that stuff,” he said. “My family was big and we had to survive.”

His parents were “Guadalupanos,” instilling in him their devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe. “I saw the love they had for her,” Calderon said.

Though life was hard, the family always made time to pray the rosary together. Calderon and his brothers also were altar servers before school and on Sundays.

“I remember going with the priest on Sundays to all the missions,” he said. “We wouldn’t get home until three or four o’clock in the afternoon. That was a long day.”

Still, he had fun growing up. “It was a lot of togetherness,” Calderon said. “We had something that’s missing in today’s society.”

Togetherness may be lacking in much of society, but Calderon has found that spirit at St. John the Evangelist. “We’re probably the friendliest church on the planet,” he said.

After joining St. John’s in 1971, Calderon noticed an influx of Hispanic families working in the area’s dairies. With no formal outreach ministry at the parish, Calderon appealed directly to parishioners for donations of food, heating oil and building materials to help these families.

“They just gave,” he said. “They actually opened up their pocketbooks and gave.”

Around 1976, Calderon decided to petition for a monthly Spanish Mass to be celebrated at St. John’s. By the early 1980s, Mass in Spanish was being offered weekly at the parish church.

“Mike is the root of the Hispanic ministry in Vancouver,” said Amira Sonntag, who started helping with sacramental preparation for Spanish-speaking families at St. John’s in the late 1970s. “He’s been feeding those roots through his hard work.”

Calderon learned to play the guitar so they could have music at the Spanish Masses, said Sonntag, now a member of Sacred Heart Parish in nearby Battle Ground.

“He is true [and] sincere,” Sonntag said. “What you see is what you get. He evangelizes with his actions.”

Mike CalderonMike Calderon greets parishioners at St. John the Evangelist Church in Vancouver every Sunday before Mass. Photo: Stephen Brashear

Bridging cultures

Calderon’s Hispanic outreach hasn’t been limited to his local community. In 2011, he became Hispanic membership chairman for the Washington State Council of the Knights of Columbus.

His first step was acknowledging the “two beauties” of Hispanic culture: devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe and importance of family. Then he created an initiative, “Mesas Redondas” (Round Tables), which invited the whole family to be involved in the Knights program.

Besides his outreach to Hispanic Catholics, Calderon also helped the Knights’ leadership team grow in their understanding of the Hispanic community, said Don McBride, who was state deputy of the Knights of the time.

“He coached us on the importance of family, and the importance of connecting with families in attracting and keeping them engaged,” McBride said. “Even though the Knights are about family, he kept our focus on it.”

Calderon also helped expand the Knight’s Silver Rose pilgrimage/prayer services to parishes beyond Seattle, according to Scott Hulse, a parishioner at Church of the Assumption in Bellingham. The tradition started decades ago with Knights carrying a rose from Canada to Mexico, commemorating Our Lady of Guadalupe’s miracle of roses through St. Juan Diego.

“Mike has been the one to really emphasize the veneration of Mary as the Mother of the Americas and patroness of the unborn and underprivileged,” Hulse said.

Throughout all Calderon’s endeavors, Ruth has been by his side.

The two met when both were serving at McChord Air Force Base (now JBLM) near Tacoma. Ruth was a Southern Baptist, but she surprised Calderon by taking a “crash course” in the Catholic catechism and converting before their wedding. “Before we knew it, we were getting married in the chapel on base,” Calderon said.

“We sort of broke the barrier,” he said. “In those days, Hispanics didn’t get married to Anglos.”

Calderon even remembers his commander asking, “‘Where do you think you’re going to live?’ I said, ‘Where do you think we’re going to live? I’m going to live wherever I want.’”

Eventually, they settled in Vancouver. While Calderon traveled for his work as a salesman, Ruth was a stay-at-home mom to their four children. Ruth has been “a better Catholic than I’ll ever be,” Calderon said, noting that for many years she attended both Spanish and English Masses each weekend. She also plays an active role in Catholic Daughters and the parish’s funeral meal ministry.

The couple tries to pray the rosary each day, either at home or before daily Mass. When they wake up, they say a prayer asking the Holy Spirit to “guide us this day,” Calderon said. 

“Both of them working together as a team provide the glue that holds [the Anglo and Hispanic aspects] of the parish together,” said Deacon Adolfo Carbajal, St. John’s pastoral assistant for adult faith formation and liturgy. “They’ve really brought about cultural communication in our parish.”

Staying the course

Calderon has found inspiration from the clergy in his life, and says priests and bishops have an important role in uniting people in their parishes and communities.

When the St. John’s Hispanic ministry was just beginning, Calderon sought the advice of Archbishop Patricio Flores of San Antonio, the first Mexican-American bishop in the United States.

During a business trip to San Antonio, Calderon found out where the archbishop lived, went there and knocked on his door. He was surprised when the archbishop, not a housekeeper, answered the door. “I got enough courage to ask him, ‘We need a priest up there who can speak Spanish,’” Calderon said. “’Do you have any extra ones?”

Although he wasn’t able to send a priest, Archbishop Flores (who died in 2017) gave Calderon his blessing and some advice that he still values today. “He said, ‘Stay the course. Don’t let things deter you from what has to be done,’” Calderon said.

When a new priest arrives at St. John’s, Calderon offers the same advice: “Stay calm, and stay the course.”

For Calderon, staying the course means being persistent.

“He won’t take no for an answer, especially when he knows this is right,” Deacon Carbajal said. “It might not always be the easy thing to do, or the most convenient thing to do, but his strong sense of social justice empowers him.”

So whether it’s planning a community dinner or campaigning to build a covered walkway for the parish entrance, Calderon is always looking for ways to improve the lives of those around him.

“If everyone did something to unite around,” Calderon said, “we would make a difference.”

Northwest Catholic - May 2019

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