Guardian Angels welcomes first Latino priest
By Kara Hildreth | Posted: Thursday, July 24, 2014 2:00 pm
Before he was called to the priesthood, the Rev. Fernando Ortega worked meticulously for 15 years as a craftsman who used specialized tools to set gold and platinum diamonds.
Today, as the new priest at Guardian Angels Catholic Church, Ortega knows he can call upon his jeweler skills of patience, precision and tenacity to guide him in his pastoral work. Instead of handling diamonds, his congregation will be his precious gems and Bible’s teachings will serve as the best tool.
Ortega is the first Latino priest to lead Guardian Angels Catholic Church. He is committed to learning how to support the diverse needs of 1,000 parishioners, who are today one-third Spanish speaking.
Since Ortega, 43, has Mexican heritage roots, he considers this leg of his pastoral journey as a true godsend. He believes his personal Latino journey offers a foundation to better understand immigrants’ life experiences.
Ortega led parishes in Cannon Falls and Miesville as an ordained priest for eight years. He graduated from the University of St. Thomas with degrees in philosophy and divinity studies.
Growing up in a small Mexican village, Ortega attended Catholic Church alongside six brothers and three sisters.
His parents traveled from Michoacan, Mexico to celebrate his good news. “I value my experience spending time with them because they gave me life, and they were overjoyed when I announced late in life that I would be going to the seminary.”
How did Ortega receive his calling at 29 years old?
“Honestly, I’ll tell you, I did not see it coming … I think God is alive, and I think he touches us in a very fleshy way — a very tangible way … . It is just for us to really give God a chance by investing in a relationship that Catholics refer to as a religious experience.”
Peter Vera, the head of the church’s Latino affairs commission, said Ortega spoke his first mass in a bilingual fashion, and this style benefited all who sat in the sanctuary.
Guardian Angels has delivered mass in Spanish, but Ortega is the church’s first official bilingual priest.
“There were some Anglo people in the Spanish mass, so I think he thought giving the homily in a bilingual way was the right thing to do, even though the mass service was a little longer,” Vera said.
“In my personal opinion, I think now when people find out about the Hispanic mass, it will grow because there are not too many Latino pastors — there are pastors who know Spanish, but they are not Latino,” Vera said.
Ortega spoke directly to Latino members in his first message: “I understand and feel for you and know what all of you are going through and your parents, too.”
“My main goal is to make us think as one church,” said Vera.
Ortega plans to work alongside staff to increase student enrollment at the parochial school. Currently, about 120 students attend the preschool through eighth-grade school across from th e church. Guardian Angels Elementary School is currently busy working to hire a new school principal.
“I want to invest in school; we want to make the education of our children a priority, and I will do anything for faculty and families to make that happen,” Ortega said.
Mark Backes, a 28-year church member, is struck by Ortega’s warm, engaging personality and charisma. “Being a new pastor to our parish, we know he will be extremely open to listening and wanting to understand our viewpoints from a cross section of all parishioners.”
“Our early inklings indicate Father will encourage us to be Christ-centered in all aspects of our life, physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually and socially,” said Jean Rief, church pastoral associate. “We can really tell he has a wonderful understanding and knowledge of the needs of the community.”
Ortega is open to dinner invitations. “I want them to get to know me, and I want to get to know them, as many as I personally can.”