Beloved Priest of Chimayo at Heart of Community
Throughout the mountain villages and towns of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, the name Father Roca evokes smiles. He is the first, frequent and long-time priest--through several off-and-on tenures--of the venerable Santuario de Chimayo.
He is credited with restoring the 200-year-old former private chapel into a world-famous shrine.
Tourism based on the Santuario’s reputation for healing and its annual Good Friday pilgrimages has brought an economic boon--gift shops, chile stands, small cafes--to the old community of El Potrero (The Herdsman) that lies at the heart of what is now called Chimayo.
I’m not retired; I’m retarded," the diminutive--about 4 foot 10--and ebullient pastor likes to joke in heavily accented English. "To be a priest, I have never been tired. I am busy, busy, busy."
Life In The Church
Born in 1918 in Mura, Spain, a village near Barcelona, Casimiro Roca recently celebrated the 60th anniversary of his August 15, 1943, ordination. The joyful 85-year-old cleric winged home to Spain to mark the occasion with family.
Although, his life in the church began more than 60 years ago; it has been three-quarters of a century since the then-11-years-old left his home village to attend a minor seminary in a nearby town.
Recently, he talked with "Mature Life" about his life in the Church.
ML: If you had it to do over, would you follow the same vocation?
Father Roca: Yes, I thank God because I have 60 years as a priest. The greatest thing that happened to me in my life was this vocation.
ML: How did it begin?
Father Roca: I was born of humble and poor parents in Mura, Spain. My father was a laborer. We are Catalan, actually. I had two older brothers, Peter and Paul (Pedro y Pablo). When I was 10 years old, my brother Peter started at the minor seminary nearby. He would write home and say, "I am so happy here". I asked my parents if I could go, too. I wanted to learn. And they say no for a year; then they said, "We are poor. You can apply, but tell them we cannot pay very much". And the seminary wrote back and said, "We would not ask you to pay". I still remember getting that letter--it was 28 September 1929. And so I went to the church. And I have never regretted it.
ML: Your life has been good?
Father Roca: Ahh, I have had a tragic life in many ways. Those are the circumstances of life. My two brothers were killed because they were Catholic during the Spanish Civil War; they were martyred. I fled to the mountains during that war. After the war, I spent 18 months in the Spanish Army. Because I was so ill from all these things, they sent me back to the seminary. But none of my friends came back-- they were all dead.
ML: And the best part?
Father Roca: In 1941, the church sent me to Rome because I could make further studies there. It took five days. France was under the occupation of Germany then and soon Italy was as well. After two years’ more study, I had the opportunity to be ordained in a cloistered church outside Rome, in Abruzzi.
ML: That was exciting.
Father Roca: It was a thrill, but none of my family could be there. I was not able to go back to my hometown until 1945. I was put in charge of the minor seminary and in charge of a larger one in 1949. Then in 1950, my father was burned, burned, burned in a fire. A very bad accident. He suffered 40 days of agony before he died. I was at his bedside day and night. After that, I had an extreme illness. The doctors all said that to survive I must have at least six months of absolute rest. All said that except one doctor, who said, "The only way to live, is that you must be born again." I said, "What do you mean?" And he said, "You must go someplace you have never been, among people you do not know and work very hard." And so in 1951 I came to California, but I was still being ill. And they said, "You must go to the Rocky Mountains." At Santa Cruz, New Mexico, they had asked for help. I came on July 4, 1954, with a round-trip ticket-- and I never used the back ticket.
On The Road
Shortly after arriving in New Mexico, Father Roca was sent to Greeley, Colo., where he ministered to migrant workers from Denver to Cheyenne, Wyo. But he was back within a year. "I was mad, mad, mad. I liked my work there, but I started to fall in love with these mountains," he said.
He was the first priest in Truchas in 1955 and the first pastor in Chimayo in 1959.
He also spent seven years in Colorado, from 1970-77 less than a year in Spain in 1980 and three years in Albuquerque in the mid-80’s.
ML: What has been the hardest part of your life as a priest?
Father Roca: The hardest part is building churches, trying to organize them, especially the youth. I tried to have a beautiful CYO and always the Boy Scouts -- for nearly 16 years I never went back to Spain. I was just busy, busy, busy.
ML: What was your greatest challenge at the Santuario?
Father Roca: The Santuario was in very grave situation. I was fortunate to be able to buy some properties around it; we were in a condition to stop the ruin. The Bible says if you ask with faith, the mountain moves from one place to another. We transferred that mountain; it was about 125,000 tons of earth that we used to shore up the Santuario. We built walls behind it to retain that earth. Before, it was cracking; pigeons actually were coming in and out of the cracks. We saved it-- and nobody noticed. There wasn’t any publicity. At that time, families made a pilgrimage once a year, but that was about all. There weren’t the thousands of visitors from around the world like there are now.
In 1970 came the governor of New Mexico and declared that it is a National Historic Landmark. Now we have property all the way to the river. We have a parking lot. And the little village has revived around it. I always say, "I am not from Chimayo; I am from Potrero."
ML: What concerns you about the church today?
Father Roca: The seminaries are empty. Very few young men decide to be a priest today. We are fortunate in New Mexico because four or five decide to be priests every year.
ML: What advice would you give anyone considering a life in the priesthood?
Father Roca: I would tell him to go to the archbishop or the seminary and make an application, find out about it. I would tell him, "I will pray for you."
ML: Any regrets?
Father Roca: Never-- and I thank God for that. I have my way of life here.
Most of the priests my age are retired, but I am here every day. I am fortunate that I am busy; it distracts me from waiting to die. I am living! I praise the good Lord for that.
I hope in 10 years to celebrate my 70th anniversary as a priest. There is still much to do. I always say, "I may be a little one, but I like to do big things." You know, when I tell people I was the first priest here, they get wide-eyed and ask if I was here when they built the church. I tell them, "I don’t remember."