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By Mike Jordan Laskey
Photos by Andy Hayt

Danny Montaño grew up just a few blocks from Our Lady’s School in the Logan Heights neighborhood of San Diego, but he didn’t know it existed until his mom enrolled Montaño and his two siblings when he was in fifth grade.

“When you think of Our Lady’s School, one of the things that I think is most important for people to know is that we’re not going anywhere,” says Danny Montaño. “We’re here. We’re thriving.”

His parents had recently separated, and his mom thought it was a good time for a fresh start. She was working three jobs just to make ends meet. “It was a tough time going on in my family, but it was such a rewarding time for me to start and meet this place,” Montaño says. “It was funny finding out later my mom, all my uncles and aunts, they graduated from the school.” Montaño’s great aunts and uncles went to the school too, back in the 1940s. And Montaño’s son Javauhn is currently in seventh grade there. Four generations of learning at Our Lady’s, the oldest Catholic parochial school in the Diocese of San Diego.

“We don’t live close by anymore. We live out in La Mesa,” Montaño says, which can be a good 20 or 30-minute drive with San Diego traffic. “The one thing about Our Lady’s is it’s home, you know? It’s a family here.”

Music class at Our Lady’s School

Montaño has genuine charm and joyful energy. As he talked to me on a Zoom call sitting in his car outside the school, just after dropping Javauhn off one morning, he interrupted himself a few times to wave at other parents walking nearby. By the end of our conversation, the first time we had ever spoken, he was inviting me out for drinks or to a Padres game the next time I’m in San Diego. If Our Lady’s School had a mayor, he’d be it. And, actually, Montaño has a volunteer gig that’s pretty close to mayor: He’s the founding president of the Our Lady’s School Alumni Association, a role he’s had since 2009 when he was in his early 20s.

Montaño knows that devoting so much time to an elementary school alumni group — not a high school, not a college, not even a PTA, but an alumni association — strikes some other people as unusual. “When you have over a hundred years of graduates and being in existence, you should have an alumni association, right?” he says. “I don’t care if it’s a parochial school. We’ve done really well, you know?”

Our Lady’s School traces its roots back to 1912, when it was founded as Our Lady of the Angels School (OLA). Serving primarily Mexican immigrant families from the Logan Heights and Sherman Heights neighborhoods — both then and now — the school has been supported by the Jesuits since the 1970s, when OLA merged with the local Jesuit parish’s Our Lady of Guadalupe School.

The alumni association puts on spaghetti dinners, casino nights and golf outings to help families struggling with tuition, a challenge Montaño knows his own mother faced back when he was a kid. They’re fundraising right now for a new science lab, and right before Covid hit, they donated $20,000 for new Chromebooks for every student. Many Our Lady’s families didn’t have a computer at home, and the technology donation allowed the school to transition to remote learning instantly in March 2020. “We’ve seen the fruits of our labor impact students directly, which is our goal,” Montaño says.

There’s something unique and exciting about the work being done at Our Lady’s School and Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish. As Pope Francis has called on the church to make her home at the peripheries, it makes perfect sense for the Jesuits to be here in San Diego, a literal periphery at the edge of the country, accompanying this historically underserved community.

Eight Decades of Jesuit Ministry

The story of the Jesuits’ presence at Our Lady’s School and Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish goes back to 1940. The bishop of San Diego at the time invited the Jesuits to take over running the parish, which was the city’s Mexican national parish — a designation that made it the specific home for Catholics of Mexican descent in the area. Many parishioners had fled to San Diego from Mexico due to anti-Catholic persecution. A group of nuns opened a parish school a few years after the Jesuits’ arrival.

Our Lady of Guadalupe School’s class of 1967 (courtesy of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish)

The middle of the 20th century was a tough time for the community, as it was for inner cities across the country. New highway construction and a bridge to Coronado Island right off the coast tore through the neighborhood, causing homeowners to move out. Zoning changes allowed for industrial development nearby. The Catholic schools in the area, Our Lady of the Angels and Our Lady of Guadalupe, struggled with enrollment. Then, in 1973, the pastors of the two parishes did something incredibly bold for the era: They decided to merge the schools into one, creating Our Lady’s School.

Fr. Richard Brown, SJ, was the Our Lady of Guadalupe pastor who made this tough but smart call. Talk to anyone who knows the parish and school and Fr. Brown will come up before long. He served as pastor from 1968 until 2005, then remained in the parish as a senior priest until 2018. He died in 2020 at the age of 93. Fr. Brown was a living legend in the area, affectionately called “el Padrecito del Barrio” or “Brownie.” The parish estimates Fr. Brown and his fellow Jesuit, Fr. Jaime Rasura, who served at the parish 52 years himself, baptized over 60,000 people between them. Their leadership was about presence more than programs, accompaniment more than grand ambition.

From left: Fr. Jaime Rasura, SJ; Mexican singer Vicente Fernández; and Fr. Richard Brown, SJ, during a visit to the parish from the singer on an unknown date. (Courtesy of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish)

Adela Garcia, who migrated to the United States from Mexico with her family as a young child, was a teenager when Fr. Brown arrived at Our Lady of Guadalupe. She remembers being surprised by this new priest, a “gringo with blue eyes, in tennis shorts,” who spoke perfect Spanish. He quickly hired her to serve as a parish secretary and to work with him to get a Catholic youth group started.

Adela Garcia has been attending the parish since 1969. “I love the people. I love the simplicity,” she says. “I mean, just the connection with the people who are so hardworking.”

Not that much later, Fr. Brown helped her get an entry-level secretarial job at IBM. She struggled early on in the position because the vocabulary at the tech company was new and different from what she was used to. She made an embarrassing mistake typing a certain word, then called Fr. Brown to tell him she was going to quit. He told her to come by the parish office after work.

She arrived at the office and Fr. Brown told her he was going to give her a book. “I was fully expecting a Bible,” Garcia says. Instead, he handed her a Webster’s dictionary. To Garcia, the gift was a gesture of Fr. Brown’s love. He believed she could make it at the company even when Garcia didn’t. “This kind of stuff is what he did for so many of us, where if we had a problem, he would help you through it. He gave everybody such practical, wonderful advice,” Garcia says. “It wasn’t just like, you have to pray 40 Hail Marys.” Fr. Brown’s instincts were right: Garcia retired from IBM after 38 successful years at the company.

“The thing that I loved about [Fr. Brown] more than anything was that he knew each kid and he knew the core of us, what makes you really tick. He would help each person,” Garcia says. “He had friends in the very rich, the very poor, the gangs, the car clubs. … If there was anybody that loved being a Jesuit, it was him.”

Fr. Richard Brown, SJ, with students (courtesy of Our Lady’s School)

Our Lady’s School Today

Fr. Mike Lee, SJ, principal of Our Lady’s School

Fr. Mike Lee, SJ, thinks he might be the only Jesuit serving as an elementary school principal in the United States today. “Every once in a while, I look up to heaven and just say, ‘Really, you called a kid from Omaha for Latino ministry?’ But it’s been my call within a call,” he says. “It’s been my call within the Society of Jesus, and it’s as strong as my call to the Society of Jesus.”

Even though Our Lady’s isn’t technically a Jesuit school, but a diocesan school with a Jesuit connection, Fr. Lee is determined to make sure the Ignatian charism animates the community. “Finding God in All Things” is printed on a sign in each classroom. Students pause each day to pray the examen. “To get a head start on the spiritual life — it’s a formation that the Society of Jesus offers,” Fr. Lee says. “It’s reflection and action and prayer.”

Serving alongside Fr. Lee is Judy Ziment, who is Our Lady’s director and school counselor. They have complementary skill sets — Fr. Lee has a doctorate in U.S. Latino education and has a real gift for pastoral ministry, while Ziment is as sharp and strategic as they come. Together, they’re totally devoted to serving the school in the face of huge challenges like local unemployment, gang activity and homelessness. The community is also facing an immigration system that has broken apart several of the school’s families through deportation. One of the school’s two campuses is in the zip code 92113, which has the highest unemployment and Covid rates in San Diego. Despite these challenges, almost 100% of Our Lady’s alumni graduate from high school, while the surrounding neighborhood’s rate is closer to 60%.

Judith Ziment, Our Lady’s director and school counselor, and Fr. Mike Lee, SJ, Our Lady’s principal

“I think there is a need for Jesuit elementary schools serving low socioeconomic neighborhoods,” Ziment says. “I always see education as the open door that changes people’s lives and raises up the community … There’s a mission here. There is a real mission and a real purpose to this education.”

Jen Jaime, Our Lady’s third-year middle school English teacher, is fueled by that sense of mission. “Every day, I jump out of bed,” she says. “Our director and our principal believe in our school and our school community so much, you can feel it. And the teachers that I work with want to be here — it’s not a J-O-B. It is their calling and it’s exciting to work with people like that.”

Jen Jaime in her classroom at Our Lady’s School

Creative and bighearted, Jaime has thrown herself into the community after a career working in larger public and private schools. She created and ran Our Lady’s first-ever summer camp last year, giving kids more opportunities to be together after the isolation of the pandemic.

“I felt like I was being led by God to serve here; I took that leap of faith because I trusted that he obviously knows what’s best for my life. And I’m so glad that I did,” Jaime says. “This summer, I just kind of sat down and thought about it, and I was overwhelmed, overcome with emotion.”

Danny Montaño has watched his son Javauhn excel at Our Lady’s with the same satisfaction he knows his mom felt back when Montaño was a student here. “I have a proud feeling every time I drop him off and every time I pick him up, especially if you get a teacher or administrator that says, ‘He defended a student or he’s so courteous.’ It’s a good feeling,” Montaño says.

Our Lady of Guadalupe: Jesuit Parish and “Your Home in the Barrio”

If you find yourself in San Diego in mid-December, Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish is the place to be. The Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe is on December 12, and the parish celebrates with two or three straight days of food, prayer and entertainment. There is mariachi music and dancers in the Aztec tradition. Families dress their little children in Juan Diego or virgencita outfits. Thousands of people from all over the area attend. “It’s the closest you get to Mexico City,” Adela Garcia says.

Fr. Marty Silva, SJ, started as Our Lady of Guadalupe’s pastor in early December 2019, just a few weeks before the celebration. He took it all in. “You know this energy, this is what we’re going to build on,” he remembers telling a visiting Jesuit at the time.

Fr. Marty Silva, SJ, pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish

But Fr. Silva’s excitement faded quickly: Covid shut down in-person Masses just a few months later. “So, right away, all pastors will think about what’s going to happen to collections — are we going to survive?” Fr. Marty says. He was relieved when donation envelopes kept on filling the parish mailbox — no pandemic could stop the people’s devotion to their parish. As Danny Montaño has reminded fellow school alumni, the community has made it through one unthinkable pandemic before — the 1918 Spanish flu. They are doing it again. The parish, Garcia says, “is one of the most resilient parishes anywhere in San Diego County.”

Adela Garcia in Our Lady of Guadalupe church

Early in his tenure as pastor, Fr. Silva presented the financial challenges the parish was facing at Mass and asked people to consider how they could contribute. “One person came up to me afterwards and said, ‘I’d like to help.’ And so I figured maybe he’ll spot me $100 or something. That’d be very nice. And he said, ‘I can buy some hosts,’” — communion wafers, Fr. Silva remembers. “And that was very moving. There’s a lot of folks like that. That’s what makes this parish special. It’s their love for the parish, it’s their love for God. It’s palpable.”

As Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish was preparing to re-open its doors for indoor Masses last summer for the first time since the pandemic started, Fr. Silva arranged for a banner to be hung outside the church: “Bienvenidos a su casa” — Welcome to your home. “The words were chosen very carefully,” Fr. Silva says. “It’s the community that owns the parish, it’s not the pastor. The pastors come and go.” The parish’s website uses the tagline, “Your home in the barrio.”

Garcia drives to Our Lady of Guadalupe each Sunday even though she hasn’t lived in the neighborhood for decades. “I’ve been going there since 1969 because I love this parish. I love the people. I love the simplicity. I mean, just the connection with the people who are so hardworking. It doesn’t matter how far you are, you’re family,” Garcia says. “I think that’s really the strength of this parish. It doesn’t matter who’s led it. It’s always been a very strong parish and the people — we love it.”

“When you think of Our Lady’s School, one of the things that I think is most important for people to know is that we’re not going anywhere. We’re here. We’re thriving. This neighborhood is a working neighborhood. We’re not the La Jollas of the world,” Danny Montaño says, referring to one of San Diego’s wealthiest beach communities. “But we have great people.”

Mike Jordan Laskey is Director of Communications for the Jesuit Conference in Washington, D.C. He is the author of “The Ministry of Peace and Justice” (Liturgical Press) and lives with his family in Maryland. Follow him on Twitter at @mikelaskey.