A battle cry, an assassination, a boy from Ohio, two churches, and a convicted felon politician, all folded into immigrant dreams, bring thousands to Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church, 1419 North 67th East Avenue, to submit petitions or give thanks to St. Toribio Romo. St. Toribio is the patron saint of border crossers, the Holy Coyote.
Born April 16, 1900, in Santa Anna de Guadalupe, Jalisco, Mexico, Toribio Romo Gonzalez was a Roman Catholic priest. He was killed February 25, 1928, martyred by church standards, by federal soldiers during the Cristero War (La Cristiada) 1926-29.
His death went largely unnoticed, one of thousands of the casualties of war, until the 1970’s. Stories began to emerge out of the desert of northern Mexico and the southern U.S. Immigrants crossing the desert began reporting being aided by a young priest who provided them with water and, sometimes, transportation. The priest asked only that, upon their return to Mexico, that the immigrants come see him in Santa Anna de Guadalupe.
Several reports say border crossers returned, seeking out the priest. They asked for him by name, only to learn the fate of Fr. Toribio Romo many years before.
In 2000, Pope John Paul II declared Toribio Romo a saint. The devotion to St. Toribio exploded as thousands of immigrants seeking a new life in the U.S. stopped to revere his relic in the chapel at Santa Anna de Guadalupe.
How St. Toribio and Saints Peter and Paul became entwined is buried in the history and the careers of Fr. Tim Davidson, Sts. Peter and Paul pastor, and Randy Terrill, a former State Representative, a convicted felon—men at opposite ends of the social and political spectrum.
St. Toribio was not Tulsa’s first brush with the war. The rebels known as Cristeros, united under the banner and battle cry, Viva, Cristo Rey. The persecution drew Vatican attention. Pope Pius XI wrote several encyclicals denouncing the Calles government. Before Christmas in 1925, Pius XI issued Quas Primas, citing the Cristo Rey battle cry, establishing the Feast of (Cristo Rey) Christ the King.
Two and a half years later, three months after St. Toribio’s death, Tulsa’s second Catholic Church, Sacred Heart, was rededicated as the Church of Christ the King, the first Catholic church to bear the Cristeros battle cry. It remains today, at 1519 S. Quincy Ave.
"I have been working with Hispanic people since I was at St. Francis, they are part and parcel of my life," Fr. Davidson said. His last eighteen years have been as priest to the Spanish speaking immigrant community. Early in his career, "people would ask me how I felt about working with illegals. I told them it never crossed my mind…I see the spiritual, they’re human beings, they’re here with us and my responsibility is to care for them, to look out for their soul. I’m just a priest."
"It used to be there weren’t the problems, the antagonism. Then everything got political," Fr. Davidson said.
Terrill, the Republican from District 53 to the House of Representatives who was convicted of bribing a fellow legislator to leave office, was the architect of House Bill 1804, passed in 2007. HB1804 said, in part, "illegal immigration is causing economic hardship and lawlessness in this state."
The bill made it illegal to "transport, move or attempt to transport …any alien." It also provided restrictions on ID cards, driver licenses, education, and social benefits.
"Our people became very frightened," Fr. Davidson said. "It was very disruptive to their lives. They were afraid to drive, to go get food. I thought, ‘What could be our response, as Catholics, to this mess?’"
His parishioners asked him for help. "There were really a lot of opportunities for St. Toribio to be invoked," Fr. Davidson said. Terrill’s law, has much havoc as it caused, helped bring St. Toribio to Tulsa.
Fr. Davidson and Navarro commissioned a life-size statue from an artist in San Miguel de Allende. Then came the relic. Fr. Davidson and his parish wanted a relic of the saint, a piece of bone that could be displayed before the faithful. He and Navarro traveled to Santa Ana to visit with the local priest. It wasn’t easy, but the trip was successful. The feast day of St. Toribio is May 21. The day was highlighted with a 4.2 mile parade from St. Francis Church, 2434 E. Admiral, to Sts. Peter and Paul. Last year’s attendance was estimated at over a thousand plus, with bands, sixty mounted horsemen, and Aztec dancers.
Once started, the Shrine and devotions to St. Toribio took on a life of their own. Parishioners take two small St. Toribio statues to their homes for a week at a time. Below the statue is the "Book of Favors" filled with handwritten petitions and appreciations to St. Toribio. Many of these inscriptions are from people seeking help with immigration problems. "Many feel the help they have received is miraculous," Fr. Davidson said.
At Saints Peter and Paul is the only St. Toribio shrine outside of Mexico. Now, plans for a chapel are in the works, to be completed before the feast day of St. Toribio 2015.
As the push-pull and political posturing surrounding the undocumented and immigration continues and the devotion to St. Toribio increases Fr. Davidson goes quietly about the mission of tending his flock. As he so gently reminds, he’s just a priest.