The Hidden Light of Mexico City contains a number of references from my own experiences in Mexico City. I’ve already written about the social class struggle of simply standing in a line but also wanted to share a sadder, more compelling event that helped shape the book’s narrative.
Father Richard Junius was the pastor at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Mexico City when I lived there. He was an Oblate Missionary who had been in Mexico for years, ministering mostly to the rural poor. St. Patrick’s was a sizeable urban parish in a fairly tough neighborhood. It was the only designated English-speaking church in the city. Years ago the church had sold off the school building next door. Funds from the sale were held in escrow by the diocese for maintenance of the church and attached rectory. The previous pastor had been removed due to a number of misconducts; when Father Richard arrived we were all cautiously hopeful that the new priest would set things right.
St. Patrick’s sacristy was a place I came to know well; the ladies of the parish cleaned it up for the incoming priest, removing layers of grime and polishing the few silver items the church possessed. My son was an altar server and I remade and cleaned all of the altar server vestments, hanging them in the room’s small closet. The description of the sacristy of the church of Santa Clara in The Hidden Light of Mexico City is based on St. Patrick’s.
Father Richard was old and patient and tireless in his efforts to reach out to the local community and deal with their family issues. He made his new English-speaking congregation aware of prison irregularities in Mexico and didn’t flinch when a drug addict, stoned out of his mind, walked through the church and acosted him on the altar during midnight Mass. He spent nothing on his clothing, wearing threadbare cordoroy pants and sweaters that became my fictional Father Santiago’s wardrobe. He petitioned the bishop to change the church’s status from English-speaking, a controversial move that angered some of the original congregation, but which was welcomed by local families.
But he was naive in the midst of Mexico’s spiraling crime and drug war. Twice he was assaulted and robbed while alone in the church counting the Sunday collection and when we insisted that the funds be handled differently he disagreed, adamant that church funds were solely his responsibility and that he would not close the church to whomever might need him. He lent substantial funds from the maintenance funds to an unscrupulous businessman man who never repaid the loan. Father Richard contracted for the bathroom repair without consulting with the parish council. Workmen disappeared with funds leaving the job half done. Not all the toilets flushed.
Much of the English-speaking congregation moved on, angered by his financial floundering. Several years later I was to learn that he’d died a violent death.
In August 2007, Father Richard was found stripped, tortured, bound and strangled to death in his bedroom in the rectory of Our Lady of Guadelupe Church in Mexico City. His body was found the morning after a fire had broken out in the basement of the church late at night. Initial Mexican news reports speculated that the death was a result of “sexual misconduct,” and downplayed the fire as well as the theft of several items from the church. The charges were heatedly denied by Catholic Church officials in Mexico, thousands of faithful, and the Oblates, according to the Catholic News Agency.
Other reports of his death noted that he’d been in conflict with the owner of a bar near the church whom Frather Richard had publicly called out for serving alcohol to minors. The Oblate website reported that “many believe that the brutal crime was in retaliation for Fr. Ricardo’s efforts to impede the drug traffic and the sale of alcohol to minors in the neighborhood. He had reported to the police that such activities were taking place in a building near the corner of the parish church.”
Father Richard was 79 at the time of his death and only a month away from celebrating his 50th anniversary as a priest. To my knowledge, his murderer has never been brought to justice.
I wrote “The Angler,” a novella based on Fr. Richard Junius’s murder. In “The Angler,” Detective Emilia Cruz, the first female police detective in Acapulco, solves a similar crime.
Fr. Richard’s cousin got in touch with me in April 2016 as a result of this blog post. In an exchange of emails, she related how she was informed by the Oblate Provincial in Belleville, Illinois that Fr. Richard was murdered:
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