Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Mexican National Catholic Church

The Mexican National Catholic Church --
an indigenous "National Church" of the New World

If Laguna Beach’s St. Francis by the Sea represents the last vestige of Bishop Vilatte’s dream of an American Catholic Patriarchate, then a small house-church in the East Los Angeles barrio for many years seemed to be the final remnant of a much larger Mexican independent-Catholic movement.

While the French prelate struggled to build even a tiny following in the States, other non-Papal Catholic Bishops south of the border established for a time a sizable independent Catholic Church, with scores of active parishes and thousands of followers, as well as the blessings of the Mexican government. The story of how the so-called Mexican National Catholic Church arose from the nation’s often-chaotic political and religious scene, became a viable rival to the Roman Church, and then nearly faded from history, only to be revived in the 21st-century American Southwest, is one of the most intriguing tales from the world of the independent bishops.

From the day Cortez and his conquistadores set foot on the continent, the people of “New Spain” had always had an ambivalent relationship with the Roman Catholic Church. Although the passionate Iberian spiritual style had easily taken root in the New World, with European, Indian, African and mestizo peoples alike worshipping the bloody, suffering Hispanic Christ under the benevolent gaze of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the Church itself had long been viewed by many as a symbol of Old World colonialism, and dominated by the Spanish Criollo establishment.

When Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, this sentiment intensified. Over the next century, dissident Catholics, nationalists, Freemasons, and Protestants alike attempted to set up Mexican National Churches that were independent of Papal control, yet retained the liturgical and cultural usages of Hispanic Catholic Christianity. All of these efforts, including one by Vilatte himself around 1909, came to naught, and the Vatican retained a firm grip upon Mexican spiritual life.

The Mexican Revolution of 1910, however, brought a distinct reversal of fortunes for the Church of Rome. When dictator Porfirio Díaz was overthrown in 1911, the revolutionary government, which saw the Roman Catholic Church as a foreign-run institution that had helped keep Mexico largely poor, ignorant and passive, assumed the power to license and authorize all religious activity in the nation. Six years later, the Constitution of 1917 banned the taking of religious vows, or the teaching of Christian doctrines in schools. Over the next decade the government seized all religious properties across Mexico, and thousands of churches, cathedrals, monasteries and nunneries closed their doors.

Government troops execute a Roman Catholic priest during the Mexican Cristero War

Clerics as well were persecuted. Between 1924 and 1938 over 1,400 priests were expelled from Mexico, and hundreds more were imprisoned or executed. The 2,500-odd priests who remained at liberty disguised themselves and celebrated Mass in secret, while thousands of loyal Catholic peasants took up arms on their behalf against the government during the Cristero revolt of 1926-29.

Pro-Roman Catholic Mexican Cristero partisans.
Note the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe on the flag.

Faced with both a popular rebellion and a resilient Roman Church, President Plutarco Elias Calles sought to establish a Mexican National Church that would meld Hispanic devotional fervor with nationalistic sentiment. The proposed Church would be free from Vatican and other foreign influences, would celebrate its liturgy in Spanish, and would kowtow to the secular government’s wishes in all affairs temporal and spiritual.

One apostate priest, the elderly Jose Joaquin Perez y Budar, volunteered to take the helm of the nascent National Church. On October 17, 1926, “Supreme Primate” Carmel Henry Carfora, of the independent North American Old Roman Catholic Church, raised Perez to the episcopacy, along with fellow Mexican rebel clerics Antonio Benicio Lopez Sierra and Macario Lopez Valdes, in Chicago, Illinois.

With the support of both Calles and the Mexican government, newly-minted Bishop Perez established the Iglesia Ortodoxa Catolica Apostolica Mexicana. Known in English as the Mexican National Catholic Church, the new body featured Perez as Primate and Patriarch, while Lopez Sierra became his Coadjutor and Lopez Valdes assumed the bishopric of Zaragoza. Perez also consecrated four additional bishops to oversee the Church in Hidalgo, Veracruz, Puebla and elsewhere. Later, Carfora would consecrate four more MNCC prelates.

With the Roman Church forced underground, countless thousands of Mexican Catholics turned to the National Church to receive the sacraments and accept spiritual guidance. But there was no real unity among the schismatic bishops, and they found themselves at each other’s throats over Church doctrine and practices, as well as still fighting the Vatican for dominance in the hearts and minds of their flocks. The septuagenarian Patriarch was too old and frail to enforce discipline in his episcopal ranks, and he eventually gave up, reconciling himself to the Holy See before his death in 1931.

Perez’ successor was young Eduardo Davila-Garcia, who had been ordained a priest at the age of eighteen. A nationalist and a Freemason, Garcia was allegedly consecrated a bishop in May 1931, and held the self-titled position of Eduardo Primo, primer papa de Mexico until 1938, when he mysteriously disappeared. He was replaced by Joseph Petrus Ortiz, who in turn yielded his prelature to Armin Monte de Honor in 1958.

As the years passed, and the passions of the Revolution and the Cristero Rebellion gradually faded, relations between the Roman Church and the Mexican State thawed considerably. After the Vatican paid reparations for its losing role in the Revolution, the government invited the exiled Roman clergy to return to their old positions, and reoccupy all the vacant cathedrals and churches.

The Mexican National Catholic Church, with a mere 120 priests and parishes spread across fourteen Mexican states, found it difficult to compete with the re-legalized, resurgent Church of Rome. From 1940 onwards it steadily lost membership and influence, and also found itself on the receiving end of scorn as a living symbol of the Revolution’s anticlerical excesses. The final blow came in 1972 when the last major center of National Church activity – the Mexico City diocese – was absorbed into the Orthodox Church in America, with its Patriarch Jose Cortes y Olmas donning Eastern Christian vestments and assuming the title of Exarch.

Ironically enough, the Mexican National Catholic Church lived on not in Mexico itself, but in the land that had annexed so much of its old territory, and housed millions of its economic and political exiles. Although the Church had boasted a presence in the United States since 1929, when Carfora consecrated a Hieronymus Maria to head up a San Antonio, Texas-based diocese, the MNCC’s most solid stronghold in Yanqui territory was in Los Angeles.

Back in 1926, on a visit to relatives in Southern California, MNCC Bishop Macario Lopez y Valdes met Bishop Roberto T. Gonzalez, a former Church of the Nazarene pastor and the leader of El Hogar de la Verdad, a Spiritualist church that ministered to East Los Angeles’ Mexican-American community. Despite their ostensible theological differences, the two prelates became friends, and Lopez y Valdez consecrated Gonzalez to the episcopate, and appointed him to be the Bishop of the MNCC in East Los Angeles. After Gonzalez passed on in 1928, Lopez y Valdez consecrated his successor, Alberto Luis Rodriguez y Durand, as the Bishop Ordinary of Los Angeles, and Regionary Bishop of Alta California. As a result, El Hogar de la Verdad became The Old Catholic Orthodox Church of St. Augustine of the Mystical Body of Christ, and the center of MNCC activity in the American State.

Archbishop Emile Rodriguez y Fairfield --
 the Los Angeles-based, longtime Patriarch of  the MNCC

Assisting Bishop Rodriguez y Durand with the parish was his younger brother, Emile Federico Rodriguez. A former Olympic athlete who had represented Mexico in the 1932 Games’ 1500-meter race, the younger Rodriguez was ordained to the priesthood in 1938 by his brother. He then migrated to Los Angeles, became an American citizen, found work as a physical-education instructor, and added “Fairfield” to his surname in 1953 as both a concession to his new home’s Anglo culture, and as a poetic tribute to his prowess on the track.

In 1955, Rodriguez y Fairfield received episcopal consecration from his ailing older brother, and took over as the head of the Church in California. For the next forty-odd years he shepherded an estimated 100 Mexican and Mexican-American parishioners out of his little house-church at 4011 East Brooklyn (now Cesar Chavez) Avenue in East Los Angeles. As the MNCC faded from view in Mexico itself, the Bishop and his mostly-Californian flock remained faithful to the vision of a Spanish-language, non-Eurocentric, nationalistic and independent Catholic Church.

When Bishop Jose Cortes y Olmos died in Mexico in 1983, Bishop Fairfield y Rodriguez became the last living Bishop of the MNCC, and was named its Archbishop and Primate. By this time the East Los Angeles prelate had become something of a celebrity in the world of independent Catholicism, and divided his time between the MNCC’s last parish, and the Old Roman Catholic Church/Canonical Old Roman Catholic Church, a mostly-Anglo independent body that he had assumed leadership of in 1982.

In the manner of so many other “Wandering Bishops”, Rodriguez y Fairfield also swapped apostolic pedigrees with his fellow prelates, receiving further consecrations from leaders of such bodies and passing his own lines of succession along to other would-be episcopates. The 77 year-old Bishop briefly made national headlines in 1990 when he and two other independent bishops raised married Roman Catholic priest George A. Stallings, Jr. to the episcopacy, and enabled the controversial cleric to found and head his own African-American Catholic Congregation as yet another ethnic/nationalist schism from the Holy See.

Perhaps Rodriguez y Fairfield’s most significant secondary consecration was from Bishop Francisco Pagtakhan of the Iglesia Filipina Independiente (Philippine Independent Catholic Church), a schismatic body with an anti-colonial and nationalistic history similar to the MNCC’s. The Mexican patriarch also established intercommunion between the MNCC and the considerably larger Filipino church, and brought into his orbit dissident Lutheran and Roman Catholic clerics who had affiliated with the PICC.

Bishop John Parnell, who revived the MNCC in Texas

When the aging Bishop Rodriguez y Fairfield finally passed on, the helm of the Mexican National Catholic Church fell to a most unusual, dynamic and – most significantly – non-Mexican man. Texan Anglo John Parnell, who had received episcopal consecration from Philippine Independent Catholic Church bishops, planted a fresh MNCC parish in his home town of Fort Worth, and set about turning the Church from an obscure remnant of Mexican Catholic history, into an active and vibrant spiritual force in East Texas’ Mexican-American community.

Calling his parish “Saint Augustine’s Catholic Church,” Bishop Parnell created a Catholic community that more resembled the frontier Spanish missions of pre-Alamo Tejas, than it did a contemporary Roman Catholic parish. An episode of the Texas Country Reporter news program showed Parnell and his parishioners tending livestock, tilling soil, repairing boots, and rolling cigars (which the Bishop explained were used as currency in pre-USA Texas) on the Church properties like something out of an Old West living-history panorama. When reporter Bob Phillips said that their no-frills lifestyle reminded him of the Amish, Parnell joked, “We’re like the Amish, except we’ll drink and fight and cuss!”

The altar at St. Augustine's MNCC, Fort Worth, TX

Humor aside, Bishop Parnell is serious about creating a Church and community that preserves the old ways of Spanish and Mexican Texas. Along with the farming and craft activities, Parnell runs the St. Augustine Catholic School out of the parish, which teaches dozens of trades and life-skills to impoverished young Fort Worth residents. And of course he supervises worship at the small local church, which carries on the MNCC’s traditions with its quaint Hispanic iconography, its distinctly Mexican-flavored liturgy of Spanish language and folk-music, and its proud independence from Rome.

As of this writing, the formula seems to be working. Not only has Bishop Parnell become something of a local media figure in Fort Worth, and networked extensively with other Independent Catholic bishops and churches, but he has planted a new MNCC mission in Los Angeles – the city where his predecessor Bishop Rodriguez y Fairfield tended the last spark of the once-fiery spiritual movement for so many years.

It may seem ironic that a Mexican-nationalist denomination was long preserved, and is being revived, in the land of its Northern rival. But as the cultural, economic and political boundaries between Mexico and the Southwestern United States blur ever more, there will be more intersection of the two nations’ distinct spiritual traditions. In the current Mexican National Catholic Church one can see both the history and culture of the deeply-Catholic yet fiercely-patriotic Hispanic world, and the proudly independent and entrepreneurial spirit of North American frontier individualism. Although Bishop Parnell and others acknowledge the MNCC as “a piece of living history,” it also points towards a future where the two countries’ spiritual and social ways are ever more entwined and melded.

Notes/Sources (The MNCC's official Web site)
"Members of the San Luigi Orders: Archbishop Emile Rodriguez y Fairfield".
Pruter, Karl. The Old Catholic Sourcebook. New York: Garland, 1983.
Melton's Encyclopedia of American Religion - Eighth Edition. Detroit: Gale, 2009.
Ward, Gary et al, eds. Independent Bishops: An International Directory. Detroit: Apogee, 1990.

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