Padre Packs Pistol, Super-Sized Persona
Unorthodox Mexican Priest Builds a Following at Home and in the U.S.
By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 31, 2004; Page A13
CHUCANDIRO, Mexico -- Alfredo Gallegos Lara is 6-foot-4, sings country music and keeps a 9mm pistol tucked into his belt. No ordinary gunslinger, he may be Mexico's most unusual parish priest.
One recent afternoon, Gallegos, 52, pulled off his religious vestments behind the altar of the Catholic church in this sleepy town in central Mexico, revealing jeans, crocodile boots and a shiny black pistol. Mexico has strict laws forbidding private citizens to carry guns, but Gallegos said he has always informed police about them and the police haven't complained. After all, his pistols are why the unorthodox priest, with a growing following in Mexico and the United States, is called "Padre Pistolas."
"Four of my friends have been killed, and three of my trucks have been stolen," he said, explaining that his ministry to drug addicts and the sick takes him through the back roads of central Mexico, where it is wise, he said, to be armed. The youngest of 10 children in a wealthy family with a long history of military service and fine marksmanship, Gallegos boasts that he can pick off a soft-drink can at 80 feet.
Ever since he entered the seminary at age 14, his handling of guns has been drawing popular attention as well as criticism from his church superiors.
"I have been fighting with the bishop. He is so angry with me. He doesn't like my gun," Gallegos said.
He said Archbishop Alberto Suarez Inda is also uncomfortable with his high-profile fundraising and construction projects. Gallegos has built 40 miles of roads, as well as basketball courts, schools, churches and bridges in and around Jaral del Refugio in the neighboring state of Guanajuato, where he was the parish priest for 24 years. He said he raised millions of dollars for the projects. He makes frequent fundraising trips to Illinois, North Carolina and California, and migrants there have encouraged him to create a Padre Pistolas Web site, key chains, CDs and posters.
Gallegos said he has gone hunting with law enforcement officers in the United States and sung to standing-room-only crowds in Chicago's popular Concordia Restaurant. Town President Ramiro Gonzalez of Cicero, Ill., just outside Chicago, has helped him arrange fundraisers and traveled to his parish in Mexico to see his public works projects.
Gonzalez said that migrants return to their Mexican home towns from well-paved American cities and "see that the roads are the same way they were a billion years ago and they say, 'How much can this cost? $10,000? Then let's get together and do it.' '' But they need someone trustworthy to handle the money, he said, someone "with the magnitude of leadership of Padre Pistolas."
Still, Gallegos's guns and his super-sized persona have gotten him into hot water with the local bishop, who wants him to leave building roads and hospitals to the government and televised musical performances to entertainers. "He wants me to stick to baptizing children and saying Mass," Gallegos said.
"Is that possible?" he is asked.
"Oh, no!" he responded with a wink.
Suarez, the bishop, declined to be interviewed. "Oh, God," moaned the person answering the phone in his office in Morelia, when asked for a comment about Padre Pistolas. "Don't pay too much attention to him."
But it is hard not to. He has a powerful singing voice that draws applause wherever he starts singing -- at Mass, in restaurants, on the street corner. He is unabashedly comfortable with his attention-grabbing role as the singing, swaggering Padre Pistolas.
This month, Suarez removed Gallegos from Jaral. Tearful followers sent him off with a parade.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Alfredo Gallegos Lara, known as "Padre Pistolas," has raised millions of dollars for roads, schools, churches and bridges in the area he served as a parish priest until he was removed.
(Mary Jordan -- The Washington Post)