The Rev. Luis Olivares, a Los Angeles pastor and an outspoken advocate of immigration rights who declared his historic downtown parish a sanctuary for Central American refugees, has announced that he has AIDS.
For the last nine years, Olivares has served as pastor of Our Lady Queen of Angels, nicknamed "La Placita" (the plaza) by the nearly 10,000 refugees, undocumented immigrants and homeless who gathered there each Sunday.
Olivares, 56, a Claretian order priest, had nearly recovered from a "touch-and-go" bout of meningitis in June when he decided to go public with the news that he has AIDS, said Linda Mitchell, Olivares's spokeswoman and an official of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.
The priest is in the process of being replaced as chairman of the rights group, a coalition of 60 religious, civic and labor organizations that promote a variety of causes relating to refugees and undocumented immigrants.
Mitchell said doctors believe Olivares contracted AIDS from contaminated needles while being treated at a clinic in Central America six years ago.
An outspoken critic of U.S. policy in Central America, especially in El Salvador, Olivares has made numerous trips since 1984 to Central America to visit refugee camps and meet with church and government officials.
The priest has diabetes and an ulcer and was treated for minor conditions at clinics in El Salvador during those trips, Mitchell said.
AIDS patients who have developed a serious infection, as is the case with Olivares, generally live from two to six years.
After leaving La Placita, Father Olivares was slated to take over the reins of a parish in Fort Worth at the end of June.
Since the AIDS diagnosis, he was released from that assignment by his superiors and will remain in the Los Angeles area, living at a Claretian retreat center.
"He's definitely not going to Texas now," Mitchell said this week. But she said he is "feeling chipper and receiving visitors" and hopes to remain active in AIDS work in the Los Angeles area.
"Luis said he wants to use his condition to help educate the community, especially the Latino community, about AIDS," Mitchell said, noting that Olivares believes education is a key to preventing people with AIDS from being stigmatized.
"The AIDS rate has gone up dramatically in the Latino community," she said. "You still hear people saying, 'Oh, it's not serious.' "
Claretian authorities would not comment about Olivares.
Mitchell called Olivares "a bridge in the Los Angeles religious community." She said it was "as important for him to bring the people together and talk about Afro-American community issues in Los Angeles as it was to talk about oppression in El Salvador and immigration rights."
Mitchell estimated that there are as many as 400,000 Salvadoran refugees in the Los Angeles area. "They can come to La Placita any time of the day or night. It's their beacon," she said, "a true community church."
Los Angeles Archbishop Roger Mahony visited Olivares on June 27, the day before he publicly announced that he had AIDS. In a statement later, the archbishop expressed his "personal sadness" and called the former La Placita pastor a "friend and collaborator" over the years.
"While we may have approached various social issues with different strategies at times," he said, "we have always felt the bonds of our common discipleship."
"Luis has been a thorn in their sides," Mitchell said of the priest's relations with archdiocesan officials. "Priests aren't supposed to be in the media. If he could disappear, their lives would be a lot easier. But whether it's Luis or anyone else, the issues are still there."