The Rev. Larry Gallegos, who had been with Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Durango on and off for nearly 30 years, died Friday. He was 78.
“You won’t believe how many people I’ve had call me and say, ‘I was struggling and he set me on the right path,’” said Bob Gomez, a friend and business manager for Sacred Heart. “He had amazing ability to help people that were struggling.”
Gallegos was born in Anton Chico, New Mexico, a small town about an hour and a half drive southeast of Santa Fe, on April 9, 1939, according to his sister, Josephine Madril.
The family moved to Denver when Gallegos was 8 years old, his sister said, where he attended Sacred Heart Catholic School. In a household of 12 children, Gallegos and Madril, only eleven months apart in age, formed a close bond, she said.
“He would say, ‘I don’t know what I want, but someday someone is going to tell me what to do,’” Madril said. “Lo and behold, in the summer of 1959, he told mom and dad he wanted to be a priest.”
Born to deeply religious Catholic parents – Julian and Eloisa – Gallegos joined the seminary at St. Andrews when he was 18 years-old, and was ordained a priest in May 1968.
Gallegos was a teacher and director at St. Andrews for a few years, but landed at Sacred Heart in Durango in 1986, where he stayed on and off for the next 30 years.
“He was able to translate gospel into every day normal life, and it was just unique,” said Gomez, adding that Gallegos was known for starting his sermons with some link to the Peanuts cartoon series.
He was a pastor at St. Margaret Mary Church in Cortez for about four years, between 2006 and 2010. His successor, the Rev. Pat Valdez, said he continued to meet with him regularly after he returned to Durango.
“He would always check up on me and see how I was doing, and vice versa,” Valdez said. “He was more than a collaborator. He was a brother.”
Kevin Ketterer, the director of religious education at St. Margaret Mary, said he saw Gallegos as a mentor when he first started the job nine years ago.
“Whenever I would talk to him about a problem or something I didn’t understand, he somehow always had a little tiny story to use as an answer,” Ketterer said. “He never gave me an answer. He always gave me a story.”
He said Gallegos played a large part in uniting the Spanish-speaking and English-speaking members of the Cortez parish by holding bilingual services and other joint activities. Through his teaching and example, he showed his congregation about “seeing the common, everyday, mundane things that we do in a holy way,” Ketterer said.
Entering his 49th year as a priest, Gallegos became ill this spring, holding his last mass on April 2, according to the Rev. Douglas Hunt, who took the helm at Sacred Heart about a month ago.
On Sunday, Hunt said masses held this weekend drew larger turnouts than usual.
“There were a lot of tears shed,” Hunt said.
Hunt, now 59, said he met Gallegos when he was 15 years old in 1975 at St. Andrews. At the time, Gallegos was director of the seminary, and taught Hunt English and Spanish.
“He was a very wise man, and always had a deep faith,” Hunt said. “He was very meditative, too. He would be in the chapel before anyone else, early in the morning before morning prayers.”
Gomez, who has known Gallegos since 1966, said Gallegos loved to fish whenever he got the chance, sometimes stealing away to a cabin at Electra Lake.
“Sometimes even a priest needs to get away from the hustle and bustle,” Gomez said.
Madril said her relationship with her brother became closer as the two grew older. She said Gallegos visited her at her home in Clovis, New Mexico, earlier this year, where the two talked about the possibility of Gallegos’s retirement.
“He was gentle, but straightforward,” Madril said. “You just couldn’t find a more kinder, gentler person than him – he never thought about himself.”
Gomez agreed. He said Gallegos was always available to help anyone seeking help.
“He was in this parish for so many years, the parishioners here became a part of his family,” Gomez said. “It was us.”
A memorial service for Gallegos will be held 5 p.m. Wednesday, June 14, 2017, at Sacred Heart, 254 East Fifth Ave.
Another service will be held in Denver at 11 a.m. Friday, June 16, 2017, at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, 1209 West 36th Avenue. Gallegos will be buried at a family plot at Mount Olivet cemetery, near Wheat Ridge, Hunt said.
Journal reporter Stephanie Alderton contributed to this article.