Santuario’s Beloved Father Roca Celebrates 97 Years Young In Chimayo

Father Blanc and Father Roca, the two priests who have served the Chimayo area for years sit together on Father Roca's 97th birthday. Valley Daily Post image

Santuario’s Beloved Father Roca Celebrates 97 Years Young In Chimayo

“Me Siento Muy Contento!” – “I feel very happy!”

               –Fr. Casimiro Roca on his 97th Birthday

Story and Photos By Robert A. Naranjo

CHIMAYO – The Valley Daily Post visited El Santuario de Chimayo on the birthday of the long-time Spanish priest who is known “for saving the Santuario from ruin” upon his assignment there around 1959.

El Santuario de Chimayo, “The Lourdes of America” as shown on the day of Fr. Casimiro Roca’s 97th birthday.

It was the 97th birthday a few days ago, of Fr. Casimiro Roca, who has had a long fulfilling life and had an inauspicious start when his brother was killed during the Spanish Civil War. His mother’s words, after learning of the death of her son, Pedro, to Fr. Roca remained with him his entire life and guided him as if the words were engraved in his heart and soul. His mother’s very words are featured on the cover of his biography, “A LONG JOURNEY for two short legs,” where he says:       

“I remember the words of my mother at learning of the death of my brother Pedro: ‘I ask God for two priest sons. He took Pedro to Himself; now, it’s up to you to be the two priests I asked for

After arriving at the Santuario de Chimayo, the Valley Daily Post reporter found everything in place except Fr. Roca himself. Liz Martinez, who works at the Gift Shop told the Valley Daily Post, “Fr. Roca used to come for mass every day, but I haven’t seen him for while,” she said. “He’s at the Holy Family Church now, that’s where you’ll find him. The Post reporter headed to the Holy Family Church.

The door-knock at the Rectory had a religious design to it and a moderately loud sound when used. After a moment, Fr. Julio, pastor of the Holy Family Church in Chimayo, answers the door. “May I help you,” he asks. “Yes, the Valley Daily Post would like a comment from you about Fr. Roca’s 97th birthday, today,” was the answer. “Why don’t you ask him yourself, he’s right here,” Fr. Julio says with a smile. “He’s having his birthday party,” he adds.

There is an old Spanish “refran” {a saying or truism} in New Mexico that says, “Es mejor llegar a tiempo, que estar invitado,” {It’s better to arrive at the right time, than to have been invited,” meaning timing is everything. The Valley Daily Post reporter then walks in to a birthday party for Fr. Roca, just in time!  There were members of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, Fr. Jim Sumptum, Fr. Jose Maria Blanc, who for many years celebrated the 8:3O a.m. Spanish Mass at Santa Cruz de la Canada, Fr. Julio and other guests. Attendees and parishioners were sharing stories about Fr. Roca on his 97th birthday, and Fr. Roca was sitting on his chair at the head of the table, taking it all in and with a big smile on his face.

L-R, Jerry Romero, Chimayo, Fr. Roca, JoAnne Sandoval, St. Vincent de Paul Society celebrate his 97th birthday with other members of the Society and retired priests who served this area.}

Florence Jaramillo, owner of the Rancho de Chimayo Restaurant when contacted by the Valley Daily Post reporter said, “I’m glad you are doing a story on Fr. Roca. He is loved by so many people – I have people who come into the restaurant all the time who ask, ‘Where’s the little priest?” Mrs. Jaramillo reminisced when back in 1963 she would volunteer at El Santuario and help Fr. Roca’s secretaries learn how to do the books.

Mrs. Jaramillo also shared a story of when Fr. Roca was determined to build a church in Truchas. She said, “there used to only be a hall up there and Fr. Roca built the church for us.” An anecdote of that story is that Fr. Roca called the Archbishop to “ask” for permission to build a church in Truchas. The Archbishop responded, “I know if I tell you no, you are going to do it anyway. So, go ahead and build it but as long as it doesn’t cost the Archdiocese any money,” he said. The church was built and nary a red cent was requested from the Archbishop or the Archdiocese of Santa Fe.

The Valley Daily Post Reporter also heard a  story of when Fr. Roca literally “moved a mountain” to save the El Santuario from an encroaching Santa Cruz River.

Image of El Santuario shows in the foreground an irrigation ditch or acequia that flows immediately in front of the storied shrine. The water comes from the Santa Cruz River which was inching closer to the church and threatening to ruin it when Fr. Roca was assigned there.

It was circa 1959, when Fr. Roca, on a mission to save the El Santuario from water damage from the river, went down to Espanola. He went into a local restaurant where he found the men who ran the cement redi-mix, sand and gravel business in town. So Fr. Roca walks up to the men, which included Mr. Lowdermilk and his associates who were important businessmen in Espanola. Fr. Roca, wasting no time and feeling 1O foot tall, tells them, “You, you and you are going to help me move a mountain to save El Santuario. The river is about to throw it down. I want you to bring your big trucks and tractors and many men and I’ll see you tomorrow.” From all accounts, Mr. Lowdermilk and his associates were stunned, then smiled at the brashness and no-nonsense straight-up style of the little priest with big plans from El Santuario de Chimayo. The following day, a caravan of semitrailer rigs hauling loaders, back hoes and other earth-moving equipment plus a slew of dump trucks made their up the Chimayo highway. Mission accomplished: the hill that was near the Santuario was used as fill dirt on the north side of it and built up until the river was no longer a threat.

Father Roca had a penchant for saving or building churches. When he got permission to build Holy Family Church in Chimayo, again from the Archdiocese, Fr. Roca started cutting down an old orchard to make way for the church. He had men scheduled to help, but Fr. Roca went at it alone right away. He made a dent in that old orchard by the time his volunteers arrived. Of couse, he succeeded in building Holy Family Church and today, many years later that very church is where he spent his 97th birthday and is enjoying his retirement. Like he knew it from the start!

At his birthday party there was a moment when good news came straight from Fr. Roca himself that was succinct and profound. When Fr. Blanc asked him, “?Como te sientes?,” {How are you feeling?} and very happily the Santuario’s “Little Saint of a priest”  celebrating his 97th birthday responds, “Me siento muy contento!” – “I feel very happy!”

A while later, his birthday party was over and as the Post reporter was leaving, his caregiver, tells him in Spanish, “Bendigalo, Padre Roca” (Bless him Fr. Roca} – Fr. Roca put his hand on the reporter’s forehead and said a blessing in Spanish. It was quite moving, to say the least.

Fr. Roca is very happy and he has earned that happiness and contentment through the years. Remember the words of his mother to him about 7O years ago, after his brother’s untimely death back in Spain:

            “I ask God for two priest sons. He took Pedro to Himself; now, it’s up to you to be the two priests I asked for and do twice the work: your part and the part of your brother.’”

Fr. Roca appears to be completely happy, because he not only did the work of two priests in fulfillment of his mother’s wishes, he did the work of many priests and that number is left to the reader to fill in. Consider that he helped make El Santuario de Chimayo, “The Lourdes of America,” and that, is no small miracle.

Que Dios ricamente te Bendiga por siempre, Padre Roca, en el Nombre del Padre, el Hijo y el Espiritu Santo.