The Sins of the Father

Cantankerous, proud and devoted to helping immigrants, Father Justin Lucio's singleminded sense of duty led to overblown charges of "scandal"

It is perhaps the strangest irony of Lucio's life that someone who strived to serve the poor would one day be accused of stealing from them. Early last year, The Dallas Morning News published a series of allegations against Lucio: He and other top administrators at Casita Maria had used the money that immigrants paid to the agency and lavished it on themselves, the paper said. The News also resurrected a 1989 sexual scandal involving Lucio, asserting that two Mexican immigrant brothers had accused Lucio of forcing them to have sex with him. Spurred on by the articles, the attorney general of Texas investigated Casita Maria's financial operations and found that although the accounting procedures were unacceptably lax, Lucio had not, in fact, knowingly stolen anything from Casita Maria. Despite that, Lucio was eventually fired from Casita Maria and was issued a court order barring him from the charity.

Lucio and a number of people who know him say that the scandals are the logical consequence of fighting for the pisado immigrant community. But while some may dislike Lucio because of the people he champions, it's difficult to believe the nonprofit was taken from him simply because of his political advocacy. The same qualities that make Lucio a worthy champion for someone like Fermina Vasquez--his nervy eloquence, his resolve to fight until he can't fight anymore, his defiant naïveté that people will do right--are the same qualities that cause people to say he is cantankerous, too militant and stubbornly unrealistic. What Lucio sees as a mission--that Latino immigrants should be able to become legal residents at no great cost to themselves--is an uncompromising obsession, and that has often damaged his cause.

"Father Lucio is his own worst enemy," more than one person told me. He worried more about his obsession than the running of his nonprofit, so it was taken away from him. Stripped of his accreditation to counsel immigrants, he is still mustering all his strength to continue his fight. "He kind of goes through life by his temper," Lucio's lawyer, Michael Thomas, says. "I think there's a real good heart there, but I also think there's a very jaded, secular side he has as well, almost as though he's above the rules of the church."

Clockwise, from top left: one of the murals that features Father Lucio standing up to his enemies; the effigy of the Virgin Mary he used to pray to at Casita Maria; Lucio has hung a portrait of himself from a healthier time above his fireplace.
Tom Jenkins
Clockwise, from top left: one of the murals that features Father Lucio standing up to his enemies; the effigy of the Virgin Mary he used to pray to at Casita Maria; Lucio has hung a portrait of himself from a healthier time above his fireplace.
Tom Jenkins

Lucio grew up on San Antonio's poor west side and recalls not speaking English regularly until he was 12 or 13, when his father found work in the car factories in Michigan and moved his family there. In San Antonio, Lucio would go to the bars on the west side and shine shoes, where he remembers seeing "degradation" because the bars were "the only avenue that my people had to find some type of supposed 'happiness.'" The Anglos he saw growing up were usually policemen. "The police would stop the person, and I remember them lowering their heads," he says. "I said to myself at that time, 'I don't know how, but I will never lower my head to the police or to any person in authority.'"

Even as a child, Lucio possessed a deep sense of honor and pride that affects him today. This summer, when he was in court trying to wrest retirement funds from Casita Maria's current management, his wounded sense of honor would get in the way of his own cause. He needed the $5,000 that was being offered to him that day, and the man who had the power to give it to him asked for the routing number of his bank account so he could wire the money. "They've already got all this stuff. They're making me jump through hoops," Lucio complained to Thomas, his lawyer. "'Yeah, Father, I know they are,'" Thomas recalls telling him, "'but sometimes it's easier to jump through the hoops than it is to fight.' And his whole life has been geared at fighting, no matter what the consequences."

In the late '50s, when he was at a religious boarding school in Michigan run by the Holy Cross Brothers, Lucio thought that he had left all that boozy happiness behind in the San Antonio bars. The Franciscan brothers who taught there "didn't have a sense of being false in their happiness," he says. "I wanted to know where they got their happiness from, and that's what attracted me most to the religious life." Soon, however, he would discover that religion is "a system, too, and that in its own sense, there was also a lot of humiliation."

At one point while attending Assumption Seminary in Chaska, Minnesota, Lucio lived in a friary on the same block in St. Paul as the governor of Minnesota's house. "Their rationale for it was that the poverty area began on our side of the street," Lucio says. "But there was nothing poor about that." One day Lucio was teaching a group of teenagers from the ghetto, and one of them asked to see the friary. When the student showed up, Lucio gave him "the spiel," as he says, that the Franciscans distinguished themselves from the other orders by vowing to live in poverty. Lucio was walking up the stairs with his student behind him when the teenager tugged on Lucio's clothes and said, "You don't believe that shit."

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