LOS ANGELES (AP) – Immigrants are flocking to churches in Southern California to see a wooden statue of a saint cherished by border-crossers who make the perilous journey to the United States.
The 4-foot-tall statue of Santo Toribio Romo González was flown from the Mexican state of Jalisco, and is making stops in churches in three California counties, the Los Angeles Times reported Sunday.
Many immigrants say Romo González has appeared to them during difficult moments on their journeys north, with some carrying a photo of the saint in their wallets.
"I owe him everything," said José Ochoa, a 32-year-old cook who welcomed the statue to his church in Lake Forest. Before Ochoa crossed the border illegally in 2005 with his 4-year-old son to reunite with his wife and family, he had been given a small, laminated photo of the saint by his grandfather. "I couldn't imagine dying without coming to see him to say thank you."
Romo González was a priest killed during a 1928 religious uprising and was canonized 14 years ago. His statue will be received at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown Los Angeles next Sunday.
In his Mexican hometown Santa Ana de Guadalupe, tens of thousands of pilgrims arrive weekly to pay tribute to the saint's bones, which are kept in a small casket. Locals peddle saint-themed key chains and figurines to tourists and businesses ranging from a pharmacy to an ice cream shop bear his name.
In the United States, immigrants, especially those from Mexico, have come to cherish the saint. A church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, built a shrine to Romo González after a tough anti-immigration law was passed in the state.
Church officials say while beloved to many, Romo González, has not been officially recognized as a patron to immigrants.
"He's the people's saint," said Ed Benioff, director of the Office of New Evangelization for the Los Angeles Archdiocese. "His legend has grown from the start in the most grass-roots way."
In Commerce, parishioners celebrated the statue's arrival with song and dance and took turns touching its chest, where a bone from the saint's ankle is kept behind a piece of glass.
Francisca Romero, 56, said she came to see the statue out of concern for relatives and friends and the thousands of immigrant children arriving on the U.S. border in Texas in recent months.
"I want this saint to keep them safe from all harm and to please help us all," she said.