Father Gerry hasn’t forgotten Los Banos, nor have we forgotten him

Father Gerry Chavez was one of the most dynamic priests parishioners of St. Joseph’s Church in Los Banos have ever seen. He served our community as an assistant pastor in the 1970s, and last month was reunited with some of his old parishioners.

Father Gerry served in many different assignments after leaving Los Banos, including pastor in Catholic churches in Avenal, Corcoran and Bishop, and chaplain at St. Agnes Hospital in Fresno. He retired in 2016 and spent some time living in Tulare before returning for a time to Los Banos earlier this year before moving to Fresno.

Father Gerry is probably most remembered for his work during the 1970s with the Los Banos parish’s youth group, which he called “Free Spirit,” teaming with Chris Eldred, who was then the parish youth ministry director. Monsignor Harry Eggert greatly appreciated the work Father Gerry and Chris did on behalf of the parish’s high school youth.

Together, Father Gerry and Chris made an extraordinary team. They recruited other members of the parish to volunteer with the youth group, including Mary Stroh Avila and Anthony Parreira, current Los Banos Unified School District Board trustee.

Father Gerry and Chris created a unique structure for the youth group, selecting high school seniors to serve as peer leaders. They helped these peer leaders plan, organize and implement activities, including weekly meetings, a Christmas pageant, a trip to a religious education congress in Anaheim and an annual retreat. The faith and leadership they developed in the seniors served as good examples to younger high school students.

Chris and Father Gerry emphasized that being a Catholic Christian involved not only faith, service and commitment, but also curiosity and joy. The young people had fun getting together for activities such as build-your-own-banana-split night and appreciated the opportunities to ask questions about their religion.

Both Father Gerry and Chris were exceptional listeners. Young people came to them often, not only to talk over issues related to faith but their personal lives as well.

Since Father Gerry left, I have been in contact with Gerianne Eldred, Chris’s daughter and a former college student of mine. Gerianne has been a dedicated high school teacher of students with learning disabilities and a university instructor in teacher education for many years.

Gerianne told me a story that illustrates a lot about Father Gerry. During his Avenal assignment, he met a kid named Jason, who essentially was living on the streets. Gerry noticed his conditions, began to talk with him and offered help. After a while, Father Gerry legally adopted him and turned Jason’s life around.

Jason did well in high school, where he played on the football team and met the girl he would eventually marry. They had three children and adopted two more. Gerry loved the children as a grandpa. The children appreciated the ongoing kindness and support of “Papa.”

Last month in Los Banos Father Gerry reunited with friends who knew him in the 1970s: Anthony and Kim Parreira, Gary and Cathy Caropreso, Germaine Orlando, Gerianne Eldred, Charles Eldred, Jerry Baptista and me.

Though experiencing some memory loss, Father Gerry is still as warm and congenial as ever, and his smile still brightens a room. His friends enjoyed reliving memories when he was the assistant pastor in Los Banos. He remembers those days clearly, especially working with Chris (who passed away in 1996). “When we were working with the kids,” he told me, “Chris and I were always in sync.”

Many of St. Joseph’s longtime parishioners and former students at Our Lady of Fatima School still recall Father Gerry fondly.

We remain grateful to Father Gerry not only for what he gave to our parish, but for all he has done for the Fresno Diocese during his life as a priest. He will always have a special place in our hearts.

John Spevak is a resident of Los Banos; he wrote this for the Los Banos Enterprise. Email john.spevak@gmail.com.