Last Friday night, the faithful and the curious lined up for a special mass at St. Anthony Parish in Oakland. On a pedestal up front stood the object of their affection: a 4-foot-5-inch statue of a blue-eyed Mexican priest.
That priest is Toribio Romo, the patron saint of immigrants who cross the Mexican border.
Some 200 worshipers snapped cellphone photos of St. Toribio and reached up to touch a small glass pane embedded in his chest. Behind the glass was a shard of brown bone, a piece of the saint’s left ankle.
The statue was lent to the Diocese of Oakland by St. Toribio’s home church in the Mexican state of Jalisco. Its three-week tour of Northern California ends Sunday. Organizers estimate that 50,000 people will have viewed the statue during the tour.
“We came to thank Santo Toribio for all he has done for us,” said Lucia Castillo of Oakland, who came to view the bone with her husband and their three sons. Castillo credited the saint with preventing United States Border Patrol agents from spotting her as she hid behind a mesquite tree after crossing the border in 1998.
Toribio Romo, born in 1900, earned fame by ministering during the Cristero Rebellion, the 1920s uprising against the Mexican government’s crackdown on the Roman Catholic Church. He was killed by federal troops in 1928. In 2000, he was among 25 saints and martyrs from the Cristero who were canonized by Pope John Paul II.
The legend of Father Romo’s exploits on behalf of immigrants has grown over the decades. As the story goes, a lost and dehydrated immigrant was ushered to safety by a fair-skinned stranger matching Father Romo’s description. Soon, tales mounted of the gentle priest who would materialize to assist immigrants in moments of desperation.
To believers, no journey — even the thorny path to immigration reform — is beyond St. Toribio’s powers. Adolfo Padilla, an Oakland seminarian who previously studied in the Diocese of San Juan de los Lagos, Father Romo’s home diocese in Jalisco, said he had arranged to bring the statue to the Bay Area “to give the people a hope, an encouragement about immigration reform, a feeling that all is not lost.”
One of every five Alameda County residents is Latino, according to the latest census. Nearly half of the Oakland Diocese’s 84 parishes hold services in Spanish.
Outside St. Anthony, the souvenir table was busy. The Castillos examined bumper stickers and T-shirts bearing St. Toribio’s likeness. Castillo’s husband, Pedro, picked out a rosary.
Pedro Castillo had already reached the Bay Area when his wife crossed the border to join him in 1998, slipping under the metal fence in Arizona with their infant son. Spotting two white vans patrolling the dusty landscape, she crouched behind a mesquite tree, praying to Toribio and, as she recalled, “all the saints I could think of.”
The vans passed no more than 10 feet away, she said.
The Castillos thank St. Toribio for the green card that Pedro Castillo now possesses and for his job washing dishes at a San Francisco hotel. They keep a framed photo of the saint in their apartment.
Their next request of him: An immigrant visa for Lucia Castillo. Her application has been pending since 2005.
This article also appears in the Bay Area edition of The New York Times.