WOMAN OF IMPACT Maria Echeverria started ministry with the Diocese as Bishop Emeritus Gerald Barnes’ secretary in 1992, eventually making her way up to her current position as Vice Chancellor and Director of the Department of Apostolic and Ethnic Affairs, a role she has held for the last 17 years. She retires this September.
Like the Blessed Mother, for whom she was named, Maria Echeverria’s journey in ministry has been marked by her willingness to say ‘yes’ – sometimes even when the circumstances would suggest otherwise.
“I have to ask a lot of questions before I say ‘yes,’ ” joked Echeverria. “But 32 years of working for the Church is God’s gift to me, being able to make an impact in people’s lives.”
Echeverria is retiring this month after more than three decades in ministry, the last 17 years as Vice Chancellor and Director of the Diocesan Department of Apostolic and Ethnic Affairs. She holds the distinction of being the first Latina laywoman ever to be appointed Vice Chancellor of a diocese in the U.S.
Her ministry with the Diocese began in a much different place. Already involved in ministry at her then home parish of St. Joseph, Upland in 1992, she saw an advertisement for the job of secretary for the new Auxiliary Bishop of the Diocese, Gerald Barnes. She said she felt a strong calling to apply, and she beat out a large field of applicants, many with more experience, to get the job. But first she had to meet Bishop Barnes.
“We hit it off,” she recalled. “I bought into his vision for the Diocese from the moment I met him.”
Bishop Barnes said he recognized qualities in Echeverria that foreshadowed her ascendance to diocesan leadership years later.
“From the beginning I noticed that Maria had good pastoral appreciation, understood parish life and had good relational skills,” he said.
When Bishop Barnes became the Second Ordinary Bishop of the Diocese in 1996, she was named Senior Office Administrator. While she said she felt “at home” in the position, something tugged at her.
“I had a sense of frustration that I couldn’t do more for [Bishop Barnes], for the Diocese,” she said. “I wanted to help him bring that vision to fruition.”
Bishop Barnes encouraged her to receive more formation in the faith, so she enrolled in the Ministry Formation Institute and would complete the Continuing Ministry Formation Program (CMFP). “Are you sure you’re ready for more?” Echeverria remembers Bishop Barnes asking her.
With her ‘yes’ in response, Echeverria was named a Vice Chancellor and the newly created position of Director of Apostolic and Ethnic Affairs. She oversaw diocesan relations with apostolic groups and managed the ethnic offices of the Diocese while also supervising the Office of Mission, Diocesan Women’s Commission, Houses of Retreat and the Marriage Preparation Program, among other duties.
“I wanted a laywoman to be the other Vice Chancellor,” recalled Bishop Barnes, who had recently appointed Deacon Michael Jelley as a Vice Chancellor. “Maria took leadership in that new department seriously. She was a strong advocate for co-workers, women, families, ethnic ministries, immigrants and so many others at the margins of our society and the Church.”
One apostolic group with whom Echeverria worked closely was Jóvenes Para Cristo, a young adults group committed to evangelization.
“She was always willing to listen to us, support us and to guide us,” said Jóvenes Para Cristo Board President Amparo Sanchez. “She was our counselor, mediator but above all our friend. Her firmness in the advice she gave us was our security to act within our Association.”
Inside, Echeverria admits that when she transitioned to her new role in diocesan leadership in 2005, she felt some anxiety about all the responsibilities that came with it.
“It was a little bit overwhelming, and it was scary,” she said. “But I knew God wouldn’t give me that if He didn’t think I could do it.”
A much more overwhelming turn of events came two years later when Echeverria lost her 20-year-old daughter, Monica. Just as her ministry was taking off, she suffered a crippling loss that she says had a permanent effect on her approach to life and work. Her Diocesan Pastoral Center family was a key to getting her through the tragedy, she said.
“I don’t know how I would have been able to live had I not been working there,” she said, “had I not had such a strong faith base. People were so kind to me and my family, so compassionate, so pastoral.”
Monica’s death brought a greater sense of urgency to the work of Echeverria and others at the DPC who were deeply affected, she said, because they realized “how quickly life can change.” It also helped her speak from lived experience in her grief counseling and mediation work in the years to come, she added.
In her years as Vice Chancellor, Echeverria has taken the lead in numerous diocesan programs and initiatives, including Episcopal Visitations, the Diocesan Awards Program, the annual Diocesan booth at the LA Religious Education Congress and the Building Intercultural Competencies for Ministers (BICM) program, which she calls a highlight because of the importance of inculturation in our diverse Diocese.
“Helping people understand that each individual culture is created in God’s image. One is not better than the other,” she said.
Beth Manangan, a longtime leader in the Filipino Ministry of the Diocese, said Echeverria has a natural affinity for sharing in the experiences and traditions of the different cultural groups in the Diocese.
“I remember how excited she would be when invited to our Pagdiriwang, our Simbang Gabi, and various feasts,” Manangan said. “Maria is a very extraordinary person. She believes in the best of people and understands our Filipino ways, culture and traditions.”
As a longtime member of the Diocesan Curia and Bishop’s Senior Staff, Echeverria said she thinks her perspective as a laywoman and a Latina in what were traditionally male-dominated discussions has been important. At national Catholic gatherings, she said when she introduces herself as Vice Chancellor of the Diocese, many are in disbelief or think she is woman religious.
“From the beginning our Diocese has been intentional about empowering women in positions of ministry leadership,” Bishop Alberto Rojas said in May when presenting Echeverria with Amar Es Entregarse Award. “Maria’s journey in the Diocese is a testimony to that.”
Added Bishop Barnes, “Maria pioneered some of the ministries we now take for granted in our diocese. She generously shared her skills, insights and observations.”