FAMILY OF FAITH Growing up, Bishop Barnes’ parents taught him to serve others and to value the Catholic faith. LEFT: A young Gerald Barnes (far right) sits with his father, George, and three of his siblings in 1952. CENTER: Aurora Barnes lifts her infant son, Gerald, in 1945. RIGHT: A young Gerald Barnes (center) poses with other altar servers in front of Our Lady of Soledad, East Los Angeles, in 1953.
By Natalie Romano
A drunk man lies passed out on the sidewalk; kids mock him and throw stones, adults shake their heads and look away, but not the parents of a young Gerald Barnes. They did what others wouldn’t dare, and consequently helped shape both the person and priest that Barnes would ultimately become.
“My father washed him as my mother made him a sandwich. At first I was a little bothered by it. He was so drunk. Then I was captivated by what they were doing,” recalled Bishop Emeritus Gerald Barnes. “It was a formation. We saw a lot of that as kids. We learned how to treat people.”
That teaching moment took place at the Barnes family store in East Los Angeles during the 1960s. George and Aurora Barnes opened the Red Front Market after moving there from Arizona when their son Gerald was one year old. Bishop Barnes says the store financially supported the family’s seven children and also gave them a front row seat to the myriad social and economical challenges of the neighborhood. The family themselves lived just blocks away in a modest home where the six brothers shared one bedroom and the entire family shared one bathroom.
“It was hard to find a quiet place,” said Bishop Barnes. “The house was always full, always busy. There were always people there who needed a place to stay. Our best friends were our siblings.”
When not at home or school, the Barnes brood worked at the family store that sold groceries, sewing supplies and tools. Bishop Barnes jokes that his dad never had any employees, just lots of kids. While the store was the center of their family life, it was also the center of the neighborhood. Bishop Barnes says he heard his father being referred to as the “mayor,” so to speak, in an area where many were illiterate or only spoke Spanish.
“I lived in L.A. My dad wasn’t the mayor but that was the impression of the community,” explained Bishop Barnes. “People came to the store for everything. We read their mail for them. We wrote letters for them ... My dad never made any money because he extended credit to anyone under the sun.”
When the family wasn’t in the store, they enjoyed picnics and baseball, even taking in an occasional Dodgers game. Then it was back to the store, even on holidays. That meant limited free time for the children.
Bishop Barnes, as the second oldest, had lots of responsibility at the store, and when not at the store, was in charge of younger siblings at home. They say he was a serious big brother who made them kneel in the corner if they were naughty. Yet he also provided stability, carrying on family traditions when their parents were at work.
“He made us learn all the Christmas songs and all the versus, English and Latin,” recalled fourth oldest sibling, Gary Barnes, with a laugh. “Then he would have us perform for our parents and our aunt and uncle.”
Gene Barnes, the baby of the family, remembers his brother Gerald being the one to reassure him during the turbulent events of the 60s, including the Watts Riots and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The now 64-year-old flashes back to the television coverage of the presidential assasination in Dallas.
“I was trying to comprehend what was going on. He tried to explain it to me,” said Gene Barnes. “You look at the things that stopped the world, and that was one of them, and I happened to be with him.”
He says that kind of shepherding never stopped: the big brother then is the big brother now. In 2019, when two of their brothers died about a week apart, Bishop Barnes took charge in ways both practical and spiritual.
“It was too much to overcome, too much to endure at the time,” Gene Barnes said with emotion. “All of us were hurting with losing our brothers and he kept us together.”
That leadership role in the family was given to him, says Bishop Barnes. He mostly embraced it, acting dutifully but with occasional defiance.
“I didn’t hesitate from challenging my parents,” admitted Bishop Barnes. “I would want to know why. I was what some people would think of as disrespectful, rebellious.”
Yet that challenger was the one most drawn to the Church. Bishop Barnes served as an altar boy and on his own, would periodically pop into church to pray. He didn’t go to Catholic school but received religious education from the Our Lady of Victory Missionary Sisters who saw signs of his future vocation.
Gary Barnes reminisces how most of the siblings would drag themselves out of bed for Sunday morning Mass while his older brother was dressed and ready to go. Bishop Barnes says it all started with how his parents practiced their faith in simple but visible ways in the home.
“If you passed their room at night, you saw my dad in prayer ... My mother would invoke the saints. She knew every saint under the heavens. She knew their feast day,” said Bishop Barnes. “That kind of religiosity was in the family and I bought into it. It just appealed to me.”
He says like most kids, he played games with his siblings but also played Mass, always playing the role of the priest.
But his earliest memory was not so virtuous. One day when four-year-old Gerald was walking to school with his older brother, well, they never quite got there.
“My brother, George, was the one who gave my parents gray hairs. He said, ‘let’s not go to school.’ So we played in the park on the slides and all that,” admitted Bishop Barnes. “Oh my goodness, my first memory was ditching school!”
Not surprisingly, their truancy was eventually discovered and their mom made them confess to their teachers.
A confession of another sort came years later when Bishop Barnes revealed he wanted to be priest. The then-high school student had dreamt of working at the United Nations or abroad at an embassy. Yet when talking with an educational counselor, he blurted out something else.
“I said, ‘I think I want to be a priest,’” said Bishop Barnes. “It was the first time I voiced it.”
From there, the future Bishop applied to seminary but was denied. He ended up going to college and becoming a high school civics teacher. Bishop Barnes says thoughts of the priesthood kept cming back. Finally, with the help of his parish priest, he was able to enter seminary in Missouri. While this time he got in, he later got kicked out, thanks to that part of him that wants to challenge.
“You didn’t question the Church in those days, you didn’t question authority, but I did,” said Bishop Barnes. “They said, ‘We think you have a vocation, but it’s not with us.’ It was very difficult.”
Bishop Barnes says the road to priesthood may have been “full of detours” but he ended up at the right destination.
“I got closer to God and then I knew I really wanted to be a priest,” said Bishop Barnes. “This is what He wanted me to do. I was ordained 15 months later for the Archdiocese of San Antonio.”
Bishop Barnes says that even as a priest, he was still learning from his parents. He remembers driving with them near a homeless encampment, when a man darted out in front of their car forcing his dad to slam on the brakes.
“I said, ‘Look at that bum!’ My mother turns around and looks at me and says, ‘that’s someone’s son,’” said Bishop Barnes. “I saw a bum and she saw someone’s son. She saw what was really there.”
Up until their deaths, Bishop Barnes says his parents continued their legacy of faith and charity. So in 2017, on his 25th Episcopal Anniversary, Bishop Barnes launched the George Ruben Barnes and Aurora Celaya Barnes Seminarian Endowment Fund. When the Bishop was a seminarian himself, he wanted his parents to know how their way of living proved the very existence of God. He wrote them each a letter expressing the important lessons he had learned from their example.
“I knew there was a God of forgiveness because I remember you (mother) forgiving so many times ... There was never a grudge, an act of vengeance,” wrote Bishop Barnes. “I know there’s a God for the downtrodden, the little and lost people because I learned from you, Dad. You cared for people.”
Natalie Romano is a freelance writer and a parishioner of The Holy Name of Jesus in Redlands.