I was about six months out of the Army and asked my editor in the old Gannett Building if I could write some stories about Hispanics.
That’s what they were called then.
I had been around Rochester enough to learn that there was a large Puerto Rican population up on North Clinton, and pockets of Mexicans just coming into some of the farms in the region, and we really weren’t doing any stories on any of them.
That’s not true. We were doing dancing-Puerto Rican stories and arrested-Mexican stories. If there was a Puerto Rican dance performance – and there often was – we’d go take pictures. If a Mexican got arrested – and they often did – we’d run the mug shot.
At least that’s how I saw it.
I figured I could do better than that.
My reasons were not sophisticated. I wasn’t driven by any diversity agenda, I just knew that if you wrote stories about people, they bought the paper. And here was a market and an audience that we were underserving. Plus, a few years before I had dated a series of Mexican girls, and spent time with their families, and had loved the experience, and wanted to feel more of that culture.
At the time, it didn’t really occur to me that the ways of the people of Puerto Rico might be different from the ways of the various peoples of Mexico.
At any rate, the editor was agreeable, as long as I didn’t slack on any of my other responsibilities. So I went walking up Clinton Avenue. No destination in mind. Not sure what I would do there. But I figured if I went where people lived, I might start to learn something.
On the first trip, I didn’t.
But the second trip I noticed, adjacent to the cathedral-like St. Michael’s Church, a sign that said something about an Hispanic outreach or some diocesan or apostolic thing or something, and I thought I’d go there. No one was in the office. When I stopped back on my third walk up Clinton, there was still no one there, but in the street-level office beneath it there was a tall middle-aged white man. I asked when the outreach thing was open, and he didn’t really know. I told him what I was after and he asked me to take a seat.
That’s when and how I met Father Tracy – the Rev. Laurence Tracy, of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester.
He was one of the most fascinating and pure people I’ve ever met.
By then – 1989 – he had already spent more than 20 years in a self-appointed ministry to the Latinos of Rochester.
He immediately took me under his wing, introducing me to dozens of Puerto Rican leaders and explaining the complex web of families and non-profits and issues that were important to the people he served.
We would sit sometimes for hours in his office, looking out on the avenue, as he explained some aspect of internal diocesan politics, or how the local elders had picked this one or that one to push into politics and back for elective office. He told me about the feuds and the foods and the customs and the contentions. He told me who I could believe and who I couldn’t, who was a good story and who wasn’t.
Most times we would talk until someone came through the door and needed help.
Maybe it was a sick grandmother who needed visiting, a dispute that needed settling, a belly that needed filling. He would help raise bail, he would organize demonstrations, he would talk to the police or the social services for people.
He was the father of that community in a way that not even his religious title could completely encompass.
He fought with them and prayed with them, performed their weddings and baptized their babies and buried their dead.
All with a hearty laugh and a tireless commitment to service.
He always served, he always loved, he never turned anyone away or seemed to tire of his duties.
His was a complete commitment. Presumably to his God, but obviously to his God’s children. When he made his vows, he meant them, and he used his life up in keeping them. I saw him give love and encouragement, sometimes in the form of a sandwich, to drunks and deacons, those on the path and those in the gutter. And like the Master he served, all were alike to him.
I rode with him some Sundays on his wide circuit of ministrations to migrant camps around the region. He would say Mass in the bunk houses of farms and canning plants, and stop in at shacks and trailers tucked into orchards and behind milking parlors. As he gave communion to men far from home and family, you saw them heartened and strengthened by it. And after he had put away his vestments and chalice they would gather around, asking him to mail letters for them or call their mothers for them or any number of other little favors and ministrations.
I have seldom seen more selfless, Christ-like service. There was no mystery to Larry Tracy, he was the apostle to the Latinos, and his every breath and thought were directed toward their service and advancement.
And he wasn’t quiet about it. He was as much activist as he was pastor. In his early years, he was part of the core of progressive Rochester activists who caused much trouble and brought about much change. He was a radical priest, a liberation theologian, a communist.
Literally. A Karl Marx communist. A Soviet Union communist. And he was fond of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. This caused some upset and confusion among local Cubans forced out by the Castro revolution, but it was who he was. He wasn’t obnoxious about it, and he tolerated me pretty well, fresh out of the Cold War American Army, but his political beliefs were as powerful and defining as his religious beliefs.
One time I saw them merged as he conducted the funeral of a fellow activist. There were beautiful words of Christian faith and encouragement, and then assurances about “the struggle,” and it ended with his clenched fist thrust into the air, the salute of the American communist Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War.
He was a hippie who meant it.
A man who wanted peace and action, and who set out to change the world, one protest and one compassionate act at a time.
He was the patron saint and loving shepherd of Rochester’s Latinos, and a man of truly historic significance in the city he served. His passing was not unexpected, and his glory will not be undeserved.
He lived true and he died true, and I am grateful for his ministry in this town and in my life.
And I will never go up Clinton Avenue without being warmed by his memory and example.