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More Than a Habit for Father Virgil

Barney Brantingham

By BARNEY BRANTINGHAM
NEWS-PRESS COLUMNIST

ather Virgil Cordano may not be older than God, but he's dean of the Old Spanish Days board of directors.

As a cloistered theology professor at the Santa Barbara Mission in 1961, Father Virgil found himself catapulted into the social milieu of Fiesta.

Father Virgil Cordano's Fiesta
service spans decades.

He'd been told by Franciscan officials to step out of what he jokingly calls "the Catholic ghetto," and become the Mission's public relations man.

"I didn't know a soul in town," he confessed.

The man who as a youngster aspired only to be a parish priest and "save the world" joined the Fiesta board and went on to become Santa Barbara's best-known clergyman.

He's walked with the town's everyday parishioners and the mighty, heard their confessions and kept their secrets.

By now he's the longest-serving Fiesta board member. Surprisingly, Father Virgil has never been El Presidente of Old Spanish Days, normally an honor awarded to those who climb the ladder of Fiesta service.

I asked why.

"They wanted me to be a few times," he said. But he declined. "I didn't have the time. Besides," he said, "he didn't think it would look right to have a clergyman heading the community celebration."

Look right? After many years of hosting La Pequeña Fiesta at the Mission to open Fiesta and appearing at countless Old Spanish Days events every season, I'd say he'd be perfect.

As we chatted over my yogurt and his luncheon soup at the Mission, the popular public priest turned to things theological.

The other face of Father Virgil is intellectual, a well-read man with a doctorate in Biblical studies. He first studied theology at the Mission, then became a professor and president.

But it's theology with a human face. Not only does he believe God is everywhere, but so intensely involved in human social behavior that He watches the World Series.

"He's got the best seat in the house."

Father Virgil does too, when La Fiesta Pequena -- The Little Fiesta -- kicks off on the Mission steps. As he has for years, he'll be narrating the event, under the glare of TV lights.

And he'll no doubt be conducting La Misa del Presidente, the special Mass during Fiesta. And as a board member attending every event he can get to, hard to miss in his brown robes.

After 36 years on the Fiesta board, how has Old Spanish Days changed?

"It's become more complex," he said. "It costs more." While at one time it was supported by nearly everyone in what was a small town, now not that many are involved," he said.

"But the heart of it, the essence is the same. It creates community. It brings together a diversity of people who otherwise would not get together. We learn that we have something in common."

"It's been very edifying."

Which gets Father Virgil to one of his favorite topics: "How can we discover that which unites us in a way that respects our diversity?"

We watched the never-ending parade of tourists visiting the Queen of the Missions. "The whole world comes through this place," he marveled.

Not in his wildest imagination could the kid from a poor Italian family in Sacramento have known that his calling to be a priest could have led to this.

It could have been far different. His brother became a millionaire building shopping centers.

His family cried when he left. "I wanted to be a parish priest and save the world." When he arrived at the Mission in 1942 as a 22-year-old student, it was run by stern German fathers.

"They were great disciplinarians," he laughed. "We were up at 4:40 a.m., with chapel until 7:30. Then breakfast to be eaten in strict silence, followed by studies.

Students and brothers tended the gardens and milked the cows. Somehow, 55 years have passed."

But for the smiling but introspective Father Virgil, it's been more than a habit.

[ El Presidente ]

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