The first priestly ordination is a major milestone for any diocese. When the Diocese of Orange held its first ordination in 1978, Father Enrique Sera had the privilege of being the first priest ordained in the two-year-old diocese. Forty-four years later, he is ready to retire.
Father Sera asked his parish, St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Fullerton, not to make a big deal of the event. However, the parish will extend a farewell to him with a Night of Baseball event Wednesday, June 29, at Angel Stadium of Anaheim, the night before his retirement.
Priests never actually retire from ministry, but only from administration, Father Sera noted. He is hoping to spend his first five or six months of retirement on sabbatical and then looks forward to focusing on the ministries that originally attracted him to the priesthood.
“But I never want to attend another HR meeting; I never want to attend another budget meeting,” he said. “They can run that without me.”
JOURNEY TO FREEDOM
Father Sera was born in Cuba in 1950, nine years before the rise of Fidel Castro’s regime, and discovered his priestly vocation at a young age.
“Ever since I was a little boy, my mother would take me to church. I guess I was mesmerized by the whole mystery of the bells and the smells and all that kind of stuff,” he said. “I had a very good exposure to the catechetical faith through the (De la Salle) Christian Brothers in Havana … and so I knew that my Catholic faith was strong.”
As the political climate changed in Cuba, his vocation created an added incentive for his parents to get him into the United States.
“Even as a kid, I had problems with the communists, because I wouldn’t shut up,” he recalled. “I said (to my mother), ‘You know I want to be priest; you know I’m not going to be happy here.’ And she said, ‘Yes, I know.’”
His parents arranged to get him an exit visa through Operation Peter Pan, a covert program led by Father Bryan O. Walsh in Miami that enabled approximately 14,000 unaccompanied children to escape from Cuba into the United States from 1960 to 1962.
While Father Sera arrived in the United States in 1962, his parents were not able to join him until 1966. In the meantime, he was sent to a foster family with six children of their own in Ellinsburg, Washington.
“It was just wonderful,” Father Sera said. Although Ellinsburg was a small town of about 6,000 people at the time, it had its own state university and was home to the biggest rodeo in the northwest.
“If I was going to be enculturated in the American culture,” he said, “that was the best place to do it.”
ADVENTURES IN MINISTRY
Father Sera’s first assignment as a priest was at St. Joseph in Catholic Church in Placentia, a smaller parish at the time comprising a variety of cultures. As the Spanish speaking priest at his parish, he was highly involved in ministering to the Hispanic community. He also enjoyed getting to know a few of the professors from California State University, Fullerton, who were parishioners at St. Joseph.
“It was a good place to cut your teeth in terms of pastoral ministry,” said Fr. Sera.
As a priest at St. Mary’s a few years later, Father Sera received permission from the pastor to study marital counseling at CSU Fullerton. Although he initially only planned to take the classes that would be most relevant to ministering to married couples as a priest, he eventually earned a master’s degree and a marriage and family therapist license.
“It made me much more facile in dealing with human problems – much more open,” he said.
He served as a Navy chaplain from 1986 to 1999, taking him to destinations including Puerto Rico, Panama and Bermuda.
“Everyone else saw it work. I saw it as the greatest amount of fun I was having – all these sailors and Marines and everyone else and going to all these different places.”
Several building projects were completed under Father Sera’s watch, including the construction of a new $4 million church building at Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Santa Ana and an $8 million renovation at Saint Joachim Catholic Church in Costa Mesa.
“It was really fun, because I was working with high type-A personality guys in the construction business and architecture,” he said.
Father Sera expressed his appreciation for Bishop Kevin Vann’s Diocesan leadership and the concentrated effort within the Diocese to foster fraternity among the parishes.
“Today we are very much aware that we are a brotherhood,” he said.