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Father Virgil’s Miraculous Recovery

Barney Talks Life, Death, and Religion with Fr. Cordano


Going to Die”: “The doctor told me, ‘You’re going to die.’” Fr. Virgil Cordano, pastor emeritus at the Santa Barbara Mission-and one of the town’s most beloved men-smiled when he recalled that emergency room drama at Cottage Hospital on April 20.

Fr. Virgil, 88, had a temperature of 107 and his blood pressure had skidded to 62. At 107, the average person’s brain is likely to be fried. His body was wracked with septicemia. Only because of the vigilance of a Franciscan Covenant volunteer-who happened to be a nurse at the hospital-is the parish rejoicing in Fr. Virgil’s recovery rather than holding his funeral.

Shocked at his condition that night, she and Brother Ernie rushed him to the hospital in a Mission auto. “If [the nurse] hadn’t taken me to Cottage, I would have died that night,” Fr. Virgil told me. But when I phoned the Mission Monday to learn the name of the nurse and give her credit, she declined, through a spokesman, to be identified. All I know is that her name is Kathy.

We’d be having his funeral instead,” one parishioner who visited Fr. Virgil at the convalescent hospital told me. There, as the medical staff worked on him, a doctor asked Fr. Virgil if-in case his heart stopped-he wanted to be placed on life support.

Of course,” the priest replied. “I told him I wanted to live.” He had a lot of living to do. According to Fr. Virgil the doctor asked him questions, such as who the President is and how to spell “world” forward and backward. The aim, apparently, was to see if the extremely high temperature had disabled his brain. “He thought I might be out of my mind.”

They worked long hours [on me] and the next day the doctor came in,” Fr. Virgil told me. The doctor said: “It’s a miracle. You’re back to normal.” Normal, but very weak from the raging infection; he blamed a urinary infection and resulting septicemia.

Friends joked that he recovered overnight because there was no room in heaven for him. “They’re building a new wing for him,” someone cracked. After a few days he was transferred to Mission Terrace Convalescent Home, where he praised the treatment and said he hopes to be allowed to return to the Old Mission this week.

At Mission Terrace I learned that stock market magnate Charles Schwab-a former Santa Barbaran-has donated $1 million to finance a community center bearing Fr. Virgil’s name at St. Vincent’s residential project, which is currently underway. Fr. Virgil recalled that he’d performed the ceremony at Schwab’s marriage and at the funeral services for his parents.

From his wheelchair in a pleasant room at Mission Terrace on Sunday, the priest expounded on his religious views. When I said that some have questioned why God allowed the recent Virginia Tech massacre, Fr. Virgil replied: “He’s not up there pulling strings. He puts the world in our hands. The world depends on what we do with it.”

The idea that God is controlling the world is “baloney,” he said. Fr. Virgil has little use for right-wing religious fundamentalists. “There is nothing worse than an uneducated religious fanatic. Religion is being true to yourself. Don’t discriminate against anyone.”

He reflected on his youth in an Italian family in Sacramento. “I dreamed about being a big league ballplayer. When I was a kid I knew more about baseball than religion, and maybe that’s still true.” Fr. Virgil was being modest, of course. He has a doctorate in theology.

In his memoir, Padre: The Spiritual Journey of Father Virgil Cordano, by Mario T. Garcia, there are photos of the young priest playing baseball and lining up with the St. Anthony’s Seminary football team in 1938. Father Virgil’s late brother became a multi-millionaire in business. “I would have too if I wasn’t a priest,” he said.

Fr. Virgil said he regretted that he’ll have to miss his annual outing with the Rancheros Visitadores riding group this Spring. When Fiesta rolls around, he’ll take his usual place onstage when the Mission opens Old Spanish Days, but most of the emcee duties will go to KEYT anchor, Paula Lopez. (He presided at her wedding with Superior Court Judge Frank Ochoa.) Yep, it’s still a small town in many ways.

Courthouse Protest: Look for an anti-News-Press-pro-Jerry Roberts-protest outside the Santa Barbara Courthouse on Wednesday before the 9 a.m. hearing on porn-filled hard-drives. The News-Press wants a judge to order the City and police to turn over drives from two of its computers, one of which reportedly contains adult and child pornography images. An attorney for ex-editor Roberts says the images are “contraband” and can’t legally be released by law enforcement to a private party. Even so, the hearing could provide a venue for the paper to try to wrongly link Roberts to the hard drives, even though the computer in question was apparently used by three prior editors and was purchased used by the paper.

New Orleans Jazz: Irvin Mayfield and his guys blew into UCSB Friday night, treating a big crowd at Campbell Hall to music from The Big Easy’s cultural gumbo. Mayfield-whose father drowned in the 2005’s Hurricane Katrina-leads the 16-piece New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. This is no neighborhood band with battered cornets. NOJO, led by the 30-year-old Mayfield, is composed of highly skilled musicians blasting out numbers with screaming trumpets, howling and honking saxes, and bongos, as well as lovely clarinet solos, gentle jazz, and exquisite piano playing. Holding their own while sitting in at the end of the performance were UCSB Jazz Band members, sounding like they’d easily fit in in New Orleans. Mayfield has been appointed the city’s cultural ambassador whose mission it is to tour playing authentic New Orleans music. UCSB was the last stop on the group’s 60-city tour that began in Maine last September.

Barney Brantingham can be reached at barney@independent.com or 805-965-5205. He writes online columns for The Independent on Tuesdays and Fridays and a print column on Thursdays.

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