Writing Father Virgil’s Life Story

Father Virgil Cordano
Paul Wellman

For almost eight decades, Fr. Virgil made his mark on our city by his unselfish service to the community as a spiritual and civic leader. I had the unique opportunity to record many of these contributions by writing his life story, Padre: The Spiritual Journey of Father Virgil Cordano (Capra Press, 2005).

We worked for three years on this project, taping some 40 hours of interviews. At one point, I visited every week, and we would sit and talk about his life for an hour or so. I looked forward to these visits. Fr. Virgil was always ready for me, and it didn’t take much prompting from me for him to pick up where we had left off. I described our working relationship in the introduction to Padre but would like to reflect some more now that he’s gone.

First and foremost was his love for his family, and especially his mother, Mar-a. She was everything to him. As, for the most part, a single mother, Mar-a brought up Virgil and his two brothers, Jim and Ray. Always wanting to please her, when Fr. Virgil (then George Cordano) decided that he had a vocation to become a priest, he agonized about telling her because he did not want to upset her.

As a teenager, he left his hometown of Sacramento to come to Santa Barbara and begin the long road to becoming a Franciscan friar. But he knew his mother really did not want him to go. He suffered major homesickness. For almost six years, he did not see his mother due to the rigid schedule of his seminary training. Imagine not seeing your mother as a teenager and young adult for so long!

Paul Wellman (file)

Even after his ordination as a priest in 1945, Fr. Virgil did not often see his mother, but he always kept her and his brothers in his prayers. His mother was proud of what Fr. Virgil became, and that was the biggest tribute he ever received. In the prologue to Padre, Fr. Virgil movingly wrote, “She gave me life that I might one day enjoy the fullness of eternal life with her.”

Although agonized over being separated from his family, Fr. Virgil was consoled by his new family, the Franciscan Order. He loved being a Franciscan, loved wearing the brown robe as a symbol of his commitment to God, and never regretted his decision. He gave his whole life to the Order, and never gave up hope, even though he was pained over those Franciscans who did not live up to their vows. He knew that no one was perfect and everyone was human, including himself, and he forgave others as he hoped others forgave him. He suffered the falls of his brothers because he loved them.

Fr. Virgil as an intellectual also struck me. An excellent student who obtained a doctorate in divinity studies, he possessed a curious mind and read widely. He talked often about key books in his life and was a frequent customer at Chaucer’s Bookstore, where everyone knew him and catered to his interests in books on religion and spirituality. Yet he was a people’s intellectual, always able to link his intellectual interests with the Santa Barbara community.

He never believed that his responsibility as a priest was only to Catholics-he reached out to people of all backgrounds and faiths. Fr. Virgil was the symbol of ecumenism. He believed in the sanctity of all religions and even of those of no religion. For him, everyone was a child of God.

He often said to me, “Nothing human is foreign to God.” He wanted everyone to recognize each other as part of the community of God. That’s why he embraced opportunities such as Fiesta that brought together people from diverse backgrounds. For him, Fiesta was a way of creating community. He respected differences but also understood and stressed what human beings held in common. It was this sense of community that genuinely made him grieve for the victims of the failures of some of his fellow clergy.

Father Virgil at Fiesta Piquena 2007
Paul Wellman

Writing his life story also showed me Fr. Virgil’s fantastic sense of humor. What wonderful and funny stories he shared with me as he shared with others! I remember laughing when he explained how he and some of the seminarians went to the Santa Barbara Public Library to look up names for babies in order to come up with their new Franciscan names. He felt lucky to have chosen the name Virgil while others chose less attractive names such as Benignus. I laughed when he told me about the many times he was asked if he missed being married. “Why marry one and disappoint 50!” he said, with that great twinkle in his eye. We had a hearty laugh when he told me about the two streakers who passed behind him as he was blessing the Rancheros Visitadores. When he noticed them, Virgil spontaneously said, “I have a word from the Lord for those two gentlemen: ‘Repent, for your end is in sight.'”

It was an honor and privilege to have worked with Fr. Virgil on his life story, a tale we all should cherish of a man who gave so much to this community. His death should remind us to move from self-centeredness to otherness and to live a life of giving to others.

Fr. Virgil, I’m sad that I did not see you much the last few months, but I will always have you in my memory and in my heart. Look over me and all of us.


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