For The Madera Tribune
Retiring Bishop Armando Ochoa is shown here on the right.
When it was announced recently that Bishop Armando Ochoa is retiring, my mind jumped instantly back 13 years to the lawn of Courthouse Park where a group of junior high school students, their families, and this writer had gathered.
We had formed a circle and were listening to the voice coming from the speakerphone. The party on the other end was in El Paso, Texas, and he was giving us a blessing, for he was the Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of El Paso, Texas.
At the conclusion of the prayer and blessing, we loaded up in two vans for El Paso. We were going on the most ambitious Madera Method Wagon Train trip yet. We were going to follow a 49er’s trail across Texas.
As we headed down Highway 99 with the kids, my mind returned to the first time I met the Bishop over a year prior.
I never dreamed that one day he would come to the Valley as the Bishop of the Diocese of Fresno.
Now this Texas adventure didn’t just happen. It took a lot of time to put it together. That is why wagon master John Diedrich, mule skinner Ray Barger, and I made three trips to the Lone Star State to reconnoiter the trip, which would take us across the wilds of West Texas from El Paso to Austin.
On our second trip, Deidrich happened to mention to me that he had a life-long friend from Oxnard who was then living in El Paso. I remember John saying something about his friend being a priest. That didn’t surprise me because Diedrich had been educated exclusively in Catholic schools.
Somewhere along the way John found time to call his friend and make an appointment to meet for breakfast in El Paso. When we arrived at the restaurant, the priest was sitting at the table waiting for us.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that there was something unusual about this individual. His personality was strangely alluring — not only was he sociable, but he was naturally warm. Then I noticed that he was being treated with dignity that was unusual even for Denny’s. The waitress gave him special attention, as did the manager.
I listened intently as the two old friends reminisced, and I was amused. Here was Diedrich, rough as a cob, without a guileful bone in his body, sporting his cowboy hat and plaid shirt with jeans — his work clothes. Across from him was his friend, also without guile, and wearing his work clothes — his clerical collar and black shirt, trousers, and coat. They were connecting in an authentic way as they talked about old friends.
Up to that point, I didn’t know he was a Bishop, but it didn’t take me long to learn. My suspicions were aroused when the clergyman told John that he was preparing to go to Rome for a meeting with the Pope. They were confirmed when the waitress made one of her many trips to our table to inquire, “Will there be anything else, Bishop.”
That’s when it hit me. John’s friend was a Roman Catholic Bishop! They continued their talk, and I sat there in awe. Then we finished our breakfast, and went on our separate ways.
In 3 or 4 months, Diedrich, Barger, and I were on another reconnoitering trip to Texas, and we met the Bishop again. This time after breakfast, he took us on a tour of the missions of Socorro and Isletta, two border towns south of El Paso. He also gave us a history lesson on the area along with some sociology and a little philosophy. I lapped it up.
When we parted that day, we made arrangements to hook up by phone on the day of our departure from Madera so Bishop Ochoa could pray for our safety and give us a blessing.
Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I must say I am not a Roman Catholic and most likely won’t be. I suppose that I am an incurable Protestant, but I must say I was certainly taken with Bishop Ochoa. Then I heard the news that the Pope had made him Bishop of the Diocese of Fresno — the spiritual leader of over a million Catholics.
When we returned to Madera, I got a chance to peruse Diedrich’s yearbook from Santa Clara High School, 1961. There they were — both of them — Armando Ochoa and John Diedrich.
The Bishop had been senior class president, a member of the school’s championship basketball team, and the Latin Club. It was obvious that he was a well-rounded scholar.
And there he was, over 40 years after graduating from high school, coming to the Valley. It wouldn’t have surprised me at all to see him come out and visit the Madera Method Wagon train to visit his childhood buddy, John Diedrich.
Alas, that didn’t happen. After all, Bishops are busy men, especially when they are coming into a new area. Nevertheless, I will never forget our visits with Bishop Ochoa.
I wish him all the best, and I will always admire him and anyone else who turns over his life to a cause so much greater than himself.