Tuesday, February 20 , 2018, 6:30 am | Fair 38º


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Santa Barbara’s Icon, Father Virgil Cordano, Dies at 89

Throat cancer claims popular priest. Viewing Wednesday and Thursday with Mission Mass set for Friday.


Father Virgil Cordano delighted in First Communion celebrations, coaxing kids like Tom Pojunas to recite their vows for the parish community to hear. Altar girl Colleen Foley is in the background in this 1994 photo. (Pojunas family photo)

The Rev. Virgil Cordano, ubiquitously known as “Father Virgil” during his many decades as Santa Barbara’s most beloved priest, died Thursday evening. He was 89 and recently had been diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus.

Cutting a recognizable local figure with his slight stature, trademark dark glasses and long brown habit, Cordano arrived in Santa Barbara from Sacramento as a 15-year-old boy in 1939, to attend Catholic Franciscan high school at the now-closed St. Anthony’s Seminary.

He moved away for a while but returned to Santa Barbara in 1950 and never left. He had served the area as a seminary rector, parochial pastor, professor, author, Mission curator and pastor at the Santa Barbara Mission. For nearly four decades, he served on the board of directors for Old Spanish Days Fiesta, acting as a sort of spokesman for the annual event.

A strong believer in interfaith dialogue, Cordano was named Santa Barbara’s Man of the Year in 1988. In 2005, he was the subject of a book by Mario Garcia titled Padre: The Spiritual Journey of Father Virgil Cordano.

Close friends remember him as a person who was erudite yet down-to-earth, holy yet funny, deeply faithful yet all-inclusive.

“He made the Mission feel like everybody’s church, not just a Catholic church,” said Dolores Pollock, the retired 27-year head of Marymount of Santa Barbara, a K-8 Catholic school on the Riviera.

Father Virgil Cordano was a frequent visitor at nearby Marymount of Santa Barbara, where he officiated at the Eucharist on special occasions. (Chris Giles photo / Marymount of Santa Barbara)

Speaking from her home Thursday evening, Pollock recalled a story that captured his essence.

As a Christmas tradition, the Mission sets up a Nativity scene that includes live donkeys and sheep. One year, when a media photographer was taking an annual shot of the creche, Cordano, wearing his trademark habit, positioned himself in the tableau.

That year, he used the manger photo with him in it as his Christmas card. On the bottom was a message: “There’s room for everyone in the inn.”

Pollock said Cordano was the parish priest who married children he had baptized, and then later baptized the children from those marriages.

“It went on for many generations,” she said.

In a 2004 interview with the South Coast Beacon, Cordano himself joked about that pattern with reporter Karen Lee Stevens.

“I’m involved in the three most important times in people’s lives — when they are hatched, matched, and dispatched,” he said with a smile and a twinkle in his eye.

Cordano rarely took himself seriously and was one of the few Santa Barbarans who could match Larry Crandell, “Mr. Santa Barbara,” quip for quip.

“At various benefits I emceed over the years, I would shock the audience by asking Father Virgil why he never married,” Crandell recalled Friday. “His answer: Why please one woman and disappoint 50! The audience would always roar.”

Cordano taught seminarians, but he also enjoyed performing a “blessing of the motorcycles,” in which a long parade of leather-bound bikers would rumble up State Street toward the Mission for the event. When he was in his 70s, he came out to bless a new soccer field at Marymount, and then kicked the first ball.

Tim Taylor, a fifth-generation Santa Barbaran and this year’s Old Spanish Days El Presidente, had visited Cordano’s bedside Thursday afternoon at Mission Terrace Convalescent Hospital.

“Father Virgil held a very special place in the hearts of the board of Old Spanish Days,” Taylor said in a statement. “He joined the board in 1963 and was on stage at Fiesta Pequeña for many years, holding a leadership role with the committee that produced our opening show. He blessed every board meeting and the events he attended with wise words, encouraging all Santa Barbarans to come together in unity.

“He was truly larger than life in this town. He will be missed, but will always be in our hearts.”

Erin Graffy, author of the local bestseller How to Santa Barbara: The Insider’s Exposé and other books, said she knew Cordano all her life, starting when she was a little girl attending Marymount.

“I think he was really the icon of the whole city,” she said.

As the face of Fiesta, Graffy remembers, Cordano would kick off the celebration at the top of the Mission steps, where he would sometimes chide the crowd: “Boy, this is the closest I’ve seen many of you come to church in a long time!”

Graffy for a time also worked with Cordano in the Mission library archives, where she saw another side of him.

“A lot of people didn’t realize he was a scholar,” she said. “He had his equivalent of a Ph.D. in sacred theology.”

Calling him an “icon of Santa Barbara’s heartbeat,” the Rev. Michelle Woodhouse, retired senior associate rector at All Saints By-the-Sea Episcopal Church, said Cordano “had his finger on our pulse in good times and not-so-good times.”

“I personally appreciated his consistent ecumenical stance,” she said. “He was an all inclusive priest who didn’t let human-made societal and religious barriers restrain him from being a true pastor to us all. He also didn’t let our admiration and respect for him go to his head, rather he was a true servant of the servants of God. How refreshing!”

Cordano often said that he loved what he believed and condemned no one for their beliefs.

“My faith has taught me that everything human is God’s concern,” he said in the Beacon interview. “I try to be as much involved in the world as God is. There’s something meaningful and sacred, meriting our reflection in all that is human.

“God is present everywhere,” he continued. “He attends every football and basketball game ... he’s even at every bar. He doesn’t necessarily agree with that third, fourth or fifth drink, but he’s there.”

His parting words of advice for Beacon readers were to “be more reflective and welcome the challenge of every moment. It’s your best opportunity to promote the good of others and yourself.”

A little over a year ago, Cordano suffered a near-fatal episode after an infection set off a high fever of 107 degrees. He was rushed to the hospital.

But in recent months he had been active. This spring he participated in a training session for hospice counselors in which representatives of several religious traditions were invited to talk about their idea of the afterlife.

As late as a week ago he was weighing treatment options for his recent diagnosis of throat cancer.

“He has touched the lives of many, many people,” Pollock said. “I have no idea where they can hold his funeral. What place will be big enough?”

Worshipers may pay their respects at Cordano’s casket in the Mission sanctuary Wednesday and Thursday. A funeral Mass will be held on the Mission steps at 11 a.m. May 30.

Noozhawk readers are encouraged to leave reflections and remembrances in the comments section below. In addition, e-mail your favorite Father Virgil photos and a brief description to [email protected] and we’ll assemble them in a photo album on Noozhawk.

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