Friends visited with Father George Crespin outside St. Felicitas Church in San Leandro in 1994 before he went on sabbatical.
Catholic VOICE FILE photo
The first priest of the diocese
Rev. George E. Crespin
The first priest ordained in the Diocese of Oakland is Rev. George E. Crespin. Father Crespin was among eight priests — three diocesan and five Dominicans — ordained June 9, 1962, by Most Rev. Floyd L. Begin, the first bishop of Oakland, at the newly designated Cathedral of St. Francis de Sales.
How was it decided which diocese you'd serve?
The document creating the new dioceses was issued at the end of January 1962. The dioceses were formed officially in April 1962. I was in the seminary scheduled to be ordained in June 1962. The decision was made on the part of the participating bishops that the seminarians would go to the diocese in which our parents were living. My parents were living in Berkeley at the time, at St. Joseph the Worker Parish, so I went to Berkeley.
Did you grow up in Berkeley?
I was born in New Mexico. We came out during the Second World War, 1943. During the Second World War we came to Oakland. We lived for a while in Oakland. After the war, my parents decided to go back to New Mexico. We only lasted a month. We came right back. This time we lived in Alameda. I entered the seminary from there in 1951. In '54 my parents moved to Berkeley and they lived there until my dad died in '68. So I was ordained out of St. Joseph the Worker. That was my first Mass.
The ordination took place at St. Francis de Sales, which had just been named the cathedral. I was in the first group; there were three of us, there were five Dominicans as well.
Alphabetically, you were the first?
I was the shortest, so I was the first one, too.
First Mass, June 10, 1962
It was at St. Joseph's. They had a beautiful children's choir at St. Vincent's School for Boys where I had worked several summers as a counselor, so I asked them to sing the Mass. It was a High Mass. It was the Feast of Pentecost, so the liturgy was very beautiful.
Second Mass, June 11, 1962
Monday morning, I said the 8 o'clock Mass. Some of my relatives had come from New Mexico, so they were in the congregation. The memory of that I have is how weird it was to be preaching to my mother, my father, my aunts and my sisters. I made a resolution to myself before ordination, even before the Council, that I would always give a homily whenever I said Mass. I started right the first day and with maybe two exceptions over the 50 years, I always have. Those two times were when I was sick. It's a good practice for me; a good point of reflection. It became more common later after the council.
Roots of his social activism
Probably come from family in the first place. My dad was a union man. … There's something in me I don't know where it comes from: Always root for the underdog. In our society. there are any number of candidates for that role.
Whether it was kids having trouble with their families or in school; kids who got picked on, immigrants; people with AIDS; gays; people who have a criminal record; unions, increasingly. It came instinctively. Preferential option for the poor with the preferential option for the underdog. My work with the Spanish-speaking through most of my years has reconfirmed that to this day.
On meeting Bishop Begin
While I was still in the seminary, they had a ceremony with Cardinal McIntyre from L.A. to put the pallium (symbol of bishop in charge of province) on Archbishop McGucken, so all the new bishops were there. I was class president. If you were class president in the last year, you were called the head deacon, so I was the spokesperson for the community in welcoming the cardinal and the archbishops and all the new bishops. Begin was very impressed that it was his man who was the head deacon.
He made up his mind that day, because that's how he made up his mind, quickly, that he was going to send me to Rome to study canon law. Fortunately, John Cummins, who was chancellor, intervened. He pleaded with Begin to give me some pastoral experience before sending me to Rome. He acceded to that and sent me to Holy Spirit in Fremont for 10 months, and then he moved me into the chancery. Eventually he put me in charge of it. He wanted to send me to Rome to study, but I really didn't want to go. I'd spent 11 years in the seminary waiting to do parish work and I could see if I went to Rome and got a doctorate, I'd be in that office for 25 years at least. He didn't understand it. He really wanted a career for me. I didn't want a career. I was more stubborn than he was. I didn't have to go; as a result I only spent 23 years working in the chancery instead of 25.