By Iliana De Lara
SAN DIEGO — “I feel like the hand of God is working through me and I think, ‘It’s great to be here.’”
Lupe Ríos never imagined that instead of picking strawberries and apples, like he did with his father when he was small, he would be able to do what he likes most, praising God with his music.
At age 34, he leads the music ministry at Mary, Star of the Sea Parish in La Jolla and frequently provides the liturgical music for special Masses celebrated by Bishop Robert McElroy. In addition, he’s a songwriter and musical arranger, and has recorded three albums.
His journey to this work is an unlikely one.
The 11th of 12 children, he arrived in the United States with his family when he was a child. A native of the Mexican state of Jalisco, the Ríos family settled in the Yakima Valley, Wash., where they could work in agriculture.
Music was not a part of the family’s life, except for singing at church in Mexico. It was his high school teachers that introduced him to the world of musicals.
“Musical notes were just dots on a page for me, but I could sing any note the teacher sang,” he said.
By the 11th and 12th grades he was playing the lead role in the school’s plays, and being selected to represent the state of Washington in a jazz tournament.
“None of that filled me,” he said. “What I liked was being at Mass. What’s better than being with other people who want to come together to worship God.”
In time, Ríos joined the choir at a parish, something that made his mother happy since she had always wanted him to be a priest. And from there he began to play musical instruments.
He taught himself how to play the guitar to assist the parish. His mother was so pleased that he was helping at Mass that she bought him an electronic organ for $5 at a garage sale, what he called the best investment in his life. The purchase of a piano followed.
He was accepted at the University of Washington in Seattle to study international relations with a full scholarship.
It was at this point in his life, he said, that he drifted a bit from the Church. He had many questions as he was growing up and he was not getting them answered.
One day he visited the Newman Center, which was led by Dominican priests.
“Everything was sorted out there,” he said.
“Father José Pimentel, who to this day I consider a good friend, answered so many of my questions in a way that no one else had, with so much love, so much patience, so faithful to the Church.”
One day, Father Pimentel invited him to sing the Liturgy of the Hours with the Dominican clergy.
“I was fascinated the first time I listened to (Gregorian chants),” he recalled. “It’s as if a dimension had opened up to the sky. It was a solemnity, a mystery, a calling so strong that I thought that I wanted to be a priest.”
Ríos began daily visits to the Newman Center and in time became its choir director.
“I could not sleep thinking of the songs I was going to select for Sunday.”
One day, a Dominican friend told him that Mission San Luis Rey Parish in Oceanside was looking for a music minister. And that’s how in 2011, at the age of 24, Ríos arrived in California.
The job fit him like a glove. The parish serves a multicultural congregation, with Anglo, Latino, Filipino and Samoan faithful. He’s fluent in English and Spanish and speaks a little Italian, Portuguese and Latin. And he has international sensibilities given his college studies.
“San Luis Rey gave me the honor of serving as music minister, and not just for the Latino community, but for everyone.”
He recalled his first Easter at the parish.
“I invited all of the parish’s choirs,” he said, noting that it was the first time more than 100 people had come together in the choir loft.
“‘Wow! That’s what I wanted!’” he recalled the pastor saying.
“That’s when I knew that my way of doing things was working, because we were opening doors for everyone,” Rios recalled.
In 2016, in a quest to find an environment more suited to his young age, he decided to move to San Diego.
Soon he met Father James Rafferty, then the pastor of Mary, Star of the Sea Parish in La Jolla. He was looking for a music minister for his parish, and he invited Ríos to the post.
Today, he also leads the parish’s youth ministry, and more recently became the music teacher at its school, Stella Maris Academy.
“I joked that he is like the ‘Pied Piper’ as the kids follow him and joyfully learn about music and develop their own gifts,” said Father Patrick Mulcahy, who became the parish’s pastor after Father Rafferty retired.
“Several of our school kids have volunteered to be cantors because of the encouragement from Lupe and their trust in him.”
If that did not keep him busy, the tenor is often invited to sing at major diocesan Masses celebrated by Bishop McElroy.
As the diocese’s director of Liturgy and Spirituality, Noreen McInnes coordinates these special Masses. She said that Ríos’ formation in the Dominican community has shaped him spiritually and musically.
“His faith shines forth in his excellent music skills,” she said. “Though Lupe’s liturgical music is uplifting to listen to on its own, he always ministers in a welcoming manner, inviting the assembly to join him as one voice in the praise and worship of our God.”
She and Father Mulcahy noted that Ríos spends much time preparing for the Masses. McInnes said that as the cantor for Bishop Ramón Bejarano’s episcopal ordination, Ríos researched all the hymns he requested.
“To honor the roots of Bishop Bejarano, Lupe learned to sing the selections in the authentic style of the regions of Mexico where they originated,” she said.
Ríos said he considers it an honor to contribute to these Masses.
“I can now see the hand of God preparing me for these situations. He gave me a thirst for Him, to follow Him and to serve Him. And I do it with a lot of love.”
More information about Lupe Ríos, who has recorded three CD’s, is found on his website, www.lupedifranco.com.