The Rev. Hector Villegas, who died suddenly Friday after a short illness, was a deeply spiritual man with a ready smile, a penchant for working out and a well-honed sense of humor, parishioners and fellow priests said Saturday.
"Whenever he saw you with a sad face, he would always try to make you laugh, break the ice and start a conversation with you," said Carlos Artea, who worked with the Rev. Villegas for four years in the youth program at St. Joachim Catholic Church in Newman.
"He was always making us laugh," said Fabiola Ballesteros, who worked for the Rev. Villegas at St. Stanislaus Catholic Church in Modesto. "He was from Tijuana, which is too crowded and not a beautiful city, but he would call it the 'holy land.' He had a rich sense of humor."
The Mexican-born priest worked as a seminarian at St. Jude's in Ceres, was ordained in the Stockton Diocese in 2002 and began his work as a priest at St. Stanislaus in Modesto under the Rev. Bill McDonald. When McDonald took a leave of absence in 2005 because of stress and medical problems, the Rev. Villegas became the interim pastor until he was sent to the Newman parish in 2007.
"He really didn't have too much experience in parish administration, but he was very dedicated," said Bishop Stephen Blaire. "When he celebrated his 10th anniversary as a priest (last summer), the parish gave him a wonderful celebration, and I could just see their love and appreciation for him."
Sandra DeCasso of Ceres said the Rev. Villegas "was a very good speaker in his homilies and always gave great messages" at St. Stanislaus. She said the family remained close to the priest after he was sent to Newman.
"We were blessed with having him as a friend of the family," she said. "He'd come over for dinner, and he was there when my first son was born. He was very spiritual and always gave us good advice in our marriage. He was a great counselor, always putting the Lord first."
But, she added, "he was also a jokester. He would always give my husband, Miguel, a bad time about his belly and not exercising. Father Hector was a member of a gym and worked out with weights."
In fact, Blaire said, "I used to kid him about going to the gym and say, 'If I can't reach you at the parish, what's the number at the gym?' "
The Rev. Villegas had his serious side as well.
"Father Hector was a true man of God," said Tom Byrne, a member of St. Stanislaus. "He was there for people in the best of times and the most difficult."
"He was very devoted to the mission of being a priest," said Ana Artea, who was the altar server coordinator at St. Jude's when the Rev. Villegas served there as a seminarian. "He was devoted to knowing the liturgy and to teaching the children. They loved him."
McDonald, still on leave from the diocese, called from his home in Costa Rica.
"He was to me a loving and faithful brother who generously stood in the gap when illness and burnout called me to take time out. I'll always treasure his memory," McDonald said.
The Rev. Villegas' death at age 48 he would have celebrated his 49th birthday today came as a shock to many. He entered Doctors Medical Center on Feb. 21 complaining of breathing problems and died eight days later of organ failure, a hospital statement said.
"I'm still stunned," said Ballesteros. "All week, I couldn't make it to the hospital, and then when I went (Friday), three priests were there checking with the family about funeral arrangements. They told me he was dying; that these were his last hours. I was completely shocked."
"I don't think anybody knew that he was as sick as he was," Blaire said. "There was nothing that would lead one to begin to think about (his death)."
The Rev. Ramon Bejarano, pastor of St. Stanislaus, was one of several diocesan priests who went to seminary with the Rev. Villegas in Tijuana.
"I'm going to miss his friendship and his laughter," Bejarano said. "He was a young man with a lot of energy. As a priest, he was always willing to help people. He was loved by so many families."
The Rev. Villegas is survived by his mother, Evangelina Villegas, and two sisters, all of Tijuana.
Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2012.
AT A GLANCE
Services for the Rev. Hector Villegas:
Memorial Mass: 7 p.m. Tuesday, St. Stanislaus Church, 1200 Maze Blvd., Modesto
Vigil: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, St. Joachim Church, 1121 Main St., Newman
Funeral Mass: 11 a.m. Thursday, St. Joachim Church