Fr. George Salazar knew his calling at a very young age. And those who knew him best might say one of his own gifts was to help others know and follow theirs.

Salazar passed away on April 26 after battling several health issues. The congregation he led at Immaculate Conception Parish for three decades is mourning the loss of their beloved pastor. 

“He was our priest, our mentor, our friend,” said Cathy Villegas, director of the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults at Immaculate Conception. “Father was a great listener. … He would give (people) his time, speak with them. … He’d joke and laugh. … He knew us personally.”

Villegas also helps manage the church’s social media. In just a week, a post she made announcing Salazar’s death accrued more than 500 shares and more than 600 comments. 

“This was a man of God,” one commenter wrote. “He’s the reason I’m a Christian.”

“(Salazar) was the perfect example of a priest truly caring about his parish and community.”

“Now enter into your master’s glory.”

Villegas said she first met Salazar in 1996 and, over the years, witnessed his devotion to his congregation firsthand.

“He worked tirelessly, all the way to his death,” Villegas said of Salazar. “He had a strong work ethic.” She said Salazar officiated two Masses, Monday through Friday, and kept a full schedule on the weekends.

Along the way, Salazar helped others realize and follow their calling, Villegas said.

“He helped other people be who God wanted them to be,” Villegas said. “It’s like he could see, and he was going to help you get there.”

Such was the case with Fr. Adrian Sisneros. When Sisneros was a child, Salazar would ask him and his twin brother, Andrew, “how are the borregas (sheep)?”

Although Adrian and Andrew grew up on a farm, their father, Jimmy Sisneros, said the question was odd nonetheless.

“We didn’t have sheep,” said Jimmy Sisneros, who also works at Immaculate Conception. “But now we know, (Salazar) was implying one (of the twins) would be a priest.” Adrian went on to follow that calling, and he is now a priest in Moriarty.

Villegas said Salazar had a keen sense for his own calling as a priest at a very young age.

“He knew at (the age of) 7 he was going to be a priest,” Villegas said. It was at that age when Salazar felt the calling to become a priest. It happened while he was attending Mass with his mother and brother. 

He tried to tell his mother right away, but she told him to wait until after Mass. After services, Salazar’s mother offered him and her other son ice cream for behaving so well at church.

“I don’t want ice cream,” Salazar protested. “I just want to tell you something important.”

Salazar then went to tell his grandmother about what he knew would be his calling. After he told her, she gave him a hug.

“If it’s going to be, it will be,” she told her grandson.

“She understood,” Villegas said of Salazar’s grandmother. “(Priesthood) has been his life.”  

Villegas and Sisneros recalled Salazar’s big voice, which did not need a sound system to reach all those who attended services. He could sing, Villegas said, he could harmonize and write songs. Salazar could cook, Villegas noted, often sharing with his congregants. He was a fan of the Dallas Cowboys.

An avid gardener, those who have been around and about Las Vegas for a while may have seen photographs of Salazar’s homegrown vegetables and flowers.

Salazar is also remembered for his sayings. Villegas would start to quote one and Jimmy Sisneros would finish:

“How do you love a skunk?” Salazar would ask. The answer? “From a distance. Sometimes, you love them from a distance.”

“Those who do wrong to us … pray for them. … Bless them.”

“It’s not in the ‘I do,’ it’s in the doing.”

“Love is not love until you give it away.”

“Let your actions speak for you.”

Congregants will not only remember Salazar through his sayings, his sense of humor and his culinary skills, but also in the changes made around Immaculate Conception. Devoted to St. Joseph, Salazar had a statue of the saint placed on church grounds. Salazar helped coordinate the restoration of a building near the church. The building now has a dining area and a kitchen. It is used for a number of gatherings, including religious education.

The building is named after Salazar.

Fr. George Salazar was born on Aug. 27, 1940. He attended seminary in Santa Fe and in the state of Missouri. He was ordained on May 13, 1967. 

Salazar remained close to home for almost his entire priesthood, taking on roles throughout Northern New Mexico. He led the congregation at Immaculate Conception for 33 years. 

“Father stayed in his hometown where he was born,” Villegas said. “That’s rare for a priest.”

Villegas visited with Salazar not long before he passed away. She said it was hard for him to pray in his final days, but he would still meditate. She recounted that Villegas had told her he was ready. 

“In the end, I saw how he surrendered to God,” Villegas said. “He taught us to surrender to God.”

Services for Fr. George Salazar will be held at New Mexico Highlands University’s Wilson Complex on Tuesday, May 9, at 10 a.m.

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