A good shepherd, Fr. Mike Mandala, former Verbum Dei High School president, leaves a legacy of enduring memories

By The Present Dei Editors, Staff Writers, and Moderator

An imposing, yet comforting presence behind the altar, the tall, lanky priest blessed the bread and wine. All eyes were focused upon the sacred ritual and the humble, friendly, and personable individual who practiced the consecration with joy, fervor, and faith.

With his brother at his side, former Verbum Dei High School president Father Mike Mandala, SJ passed away from complications of cancer at the Jesuit retirement community in Los Gatos, California on Sunday, September 9, 2018.

Fr. Mandala’s passion for helping and serving others was exemplified at VDHS, as he exposed Verbum Dei to the surrounding community with purpose and faith.  Under his leadership, community connections were both established and strengthened.

Fr. Mandala originally served as the community outreach liaison for VDHS.  In this role, he sought to promote the vision of Verbum Dei beyond the high school itself.  Fr. Mandala strengthened ties between Operation Progress, a community-building program of the Los Angeles Police Department, and Urban Compass, a tutoring and mentoring program.  He established and strengthened relations between these critical programs and Verbum Dei.

Fr. Mandala entered the Society of Jesus in 1964 and was ordained to the priesthood in 1977.  Prior to his assignment to Verbum Dei, Fr. Mandala was a noted community organizer involved with People Improving Communities through Organizing (PICO National Network).  He shared his faith and pastoral love at San Diego’s Christ the King Parish and Hollywood’s Blessed Sacrament Parish.

A man to build relationships, Fr. Mandala, known more informally as “Father Mike” or simply “Padre,” brought families, friends, faculty, staff, and students together.  Throughout his time in various roles at VDHS, “Padre” improved communication between the various departments of the institution.  His energy and enthusiasm for the Verb’s mission changed the campus as a whole.

Members of the community shared their thoughts and reminiscences with The Present Dei:

Mr. Timothy Moore, Math Department:

“Father Mike was one of my confessors; I’m not sure if you know what that means, but basically that is the priest you go to for confession. It’s really hard to find a good confessor, someone you can say whatever and know that at the end of the day you are still loved and they don’t hold anything against you or judge you in anyway shape or form. Going to confession with Father Mike was one of the greatest experiences that I have ever had as a Catholic and as a man: to feel the weight lifted off, the burden of your sins – those chains – and to know afterwards you are still loved.”

Francisco Padilla, Class of 2019:

“Probably the best memory I had of Father Mike was when he would attend the home games for soccer.  During my time at Verb, I have played on the soccer team every year. Every year, he would be right there cheering us on even when we were down. Father Mike was one of our biggest supporters and always believed in us.  We would always see him cheering us on in the stands, and it was great how he supported the team.”

Kaleb Dean, Class of 2019:

“Fr. Mike was the homie. I mean he had something special in him, like I could walk up to that dude and be like, ‘Hey what’s up? How you doing?’ – even be able to give him high fives and fist bumps. There’s a lot of people around this school that won’t do it because they say it’s disrespectful or rude because we’re supposed to be a Verb student and all these strict rules, but I think he lived life to the fullest.  He brought a smile to almost every face around him, man. I really wanted him to be there when I graduated … That would’ve been pretty cool.”

Ms. Antoinette Bowie, Director of Counseling:

“I was definitely saddened to hear about his passing. I would often interact with Fr. Mike in one capacity or another. We would see each other right outside this door right here, right outside my office. We would always meet at this intersection, and he would always say “Hi” kinda loudly cause, you know, Fr. Mike was loud, ya know? I would say “Hi, Father Mike,” and he would always hug me, so that’s always a memory: it feels like a tradition between us, ya know? Father Mike would hug everybody; he made sure that anytime he saw you and greeted you, that you never got away without being embraced. I guess in retrospect, at times I kinda didn’t feel like being touched, and I would be like “move Fr. Mike,” but there were some days where I felt like that just because I had an attitude, and so, ya know, that hug would help, help calm my nerves some.  He will definitely be greatly missed.”

Alex Gutierrez, Class of 2019:

“I remember my most memorable time with him was when we were on the Jesuit Retreat, and we went to visit him. He was already diagnosed with cancer, and we went to visit him in the residences where all the Jesuits stay, or at least most of them. And we got off the van, all us Verb kids, we went by, and he was barely getting out of the residence, and he waved at us. He looked skinny, he looked way skinnier than before, and it was kinda sad because of all the chemotherapy. And regardless of how he felt, he always waved, said ‘Hi,’ and asked us how we were.  Regardless of what his situation was, he was always optimistic. And that’s my most memorable time.”

Mr. Sam McGrath, Theology Department:

“Fr. Mike was one of the most joyful people.  He made everyone feel at home.  He had a big smile, but a bigger heart.  He had an infectious personality that could literally transform your day.  He was a good man, and he will be missed.”

Jeff Bonino-Britsch, Director of Operations:

“I have known Fr. Mike since he was Pastor of Blessed Sacrament Church, but developed our friendship when he came to work at Verbum Dei in 2014.  We shared office space in the Bungalow, so we often had time to share our lives on a deeper level.  Fr. Mike was a thoughtful, loving, and joyful person.  He was affectionate in his greetings to all he met,  – often with a hug and a hearty welcome.  We could ruminate on many of the problems of the world and how the Church operated within it.  I loved his passion for engaging the community and looking for ways to help others with the gifts and resources of the Jesuits and Verbum Dei.  And even in our moments of cynicism and frustration at world events, he could find the humor that helped me laugh at the situation and then send me forward with a renewed sense of hope and purpose to be part of the solution.  I loved Fr. Mike because he connected with me and so many others, on a deeper level than just work.  He cared for people just as they are – with all their quirks and foibles, family issues, personal philosophies, sinfulness, and sainthood.  He made me want to be a better man and filled me with hope.  I guess when it comes down to it, I am most thankful that Fr. Mike was a friendly companion on the journey and a true gift from God.”

Shawn Loera, Class of 2019:

“It was a friendly relationship between Father Mike and me. It’s very sad that he passed away, and, of course, without him most people or students would not have stayed at Verb. Because of him it made it hard for students to leave because they liked him so much.”

Joshua Aguilar, Class of 2019:

“I think he was a man of high integrity who stood by what he believed in.  He was full of compassion for those less fortunate.  He was a great man who would make time for you if needed.”

Ms. Cristina Cuellar, Director of the Corporate Work Study Program:

“Father Mike would stay in touch when I was sick. He was good at reminding me that I was loved and cared for. There was no selfishness there.”

Ms. Maribel Andrade, Student Resource Center Coordinator:

“Father Mike was my friend.  We had lunch together all the time, and when I was going through life-changing decisions, I would sit outside and I would just talk to him and ask him questions.  I really valued his advice – I really valued his advice – and when I was sick or when I was sad, he was always there.  He would text me, he would email me … always reached out, always called me on my birthday no matter where he was.  It’s been a little hard to come to work every day, and especially because I used to come and visit him in his office and this is now my office.  I have pictures of him up, and I just remember him telling me how proud he was of how much I’ve grown here.  I’ll just continue making him proud.”

Jayden Brownlee, Class of 2020:

“At the football games, Father Mike brought a calming presence on the field.”

Ms. Carolyn Westdal, Science Department:

“The first time I met father Mike he was very welcoming – gregarious. Every time I saw Father Mike during my first year at Verb, he was very welcoming and always had a kind word to share. Father Mike always took time to ask me how my day was going when he saw me walking in the hallways. Father Mike had a loud and contagious laugh. I will always remember how his laughter and smile could brighten up a room.”

Jose Fraire, Class of 2019:

“One time I was sent out of class … to the tables outside which had holes through it. Father Mike walked by and saw that I was struggling and handed me an envelope for me to write on, so I wouldn’t struggle. He was generous and kind to me, and he gave it to me smiling. I would never forget his kind deed.”

Mr. EJ Vieyra, Theology Department:

“Father Mike led by example, which is to say he led with an infectious joy that God wished him to do”.

Brandon Bello, Class of 2019:

“Father Mike, though not young in years, was young in spirit.”

Ms. Karen Chambers, Director of Campus Ministry:

“When I think of Father Mike, I think of how natural it was with him: just the stretched-out arms, hugs, kisses on the cheek. It is rare to find any person that was as natural as him. It is also rare to have a relationship with your boss like that. Everyone interacted with him naturally. He had an outpouring of love.  The most memorable memory was when my first grandmother passed away, Fr. Mike immediately showed support. He even came to the funeral and celebrated the mass. When my other grandmother died, I was actually with Fr. Mike when I found out. I just remember him hugging me as I cried. So, perhaps strangely, it was his support during other experiences of death that highlighted the caring and supportive person he was for me.  Unfortunately, cancer is playing a pretty relevant role in my life right now.  My friend’s father just died a few days before Fr. Mike. A priest I grew up with was just diagnosed with the same cancer as Fr. Mike. And my cousin is currently riddled with cancer throughout her body; she’s 32 with a two-year old daughter and, unless the doctors are proven wrong, her daughter will be growing up without her mom. Fr. Mike’s death is hard because not only did I lose him, but it reminds me of losses I’ve had in the past and losses I know are to come. However, as we (the Verb family) support each other through this loss, and I see people like Mrs. Hochman say “suck it!” to cancer. And I see my cousin who finds the determination to walk six-miles in a triathlon while wearing her Fentanyl patch after having not been able to get out of bed for a few days due to pain. And so I am reminded of God’s grace, which is always present, even and especially through experiences of suffering and death. And I am reminded that, as Richard Leonard says, ‘God does every day what God did on Good Friday – brings life from death.’ ”

Ms. Maria McDonald, Dean:

“My last new car I got blessed like a year ago, and I asked Padre to bless the car, and he said, ‘Oh, of course, of course I’ll do that.” And then it was getting towards the end of the day, and I kinda went by towards his office, and I reminded him. ‘Hey do you still have time to get my car blessed?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, yeah let’s go.” And then usually you know how they put on their vestments, and they have like holy water, so he’s like walking out to the parking lot, and he does put on his vestments, but he doesn’t bring out any holy water. And it’s kinda like, ‘O.K., how are we gonna do this?’ And then I had a water bottle, so he’s like, ‘O.K., well, before we do the blessing, tell me what you pray for with this blessing. What do you want with this blessing of the car?” And you know, typical, to keep everybody safe, to give me good guidance, and protect those in my car, my passengers, and those on the road that I share with. And he’s like, ‘Alright, do you still have water in your water bottle?’ ‘Yes.’ He says, ‘Uh. O.K.’, so he takes the water bottle, and he blesses the water in the water bottle, and then he shakes it on the car, and that’s how he blessed my car with my water bottle.”

Mr. John Stradley, English Department:

“By far, the most poignant memory I have of Fr. Mike is when he recounted the divine intervention that aligned his path with the accident scene involving late Verb student Nathaniel Mota, who was struck and killed by a hit and run driver as he crossed the street following a youth group meeting at his home parish.  God lovingly placed Fr. Mike at the scene of that most senseless death and equipped him to bless Nathaniel and to console and to comfort those who witnessed the heart-wrenching tragedy.”

Ms. Kirsten Hochman, Social Sciences Department:

“About eight months ago, Father Mike and I were walking down the 100 corridor together. It was during one of my free periods, and he was on his way off campus, so we had just a few moments together.  I mentioned to him that I was finally getting around to having my son baptized.  Max had just turned 10, and I realized I had let time get away from me.  I hadn’t been able to find the right god parent, and so I waited.  I told Father Mike I had picked Father George to be the godfather, but I was too scared to ask him since I was worried he’d say no (which in the end turned out to be a foolish fear).  Father Mike hugged me and said, ‘When you finally get around to asking him, I want to be the one to baptize Max.’ I was so thrilled and so honored that a person I admired so much wanted to be the one to baptize my son.  Sadly, we never made it happen.  Father Mike soon grew too sick to plan the baptism, and by the time I asked Father George to be Max’s godfather, Father Mike was hospitalized. Then not long after, he had passed away.  We are still going to move ahead to have Max baptized, Father George is still going to be his godfather, but Father Mike won’t be there: a moment he and I were looking forward to sharing.  This loss has left a gaping hole in my heart.  And I worry.  I worry for my own future and all of the things I may never be able to complete.  None of us pass from this world without leaving some things incomplete, but I am saddened to think of those broken hearts I will someday have to leave behind.  At the same time, I rejoice in this memory because it reminds me of the fact that Father Mike was not just my boss – he was my friend.  He saw me not just as a teacher but as a wife and a mother; he knew how much I love my son, and he knew what this baptism meant to me.  That was the kind of man he was: amidst the laughter and the humor was the loving human who saw the worth in each of us.”

Fr. Mandala will be remembered as a man who loved spreading the Word of God, helping his Verbum Dei community in as many ways as possible, and bringing the Watts community together.  Ministering to people in need, Fr. Mandala’s big smile, big laughs, and great love offered comfort and consolation.

A celebration of the life of Fr. Michael Mandala will take place at his Funeral Mass, Saturday, September 22, 10:00 A.M., at Blessed Sacrament Church, 6657 Sunset Blvd, Hollywood, CA.  Students, faculty, staff, and others will commute by bus from Verbum Dei High School to the funeral mass.  Students wishing to attend must obtain a permission slip from the administration office as soon as possible.

Burial services will take place on Monday, September 24, 10:00 A.M., at Santa Clara Mission Cemetery, 490 Lincoln St., Santa Clara, CA.

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