Jerry Cox, a former Catholic priest and founder of Resurrection Church in Santa Rosa who championed the welfare of local Latinos and later left the priesthood to marry a former nun who stole his heart, died of pneumonia Thursday surrounded by friends and family. He was 92.
Cox’s life was deeply influenced by both his Irish heritage and his activism for people of Mexican descent, a heritage and calling reflected in the title of his memoir, “Shamrocks & Salsa.”
“He was delightful,” said Rev. David Shaw, the current pastor of Resurrection Church on Stony Point Road. “He told great stories, he was a great character, but he also had this depth of spirit.”
Born May 30, 1925, Gerald F. Cox was the second oldest of seven children in an Irish Catholic family from Oakland. He entered the seminary as a high school freshman and was ordained by age 26.
He honed his Spanish language skills working with the Latino community in Oakland. After receiving his master’s degree in social work from Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., he returned to the Bay Area and served as assistant director of Hanna Boys Center in Sonoma Valley and later as chancellor of the Diocese of Santa Rosa, where he became active in local Spanish-speaking communities.
For a period he was the only Spanish speaking priest in the diocese, which stretches to the Oregon border.
Around 1967, Cox co-founded the California Human Development Corporation, a Santa Rosa- based nonprofit which assists local low-income and minority residents.
The same year, he became founding pastor of Resurrection Church, which was intended to serve a largely Latino population without a clear parish at the time. The church in west Santa Rosa continues to be a major community hub for Spanish-speaking residents of the city.
“He had a very deep sense of social work and social responsibility,” Shaw said.
His life and career were soon altered with the arrival at the new parish of a young nun 20 years his junior.
“He used to tell people ‘In 1968, I had a heart attack and her name was Kathy Synder,’ ” said his wife, the former nun, speaking Saturday from their home in Boonville.
After three years at the new parish, Snyder left to join the Peace Corps in Honduras. When she returned, Cox had left the priesthood and they were married 1973.
They were a part of the United Farm Workers movement, and Cox organized and marched with labor leader Cesar Chavez.
The pair had two daughters and in 1983 moved the family to Navarro in the Anderson Valley. They bought the Floodgate Store, selling sandwiches and beer to locals and loggers, but it was “just a disaster in terms of finances,” Kathy Cox said.
They turned the small store into a café for a few years, and later were briefly investors in the Boonville Hotel.
But Cox eventually returned to his calling of helping others. He became the director of Indian Creek Ranch, a teenage drug and alcohol residential treatment center, and executive director of Nuestra Casa, a Latino-focused social service organization in Ukiah.
Later, after the couple spent four years living in Hong Kong, Cox became a bilingual counselor to students in the Anderson Valley School District, a job he loved and held until he was 85.
He was recently hospitalized, and when it was clear he was ailing and had little time left, the family moved him home, where a steady stream of well-wishers visited. On Thursday, as he was fading, a group of the faithful gathered at his bedside and sang the rosary to him in Spanish.
It seemed to soothe him, and toward the end of the prayer, he quietly stopped breathing, his wife said.
“It was just the perfect way for him to go,” Kathy Cox said. “He lived a real full life on his terms. What more can you ask for?”
In addition to his wife, Cox is survived by his daughters, Rebekah Rocha of Windsor, who is the principal of Cesar Chavez Language Academy, and Mary Anne Cox of Ukiah.
A funeral is scheduled Friday at Resurrection Church, with an Irish wake to follow, and a celebration of life in Boonville later.
You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 707-521-5207 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @srcitybeat.