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Father David of Rock Hill's Catholic Oratory dies at 62

The Catholic students would show up at Winthrop University, nervous, teens away from home for the first time.

Yet before them came peace personified, in jeans and T-shirt, or running shoes and Hawaiian shirt. A smiling face waiting for them.

A priest from the Oratory, the Catholic organization just a couple of blocks away on Charlotte Avenue, but far more than a man from the campus ministry reading Scriptures.

Those students found a friend.

Father David Valtierra, who gave more than 35 years to York County at Catholic churches and Winthrop, died Friday after fighting cancer like he fought ignorance and warmongers, like he fought world hunger and meanness -- with love.

"Father David was one of the first people I met at Winthrop, and we stayed close my whole time there," said Julie Cook, 29, a Winthrop alum. "He was so welcoming. So inviting.

"I came from Pennsylvania, and I still live here. We chose to stay because the Oratory, through Father David, became my home away from home. He married me and he baptized my first child. A great, great man."

Valtierra, 62, was a man of faith whom students could confide in, talk to, go out to breakfast with. His way was to eat, and listen.

The Newman Community at Winthrop -- the Catholic student ministry -- had its first-ever alumni gathering this spring, and Valtierra was the guest of honor.

Many of the students, such as Marjorie Nix, had been gone for more than 20 years. But they came back to see Valtierra because, although the students left Winthrop, Valtierra remained a part of their lives.

"Father David turned bad days into good days for students at Winthrop and in the whole community," said Caity Baker, 23, a 2009 Winthrop graduate. "Father David was more than just a priest -- he was a friend."

Valtierra didn't just minister to Catholics at Winthrop. He was a mentor to young people of any faith.

"The cooperative ministries, what we call ecumenical ministries, would not be what they are without Father David," said the Rev. Bob Porterfield of Rock Hill, who led Winthrop's Baptist student ministry for years. "This was a man of great intellect who also put his mind to work with deeds. Social ministries. World hunger.

"He was a man of faith who realized we are all so much more alike than different."

True to his calling that people of all colors and nationalities and languages have far more in common than differences, Valtierra presided over Mass twice each Sunday at St. Mary's Catholic Church on Crawford Road.

He was the heart and soul of the place, proud of that parish's roots in the black community, and vital to the drive to build the new St. Mary's sanctuary on Crawford Road, which opened two years ago.

Valtierra also was director of The Oratory's Center for Spirituality, which brought in people of all faiths for prayer and reflection.

"The Center for Spirituality we have at the Oratory, that was his baby," said Father John Giuliani, a peer of Valtierra's for the past 35 years at The Oratory. "It promotes peace and prayer, a place of retreats and faith.

"It is for all faiths, and that was David -- an ecumenically minded man of great intellect. He really was a founder of the center, and that's part of his legacy."

Valtierra's other public legacy was a continuing push for peace.

There was an anti-war demonstration on the steps of Winthrop's big Byrnes Auditorium in the days before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 -- when so many called anyone not on the side of invasion un-American.

Valtierra stood up tall and told a crowd of hundreds of people to do what St. Francis taught: "Pray for peace and work for justice."

Starting in 2006, Valtierra helped found the minor in peace, justice and conflict resolution studies at Winthrop. A peace studies scholarship is named for Valtierra, and he even taught some of the courses.

"A great man, a brilliant man, a decent man," said Steve Rast, who attended mass at the Oratory on Monday and knew Valtierra for almost 20 years. "He worked with people of all faiths. He cared about all people.

"He was committed to peace."

Funeral plans

A vigil service for Father David Valtierra will be at 7 p.m. Friday at the Oratory, 434 Charlotte Ave., Rock Hill.

A burial Mass is scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday at St. Anne Catholic Church, 1694 Bird St., Rock Hill.