Joseph Louis Asturias was born in Guatemala City in 1908 to Manuel Asturias and Rosa Coblentz Braun, the owners of large coffee plantations in and around Antiqua and Guatemala City. In 1910, the reigning dictator attacked one of the prominent aristocrats in the region, and Joseph’s father, fearing for his family’s safety, decided to leave the country. Having studied at Heald’s Business College in San Francisco many years before, Manuel decided to return to California, and settled the family in San Jose.
Joseph attended Catholic schools in San Jose, and the apostolic school in Benicia, before joining the Dominicans and professing simple vows in 1932. He was ordained in 1937 by Archbishop John J. Mitty, and in 1939 he began his first assignment at Blessed Sacrament Church in Seattle, where he was fondly known as Fr. Joe.
In addition to his ministry at Blessed Sacrament, Fr. Joe served at St. Dominic’s in San Francisco, St. Vincent’s in Vallejo and on the itinerant preaching band, offering missions and retreats.
After spending three years in Alaska, he traveled south of the border with Fr. Vincent Foerstler, O.P., and Br. Raymond Bertheaux, O.P., organizing the Province’s missionary work in Mexico. When he began the task in 1963, he was 55 years old.
For the next six years, Fr. Joe offered his life in service to the Lord and the people of Chiapas. He acted as an ambassador between the indigenous peoples and the wealthy land owners, helping them to communicate and find peaceful solutions to their disputes. One of his great loves was the hospital in Altamirano, where the Presentation Sisters of California were the first nurses and administrators. Fr. Joe was a key figure in mollifying the local doctors who saw the hospital as a form of competition for their paying customers.
Eventually the harsh conditions of life in the mission became too much for Fr. Joe, so he returned to the United States, where he became the director of the Mission Foundation. The appointment occupied him for the last 21 years of his life. Throughout that time, he published a monthly newsletter detailing the progress of work in Chiapas, and commenting on the struggles of the indigenous people.
Even after the Western Dominican Province turned the Chiapas mission over to the Dominicans of the Mexican Province of Santiago in 1981, the Mission Foundation continued to be the main financial support for the mission hospital and for the Mexican priests and sisters who served there.
Not long before his death, Fr. Joe began another big project — restoring the sanctuary lamp that hung from the ceiling at Saint Dominic’s in San Francisco until the 1960s. Fearing the danger it might cause during an earthquake, the lamp had been taken down and put in storage. Fr. Joe designed a stand to support the lamp, and then raised the money to construct it.
Fr. Joe died on November 15, 1995, the Feast of St. Albert the Great. May the prayers of these two great preachers inspire many others to follow in the footsteps of Saint Dominic and proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ throughout the world.