For 44 years, Fr. Ted Pfeifer, O.M.I. served the poor of Mexico, risking his life to fight for justice against powerful drug cartels.
When he initially arrived in the mission village, he was overwhelmed by the number of sick. Many people died in the early days, including children. The children were not vaccinated in those days because there were no doctors nor any medication. Seeing an immediate need, Fr. Ted got to work right away becoming a “doctor priest” for the people.
He reported to the health officials in Salina Cruz the number of children who had died looking for assistance. They agreed to give the mission the infant vaccines needed. Fr. Ted and his mission volunteers had to carry them for days on horseback and ensured that they were kept cold. The vaccines were useless if they became warm and ice was always a problem. The volunteers moved as fast as possible to administer the vaccines.
In 1972 Fr. Ted built a small clinic with six rooms and a bath. Besides caring for the sick, he and his volunteers delivered hundreds of babies.
Beginning in the early 1980s, drug cartels began moving their operations to the remote mountain valley. It was incredibly lucrative to cooperate with the drug lords, and many locals felt they had no other choice—they had no money to buy food, clothing or medicine. By raising marijuana, they earned ten times the income they would earn growing corn and beans.
Of course, problems began. Crime in the area rose and murders were rampant. People were afraid to travel and to go out after dark. The hauling of truckloads of drugs was a daily event. Every day planes were flying in with guns and leaving with drugs. The frequent killings of innocent people continued.
To aid his congregation, Fr. Ted began keeping a list of those who were being killed. Families told him the names and dates of the murders – and also, many times, the names of those responsible. To bring justice to the drug cartels, Fr. Ted documented all this information with places, names and dates. When the list grew to 150 incidents, he gave it to the proper authorities in Mexico City.
He was scared. He knew he was risking death but also remembered who had sent him there, and the powerful lessons Jesus had given to every priest in the parable of the Good Shepherd: the hireling flees when the wolves come, but the shepherd stays to protect his sheep. He knew there was danger ahead.
His fears of retaliation became a reality on Sunday, March 8, 1987. It started out as a routine day. Fr. Ted celebrated Mass at 8:00 a.m., ate breakfast, then left in the Jeep bound for the city of Oaxaca for an annual retreat.
About an hour’s drive out of El Camaron, the Jeep was climbing high in the mountains when a sudden loud noise startled him. As pieces fell from the truck’s ceiling, he realized that someone had fired at him from the other side of the road—he could smell the gunpowder.
He remembered it felt as if his truck had continued on the highway on its own. He had grabbed his rosary to pray. Several miles down the mountain he pulled over to inspect the vehicle and the damage it had sustained. Just above where his head had been, Fr. Ted found 12 bullet holes in the roof.
“The days, and especially the nights were rough times for me, as I always considered, ‘Are they coming again?’ I was driving the Jeep on bad trails, thinking they could be anywhere. I had stated carrying a small piece of consecrated Host in a very small waterproof tin in my shirt. ‘Dear Lord,’ I said, ‘if I go down we both go down.’”
Father Ted suffered a major stroke in 2011 and was forced to return to San Antonio, Texas for medical care. But he never forgot his beloved parishioners in the mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico. In San Antonio Fr. Ted took part in Sacramental duties such as hearing Confessions. He also opened a small carpentry shop where he made items like tables, shelves and birdhouses.
On April 19, 2018 Fr. Ted passed away peacefully at the Oblates’ Madonna House, a community for elder and infirmed Oblates. His younger brother, and greatest admirer, was there when he took his final breath.
Father Ted was buried at the Oblate Cemetery. At his burial, a small Teddy Bear was put on his grave, an appropriate symbol for the fatherly Teddy Pfeifer, who was also a bear of a man when it came to helping the poorest of the poor.