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Pedro Pan Stories
Describing such an important figure as Monsignor Walsh in a few lines is not an easy task. However, I would like to write about how I met him and the impact that meeting had in my life. This will be my way of honoring him on the tenth anniversary of his death.
The late Elly Vilano Chovel introduced us. She had great admiration for him and always talked about him. I had no idea of what he had done for the Cuban children, his generosity or his work. I had heard a lot about him but at the time Operation Pedro Pan was going on I was still in Cuba and I wasn’t able to leave Cuba until 1980.
My first impression of him was that he was a very humble man and very easy to talk to. You couldn’t miss his 6’4” stature and his strong Irish accent. All this piqued my interest and I decided to find out more about his apostolate, not only with the Cuban children but with many other persons and projects as well.
After that first introduction, I met him in two or three more occasions. The last time I saw him I was very lucky. It was very early and he still didn’t have as many people around him as he always had. I had the opportunity to talk to him for a few minutes in a more intimate way.
He was a very intelligent man with a deep and intense look in his eyes that could see inside you. He gave me a practical lesson in religion then and there. I am usually a very reserved person but I felt that he was a person that I could trust to hear my confession. I told him: “I am not a practicing Catholic but I graduated from the Maristas School in la Vibora, Havana. I have always kept my faith and my hope alive. Today, while talking to you, I feel that though I was not one of your Pedro Pan kids, I also suffered the separation from my loved ones whom I did not see in so many years that it seemed centuries. I feel that everything that I suffered was not in vain, it was for our children and grandchildren that are here. By living such an exemplary life, you have given me a great lesson about life and about faith.”
He gave me his blessing and we shook hands. That was the last time I saw him. For me, that day was a great lesson in life. That is why Msgr. Walsh will always live in my thoughts and in my life.
(last name undisclosed upon request)
Bryan and I first met in 1935 when we both enrolled in first grade at the “Model National School” (in Limerick City, Ireland). We were friends all through primary school, until we went on to high school. Bryan enrolled in “The Crescent”, staffed by Jesuits – and I went to the Irish Christian Brothers, on Sexton Street. We were separated all through high school years – and did not meet again until 1948 when we both entered the “Apostolic School” – a two-year program of Philosophy, prior to the four-year course of Theology, in preparation for ordination to priesthood.
You should know that Bryan, in his younger years, had a minor but noticeable speech defect. This was a source of painful embarrassment, especially during his high school years. Teenagers can be very cruel to each other – and I know that Bryan experienced a measure of teasing from some of his high school classmates. This could easily have affected him emotionally, but he never let it stifle his determination to succeed in life. While in the seminary Bryan would, one day every week, ride a bicycle from the seminary into Limerick City, a trip of five miles, to work with a speech therapist. This impediment was serious enough that it could have jeopardized his ordination to priesthood. But the therapy was, providentially, highly successful – and Bryan was a better man, and a holier priest, because of his courage and determination.
We think of “Monsignor” accomplishing so much in his service to the Church as a gifted leader and public servant, but we should know the price he paid and the obstacles he overcame to achieve that success. Monsignor Bryan Walsh by the grace of God, and his own determination, accomplished great things for our Cuban community in Miami – and for the Kingdom of God.
With the ink of my life I shall write a short version of our place in history.
It was 1961 when I came to this country that opened its arms of freedom to us Cubans. Many children were sent alone by their parents to allow them to grow with freedom of religion, of ideals, freedom to choose, simply freedom to be. Back then most of us did not know that this Operation was called Pedro Pan. Actually, we were all married with kids by the time the Operation Pedro Pan “kids” became to know THEY were Pedro Pans, so by then it was the Pedro Pans and their significant others that started to form a group, as it is in my case, since I’m an “adopted” Pedro Pan by marriage and by other little things I will go on to describe.
It was Father Bryan Walsh (back then he was still “father”, later on became Monsignor), who with the Catholic Welfare arranged for about 50 children to come from Cuba to freedom in the USA, these 50 became more than 14,000, all of them arriving alone without their parents. I don’t qualify as a Pedro Pan because my dad left Cuba for USA in September 1959 and later on in July 1961 I came with my mom and two sisters, and even if I came during the Pedro Pan flights I did not come alone but…it is now as adults that we all realize things that maybe we didn’t understand so clearly back then.
My mom was a teacher in Cuba, but the public schools here were/are not as advanced as in Cuba, therefore my parents wanted us to have a private school education, but the money stayed in Cuba….so, I remember clearly having a meeting with Father Walsh in his office at Sts. Peter & Paul Rectory, Parish where we attended Mass and school where my parents wanted us to go. Father Walsh asked me several questions before deciding to help us out and allow me and my younger sister to attend Catholic School paying a minimum. Now, many years after I see there were several Pedro Pans in school with me, both in Sts. Peter & Paul and later on Immaculata/La Salle High School (ILS).
Indirectly Father Walsh taught us, at an early age, that we could get things but, if we worked for it, so my days of working at Sts. P & P began. First I started to work at the school in whatever was necessary until one day one of the sisters saw me an early Saturday morning and said…”no, you should be working at the Rectory, walk over and give them this note.” From then on I worked at the Rectory’s office every Saturday the whole day for years, until I graduated from ILS.
I remember one of the things I had to do was translate into Spanish Father Walsh’s Sunday sermons, as well as those of other priests. Boy am I glad it was from English into Spanish and not the other way around!!! I also had to take phone messages and translate them, as well as the Sunday Bulletin.
I guess we were not appreciative enough back then, we really did not understand the spectrum of it all, but the years have taught us much.
We have come to understand things, like a story my husband Frank told me when he was in one of the camps and there were so many kids, they slept in tents, it was cold, they were at an age where kids eat a lot, food was not sufficient and one day Father Walsh showed up in his sports car with skies on top, .wow, kids got really ticked off and started a strike. Well, later on in life we get to find out Father Walsh came from a well to do family and actually he was helping out rather than taking. He didn’t have to do that, yet he chose to.
Education, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, learning that work was rewarded, a sense of belonging and so much more Father Walsh put on our plate. This was much more than the food we ate, these were lessons that we would carry through life and pass on to our children. And my story is only a drop of ink in the inkwell of life, just a little stroke of our place in history.
Marily A. Reyes (MAR)
At a dinner table conversation during a Pedro Pan meeting at Barry University just weeks before Msgr. Walsh’ death,
I told Monsignor that if it hadn’t been for him, my wife, Blanca, would have never left Cuba and we would have never
met... to which he quickly quipped:
“Don’t blame me!”
Such was his personality and good humor. I thank God for having had the chance to know him.
PS: My wife and I recently celebrated, in June, our 42nd wedding anniversary. Thank you Rev. Walsh.
The word that most connotes Monsignor Bryan Walsh to me is “there”. He was there when I arrived from Cuba, a frightened boy of 15, to give me a home in which to live. He was there (with paddle in hand) when I needed discipline, and there with an open heart to give advice when I needed that. He was there, too, to get me out of trouble when I messed up.
And his being there didn’t end when I left St Rafael’s. Over the years he has been there to celebrate with our family on special occasions – our 25th wedding anniversary, my 50th birthday, our children’s graduations and weddings and grandchildren’s christenings. And he was there whenever we just needed to talk. Despite his incredibly busy schedule, he would always make time to be there.
Now that he is no longer here, he is still there for me when I say my prayers each morning because I believe that he is a saint who can intercede for us in heaven.
Jorge Armando Pardo