Monsignor Bryan O. Walsh
Defender of Immigrants
By the Most Reverend Felipe J. Estévez
Bishop of St. Augustine, Florida
I happen to receive once in a while angry and hateful letters complaining about the Church’s position on immigration, specifically the positions of the U.S. Bishops. These letters go out of their way to express with anger how illegal immigrants are a nuisance to our country, and how we should all be sending them back to their homeland.
These are Christians who seem to forget the words of Jesus: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” When I think of Msgr. Bryan O. Walsh, I think that he would experience sadness in reading those letters for he was such a defender of immigrants and refugees.
As one of the fourteen thousand Pedro Pan’s boys and girls, I received a waiver visa to come to Miami alone. Years after I would learn that it was a secret operation rescuing thousands of Cuban teens and children from the emergence of a communist take-over in Cuba.
This initiative was the vision and the hard work of the then Archbishop of Miami the Most Reverend Coleman F. Carroll. Msgr. Bryan O. Walsh, director of Catholic Charities, his staff and hundreds of volunteers provided shelter, food and a familiar environment at our arrival in the United States.
I feel great gratitude for what I received upon my arrival, including learning a new language and receiving a Catholic education. My parents and siblings were able to arrive in the United States within one year of my own arrival thanks to the support given to all Cuban refugees.
My destiny was to become a priest, just like Monsignor Walsh and even more particularly, I was to be a member of the college of priests with him in the Archdiocese of Miami since my arrival in Miami this time as priest in 1975.
What I recall of our conversations was the pride he felt that a number of Pedro Pan boys teens had become priests. He would often bring that subject to conversation giving the names of those who became priests with such pride.
As a priest in the Archdiocese of Miami I recall he was most concerned about the life of the community, about the peaceful co-existence among different ethnic communities and races.
As a priest, a particular feature I remember is that he would go to funerals often to pray the rosary for he had a large number of friends in the Miami community. After praying for them, he would go to a corner and listen to confessions of inactive Catholics. He believed in this pastoral practice because he thought many of those who would be reconciled with God, would not go to a Church to regular confessions but the presence and availability of a priest in the context of the funeral of a deceased member of the family was an opportune time.
I recall how available he was to celebrate baptisms and marriages for Pedro Pan members and their families. The Pedro Pan community had in fact become his family.
The last image I have of Msgr. Walsh was when he was on his sick bed at Mercy Hospital. My friends urged me to visit Msgr. Walsh who was dying. When I got to his room, I was very surprised because he looked so well and did not look like a man who was near death. He kept a conversation as he always did and he was eating a vanilla ice cream with great gusto! The impression was deceiving because he died the following day. I have been told that Irish people have a gift for confronting death in the family and I certainly saw this attitude in Msgr. Walsh final hours.
A few days later I found myself concelebrating the Mass of the resurrection at St. Mary Cathedral. I had the definite impression that the hope we were celebrating had already been witnessed by Msgr. Walsh, who in his immediate facing of death was not afraid. He knew that the Master, the risen Lord would be welcoming him home.