'Pedro Pan' Priest Dies
Walsh Guided Cuban Kids

By Elinor J. Brecher and Luisa Yanez
Miami Herald
December 21, 2001

Monsignor Bryan O. Walsh, the Irish Catholic priest to whom more than 14,000 Cuban-born youngsters owe their American lives, died Thursday of complications from heart surgery, 41 years almost to the day that he helped hatch the rescue plan called Operation Pedro Pan.

During nearly a half-century as a priest, Walsh, who was 71, pastored several South Florida parishes and ran Catholic Charities, the Archdiocese of Miami's vast human-services network. Under his leadership, it grew from a $100,000 operation with 11 staff members in 1955 to a small army of 840 working with a $30 million budget.

Before retiring in 1996, Walsh became deeply involved in interfaith and interracial dialogues in a community often torn by conflict. He was a respected champion of immigrants' rights, called to testify before Congress on the subject.

Those who worked with him on dozens of community boards and panels recalled Walsh as a pillar of stability in turbulent times: wise, resolute, visionary, compassionate, and boundlessly tolerant.

"This good Irish missionary priest imitated Jesus' own option for the poor, the needy and the outcast," said Miami Archbishop John C. Favalora. "Monsignor was the recipient of so many awards in this life, surely now he enjoys the longed-for quest of his life: to be with God forever."

Surrogate Father

Walsh is best known as a surrogate father to thousands of children whose anxious parents spirited them out of Cuba at the dawn of the Castro regime. He raised many as his own, later performing their marriages and baptizing their children and grandchildren.

Two of the doctors who treated him at Mercy Hospital, where he died at noon of cardiac arrest, were Pedro Pan children.

A pilot in his younger days, the strapping, six-foot-four Walsh remained an avid sailor, cyclist and traveler who seemed hale and fit even as he underwent surgery last week to correct a lifelong heart defect.

He received a pacemaker after an episode of difficult breathing, according to Bishop Thomas Wenski, his successor at the helm of Catholic Charities. When doctors determined that the pacemaker wasn't sufficient, they opted to replace two heart valves.

"He knew when the procedure was done he was at high risk," said Wenski, among those at Walsh's side in his final moments. "The surgery was successful but his heart couldn't take the strain. . . . He was serene at the end. He was a man of great faith and he took on his passing as he took on life, with faith and courage."

Favalora prayed the rosary with Walsh Thursday morning and administered the last rites of the Church.

Global Respect

"Few individuals ever achieve his leadership stature in the church and in the state of Florida," the archbishop said. "He also enjoyed the respect of the international community."

He was "one of those people you think you'll have forever," said Pedro Pan alumna Elly Chovel, a founder of Operation Pedro Pan Group, Inc., a charity formed to honor Walsh by raising money and volunteering time for children's services at Catholic Charities. ". . . For the 40th anniversary, he wanted to put everything from Pedro Pan in order. We gave the archives to Barry University."

The chair for Immigration Studies at Barry was named for him earlier this year.

Walsh had resisted taking medication for his heart condition, Chovel said.

"He told me, 'I would prefer to preserve the quality of my life. . . . The Lord has given me a very good life and when the time comes, I will be ready to go.' "

'What God Wanted'

Father Arthur Dennison of Broward's St. Andrew's Church, one of Walsh's closest friends, said Walsh realized his vocation in high school.

"He always believed that's what God wanted him to do," said Dennison, who accompanied Walsh on a trip up the Shannon River in Ireland last summer.

He attended seminary in Baltimore and was ordained for the Diocese of St. Augustine in 1954.

Walsh was the last surviving member of a clandestine group that engineered the scheme to slip more than 14,000 Cuban children out of Cuba and into the arms of the Catholic Church in South Florida. The plan coalesced on Christmas Eve, 1960.

Walsh, with his heavy Irish brogue, was the mission's man in Miami.

Through him, the Catholic Church placed the children in foster care or orphanages until their parents arrived. In some cases, that took years.

Walsh initially figured the operation would handle 25 children. Instead, it became one of the largest operations of its kind in the United States.

"Pedro Pan was uncharted territory," noted Wenski. "When he accepted that responsibility there was no guarantee that there would be a lot of support."

Indeed, Walsh told the Herald in November, when he was honored by Barry University for his work, "there were times when I was ready to tear my hair out. . . . It was just overwhelming. We always debated whether we were doing the right thing, but we always came back to the same thing: How can we deny the rights these parents had to seek freedom for their children?"

Walsh always said the mission worked, proudly ticking off the success stories of Pedro Pan alumni like U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Mel Martinez; outgoing Miami Mayor Joe Carollo; Eduardo Aguirre, the Bush administration's pick for vice chairman of the Import-Export Bank, plus a slew of doctors, accountants, bankers and other professionals.

"I didn't meet him back then," said Martinez, 55, who left Cuba in early 1962. "He was this big guy we saw walking through the camp - the big honcho."

Martinez reunited with his parents in 1966.

"In recent years, I went to a Pedro Pan reunion in Miami and met him and thanked him for giving me an opportunity to be a free man in America and we became close," said Martinez. "He was at my swearing-in ceremony in March."

Walsh played a crucial role in South Florida race relations and ecumenical affairs.

In the years after Miami-Dade was rocked by the May 1980 race riots, Walsh was among the voices of reason through his work with the county's Community Relations Board, created to ease tensions.

"Black or white, it didn't matter to him," said activist Athalie Range, who often found Walsh fighting alongside her. "Monsignor Walsh was a wonderful man who was involved not just in religious but in civic affairs in the black community. He was always at the beck and call of the underprivileged."

Walsh showed "great compassion for the unfortunate, the poor, the destitute, the unwashed masses. Those who would be rejected by the general population were embraced by Walsh," said U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami.

Freedon Fighter

Walsh was "the rare, decent man who was respectful of people of every religion," said Rabbi Solomon Schiff, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami. "He always spoke up for freedom for all people, whether they were from Cuba, the Soviet Union, or Haiti."

Schiff recalled how Walsh spoke at a rally calling for the release of Soviet Jews "with such passion."

Two years ago, Walsh was honored as the clergy of the year by the Miami Jewish Home for the Aged, Schiff said.

David Lawrence Jr., former Herald publisher and longtime friend, described Walsh as a community treasure.

"He was simply one of the best role models I have ever met in my life," said Lawrence, now president of The Early Childhood Initiative Foundation. "He had a great sense of humor plus enormous integrity. He was a progressive human being in the best sense of the word."

'Barrier Breaker'

Arthur Teitelbaum, Anti-Defamation League Southern area director, served with Walsh on the Dade County Fair Campaign Practices Committee and the county Bar Association's Special Commission on Judicial Elections.

He called him "a barrier breaker. A healer. . . . I knew him as a vigorous opponent to bigotry in all its forms. He was a person of strong principles, which he stated fearlessly and lived by."

Walsh was a key Vatican advisor on refugee affairs, a member of the Pontifical Commission for Social Development in the 1980s and chairman of the Working Group on World Refugees Caritas Internationalis, Vatican City, since 1990.

An Intellectual

He also was "a very deep thinker and an intellectual," said George Volsky, a retired New York Times correspondent now living in Miami. "He was very well read."

Volsky met Walsh in the 1960s and saw him frequently at a discussion group that meets every other month to talk about books and world affairs.

It includes Knight Foundation director Hodding Carter and financier Charles Zwick.

"He was able to discuss the most complex things in the world," Volsky said.

He also advised the late New York Times writer Tad Szulc on his 1995 definitive biography, Pope John Paul II.

"Not many people know that," Volsky said, "but he was very helpful in explaining the arcane and complex inner workings of the Church."

He is survived by a sister, Rosemarie O'Brien of New York, and a brother, Anthony Walsh of Ireland.


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