Exile Priest Juan O'Farrill Dies at Age 78

By Manny Garcia
Miami Herald
December 2, 1994

Father Juan Ramon O'Farrill, a Cuban exile priest who nourished the poor, denounced Fidel Castro and spent the last year of his life fighting a perjury charge, died Wednesday night. He was 78.

O'Farrill, whose health had been deteriorating for some time, died of heart failure at Mercy Hospital.

"He was the voice of everyone who loves Cuba," said Auxiliary Bishop Agustin Roman, a close friend.

From the pulpit, he championed the exile cause with a passion rarely seen.

A month after losing a leg to gangrene, O'Farrill pushed his wheelchair down a sweltering Little Havana street in support of anti-Castro militant Orlando Bosch.

He spoke until his voice gave out at political rallies and funerals of exile heroes and shouted for the fall of Castro.

"Beneath the cowardly bargaining table, I would place a bundle of dynamite," he said during a rally decrying dialogue with Castro. A crowd of thousands roared.

O'Farrill was an honored guest at memorials for Bay of Pigs veterans, Cuban Independence Day celebrations or the Three Kings Parade on Calle Ocho.

He attended them all in his familiar black garb and white collar, his thin, white hair soaked in sweat.

"I compared him to the religious leaders at the forefront of the civil rights movement," the Very Rev. Gerard LaCerra said Thursday. "The community has suffered a great loss."

There was also his work with the downtrodden. "He never turned anyone away," Roman said.

Roman and O'Farrill met in 1962 in Montreal, a sanctuary for Cuban priests fleeing Castro and his anti-religious stance.

From there, they headed for Miami to renew friendships with parishoners who also had fled the communist island.

O'Farrill began as an assistant pastor at Our Lady of the Holy Rosary in Perrine in 1965. Two years later, he moved to Corpus Christi Church in Wynwood and stayed there until he retired in 1985.

In 1989, the Miami City Commission named Northeast Second Street in downtown in his honor.

That same year, he lost a leg, the result of diabetes. But he continued to attend anti-Castro marches in a wheelchair.

Then, in April 1993, the unthinkable happened.

Miami police arrested O'Farrill at his home, minutes after he finished saying Mass. Officers charged O'Farrill with lying under oath to protect a robber who promised sex in exchange for an alibi.

Supporters called Spanish-language radio stations, proclaiming his innocence. O'Farrill initially described the accusations as a political vendetta, orchestrated by pro-Castro groups.

But as more details of the case became public, O'Farrill declined to discuss it at all.

Police had released a transcript of an audio tape. A 23- year-old robber wearing a hidden microphone recorded the priest repeatedly demanding sex. In exchange, O'Farrill allegedly offered to give Edwin Rios an alibi to clear him of a robbery charge.

"And the people don't know that you lied for me?" Rios asked, according to the transcript.

"No, no. They'll never know," O'Farrill replied.

Rios eventually pleaded guilty to four robberies, four aggravated assaults and burglary. He got 4 1/2 years in state prison, followed by house arrest and then probation. He faced up to 17 years.

O'Farrill supporters insisted he wasn't a criminal, but a man suffering from declining health. They rallied to keep him out of prison, saying it would be a virtual death sentence.

"Despite his strict medical regimen and close medical attention, the patient has experienced recurrent episodes of congestive heart failure and uncontrolled diabetes mellitus requiring medical intervention and closer supervision," Dr. Idelfonso Mas wrote prosecutors. "I continue to recommend for Father O'Farrill to avoid stressful situations and physical activity."

John Thornton Jr., his criminal defense lawyer, and the Archdiocese of Miami lobbied prosecutors to place O'Farrill in pretrial intervention, a program that would allow the priest to attend counseling or perform community service for a chance at having the charge dropped.

Both sides agreed in October. The archdiocese said it would supervise O'Farrill's activities.

By then, the priest was in and out of the hospital. He entered Mercy for the last time Nov. 20. Archbishop Roman visited him Saturday and recalled his friend was in pain.

"Pray for Cuba," said O'Farrill, a Havana native. "Pray for Cuba . . ."

Roman will host a funeral Mass at 3 p.m. today at St. Michael's Catholic Church, 2981 W. Flagler St. Burial will follow at Our Lady of Mercy Cemetery, 11411 NW 25th St. He will be buried in a section for priests.

He is survived by a sister, a brother, other relatives and friends.


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