Priest Honored for 40 Years of Church, Civic Service

By Peggy Landers
Miami Herald
May 24, 1994

The beginning of Monsignor Bryan O. Walsh's career was auspicious enough. He made the centerfold of the Saturday Evening Post 40 years ago -- at the first outdoor ordination of priests in the country.

The early publicity didn't offer a clue of the drama and history-making accomplishments that would follow.

Monday, the man who single-handedly shaped the Archdiocese of Miami's rescue of 14,000 children from Castro's Cuba and who continues to champion the rights of Haitians and other refugees, celebrated four decades in the priesthood by saying Mass.

Joining him were Archbishop Edward McCarthy and Bishop Agustin Roman of Miami, Peruvian Archbishop Ricardo Duran, 34 other priests and well-wishers at St. Martha's Catholic Church in Miami Shores.

McCarthy saluted the six-foot, four-inch Irishman as the "legendary grand old man of the archdiocese." "Like very few, Monsignor Walsh has been a missionary who has understood the variety of cultures" . . . in this "part of the kingdom of God," said Roman.

It was with some irony that Walsh, 63, looked back on his multilingual, multiethnic sojourn. Walsh grew up in Port Arlington, 30 miles outside of Dublin, and went to college in Limerick. After deciding to become a priest, he came to the United States to attend St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore. He had dreamed of being a missionary in Africa, but a speech defect made it "touch-and-go whether or not I'd be ordained." He became a priest in 1954 and stayed in the States, where he wouldn't have to speak a foreign language.

"I figured, 'If they had trouble understanding me in English, how would they ever understand me in Swahili?' " he said.

Today, Walsh, an avid sailor and bicyclist who has peddled in 29 countries, speaks five languages -- English, Spanish and some French, Portuguese and Italian. His speech defect disappeared a couple of months after ordination, when he delivered his first sermon. He speaks slowly in a deep voice that resonates the calm confidence that has made him an indispensable leader in a crisis-driven community.

As executive director of Catholic Community Services, he oversees a $17 million operation that provides everything from child welfare and child-care services to programs for the elderly and refugee resettlement.

The Child Welfare Services Division of Catholic Community Services has the sole contract with the U.S. Justice Department to settle unaccompanied Haitian children refugees. Walsh also helps oversee the resettlement of many adult Haitians who land in South Florida.

Walsh has been a tireless advocate for refugees for decades. In the early '60s, he directed Operation Pedro Pan, which housed, clothed, fed and educated 14,000 Cuban children who were sent to the states by their parents after Fidel Castro seized power.

He helped draft the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, making most Cubans eligible for residency after one year and one day. "I convinced (then-U.S. Reps.) Claude Pepper and Dante Fascell and it was passed without debate," he said.

More recently, he helped convince U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros- Lehtinen to support the Haitian Fairness Act that would give Haitians as much equal access to the United States as Cubans.

His expertise in immigration matters is even tapped by the Vatican, which made him chairman of Pope John Paul II's committee on migration and refugees.

At Monday's Mass, friends paid tribute to Walsh's achievements over the last 40 years. Said the Rev. Thomas Wenski of Notre Dame d'Haiti Catholic Church: "If you write the history of the Catholic church of South Florida, Monsignor Walsh would be one of the few who would be given a chapter. He has been a visionary in understanding what was happening in South Florida. And in his advocacy, he has made sure the church came out on the right side."


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