Catholic Activist to Retire
Head of Service Agency Soothed Ethnic Tensions

By James D. Davis and Charles Strouse
January 10, 1996

Monsignor Bryan Walsh, tireless fighter for immigrants, minorities and the destitute for four decades, is stepping down.

Walsh will retire on Monday from the helm of one of South Florida's largest social services agencies, the 420-employee, $ 20 million-a-year Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Miami.

Walsh, 65, was an architect of Operation Pedro Pan, which brought 14,000 Cuban children to Miami in the early 1960s. He calmed tensions in Liberty City after the riots of the 1980s, walked through the shanty towns of the homeless, and led two archbishops through refugee camps at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

"The grand apostle of refugees, an advocate of immigrants extraordinaire," former Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez said of Walsh on Tuesday, echoing the words he used to introduce the monsignor to Queen Elizabeth II in 1993.

In a career that spanned the reigns of four Miami archbishops - going back to the Most Rev. Joseph P. Hurley, who served from 1940 to 1958 - Walsh befriended Jews and Protestants, masterminded hurricane relief, fought racism and helped change federal policy on immigrants.

His impending departure was so low-key that it drew only a two-page announcement from the archdiocese, and much of that concerned the appointment of his successor at Catholic Charities, the Rev. Thomas Wenski.

But the significance of the announcement was not lost on Walsh's friends and fellow advocates.

"He has touched as many lives as anyone in South Florida," said Merrett Stierheim, Dade County manager from 1976 to 1986. "He's the people's ambassador of the church."

William Gralnick of Boca Raton, regional director of the American Jewish Committee, voiced shock at the announcement.

"Institutions don't retire," Gralnick said. "I cannot imagine the movement for human rights continuing without Bryan Walsh."

Walsh was buoyant during an interview at his office in Miami Shores on Tuesday. Asked how he felt to leave behind his many projects, he stretched out his long arms, laced his fingers behind his head and laughed.

"A sense of joy," he said in his deep Irish brogue. "First, I'll organize my home, then I'll organize my life. It's been disorganized for 41 years."

From the day he arrived in Miami as an assistant pastor in 1955, Walsh played a pivotal role in soothing ethnic tensions, not only for the 1.3 million Catholics in Dade, Broward and Monroe counties, but also for the area's entire population.

Walsh - a sailor, bicyclist and pilot who also speaks Spanish - was a chief architect of the Pedro Pan program, which brought 14,000 unaccompanied Cuban children to South Florida from the island starting in 1960.

He was always a guide for children, "the father figure for a whole generation of Cubans," said Rafael Penalver, a prominent Miami attorney.

Penalver recalls living in a home for boys run by Walsh in the early 1960s. When one boy hit a baseball through a window and into the priests' lunch, Walsh came out holding the ball.

"He wasn't angry," Penalver said. "He just wanted to know who had hit the ball with such power."

In 1963, Walsh drafted a proclamation that called segregation a sin, a statement that became part of the charter for Miami's Community Relations Board. He became the board's chairman in 1973, and during the 1980s joined other leaders in walking the streets to calm inner-city neighborhoods during several riots.

In 1965, Walsh proposed an idea to then U.S. Rep. Dante Fascell and Sen. Claude Pepper that a year later became the Cuban Adjustment Act. That law, which gives special immigration privileges to Cuban exiles, has since become a lightning rod for protest by other immigrant groups.

"The Cuban Adjustment Act was an issue of poor people's rights," Walsh said. "It has been misrepresented in the years since."

Walsh was instrumental in organizing aid to waves of Haitian immigrants fleeing the Duvalier regimes and their successors, as well as Cubans in the 1980 Mariel boatlift. He did the same for south Dade Catholics whose homes and churches were demolished by Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

The monsignor has escorted two Miami archbishops - John C. Favalora and his predecessor, Edward A. McCarthy - to the refugee camp at Guantanamo Bay, spurring them in the push for immigrants' rights. His forthright stance for immigrants got him banned from Cuba when a church delegation traveled there in 1981.

But his expertise brought him a five-year stint as chairman of the immigrants' rights board of Caritas Internationalis, the Roman Catholic Church's welfare arm. In November, he attended a meeting on immigrants in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

"I'd always said that I would spend half my time in the office, half in the community," Walsh said.

As a point man for interfaith relations, Walsh was mixing amicably with rabbis nearly a decade before Vatican II issued its famous statement renouncing anti-Semitism in 1965. Walsh's amity paid off in 1987 when some Jewish leaders met with Pope John Paul II.

"We were determined to show that we could cement good relations on the local level," Gralnick said.

But Walsh's vision never strayed from his home base.

He takes pride in having helped establish the Hospice Movement of South Florida in 1980, and of chairing the Public Health Trust from 1978 to 1980, rebuilding Jackson Memorial Hospital.

A broad array of boards and committees benefited from the monsignor's presence at one time or another: Red Cross, Child Welfare League, Mental Health Association, Coalition Against Substance Abuse. He boasts that he never turned down a committee appointment or invocation invitation.

Walsh has accepted an invitation to Oxford University to lecture in September on his work with immigrants in Miami. He also is considering invitations to Africa and Latin America, and to serve with the United Nations High Commission on Refugees in Geneva. But, Walsh said, his retirement will center on his apartment in Miami.

"All my friends are here. Where else would I want to go?" he said.


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