Priest Opened Door to Freedom, Lived for 'Good of Others'

By James D. Davis
December 21, 2001

Monsignor Bryan O. Walsh, the "good Irish missionary priest" who fought a lifelong war against oppression, prejudice and poverty, died in Miami's Mercy Hospital on Monday of cardiac arrest. He was 71. [See correction below.]

Walsh was perhaps best known as the main figure in Operation Pedro Pan, which brought more than 14,000 children out of Castro's Cuba under the care of the Archdiocese of Miami.

Others will remember the monsignor's other fields of battle: helping Haitian refugees, working for integration, forging bonds with Jewish leaders -- even before the Vatican did. And for the poor and sick and elderly.

"Many people in public will thank him, but thousands on thousands who remain anonymous will thank him in their own hearts," said the Rev. Arthur Dennison, a friend of Walsh's for 35 years. "And they will never forget his name."

As word of the monsignor's death spread on Thursday, the plaudits mounted. Mel Martinez, U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, was one of the Pedro Pan alumni.

"Words cannot express the depth of appreciation in my heart for Monsignor Walsh, whose perseverance and courage made it possible for me to taste freedom," Martinez said in a statement. "Few people have touched the lives of thousands of immigrant children in such a profound way."

Michael Gannon, historian emeritus at the University of Florida, called Walsh "one of the great figures in Florida history during the 20th century. Others achieved fame by reaching high office, or through business or entertainment. Bryan Walsh earned it, though he never sought it, by spending his life for the good of others."

Archbishop John C. Favalora of Miami praised Walsh as a "good Irish missionary priest" who cared about the poor and outcasts as Jesus did. "Few individuals ever achieve his leadership stature in the Church and in the state of Florida."

Favalora was one of four archbishops who worked with the monsignor, who was born in Portarlington, Ireland. While at Mungret College, Walsh met Archbishop Joseph P. Hurley, who recruited him to minister in this state. Walsh was appointed assistant director of Catholic charities in 1955.

Under his leadership up until his retirement in 1996, the department's budget grew from $100,000 and 10 staffers to $60 million and hundreds on staff -- becoming the largest social services nonprofit agency in the southeastern United States.

In 1978, Walsh founded Catholic Health Services, which runs nursing and rehabilitation centers. He also helped establish the Hospice Movement of South Florida in 1980.

In 1960, to help Cuban parents evacuate their children from Castro's new Marxist state, Walsh set up the Cuban Children's Program, which became known as Operation Pedro Pan. The archdiocese took its first two children on the day after Christmas that year, a trickle that became a flood of more than 14,000 youths over the next two years.

The 6-foot-4 Walsh was "like a kindly giant" to a 15-year-old Ricardo Castellanos, fresh from Cuba. "He said, 'Bienvenido, Ricardo.' He was tall and strong, but kind. He was so good to me all the time."

When Castellanos showed an interest in the priesthood, Walsh sponsored his candidacy. The new priest went on to become pastor of San Isidro parish in Pompano Beach.

Sometimes it seemed Walsh was everywhere and into every social issue. He helped organize aid to Haitians fleeing the oppressive Duvalier regimes. He worked for five years with the Vatican-based Caritas Internationalis, chairing its Task Force on Refugees.

He wrote a 1963 condemnation of segregation as a sin, a statement that became part of the charter for Miami's Community Relations Board. In the 1980s he joined other leaders, walking Miami streets to calm racially tense neighborhoods.

"He knew that the church was more than the pulpit on Sunday morning, that it had a great role to play in the public square," said Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Wenski, who succeeded Walsh at Catholic Charities. "And he was a great representative of that role."

Walsh also worked as the archdiocese's ecumenical officer, working with groups like the Greater Miami Religious Leaders Coalition. He knit a lasting friendship with Jewish leaders like Rabbi Solomon Schiff, executive vice president of the Greater Miami Rabbinical Association.

Even the Vatican noticed the Catholic-Jewish amity: In 1987, Miami was the setting for a talk between Pope John Paul II and American Jewish leaders.

The monsignor's intensity even startled Schiff, who worked with him in countless community projects. The rabbi recalls Walsh speaking years ago in a rally for Soviet Jewry.

"He spoke with a passion like you'd never believe," Schiff said. "Everything he did, he did from the heart."

Though he was a public figure for most of his adult life, Walsh took time for friends. During their 35 years of friendship, he and the Rev. Arthur Dennison often vacationed together in Europe. Last summer, they sailed Ireland's Shannon River in Walsh's 30-foot Catalina.

Even after his retirement, Walsh continued his activism, and active lifestyle. In 1999 he retraced a 1,000-year-old pilgrimage route through Spain -- by bicycle.

This past May, he helped set up a Holocaust memorial menorah at the archdiocese's headquarters in Miami Shores. Two weeks ago, he took part in a conference on Catholic-Jewish relations in Rhode Island.

Shortly afterward, though, he began complaining of shortness of breath, and doctors installed a pacemaker. Last week they decided that two heart valves needed replacing; but the surgery ultimately failed to save his life.

Wenski said he and Favalora were with Walsh in the monsignor's last minutes, at noon Thursday. On a closed-circuit TV was the altar of the hospital's chapel. Just as a priest approached the altar to celebrate the Mass, Walsh took his last breath.

"I think there are no coincidences," Wenski said. "He died as he lived."

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

Funeral arrangements will begin with a viewing at Our Lady of Charity Shrine, 3609 S. Miami Ave., from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday. Bishop Agustin Roman, an auxiliary bishop at the archdiocese, will preside at a 10 a.m. prayer service.

Another viewing is set for 6:30 to 10 p.m. the same day at St. Mary Cathedral, 7525 NW Second Ave., Miami, with Favalora presiding at the prayer vigil starting at 6:30.

Viewing will continue the next day at St. Mary's from 9 to 10:45 a.m. Following will be the Mass of Christian Burial, with Favalora as the main celebrant. Burial will be at Our Lady of Mercy Cemetery in Miami.

James D. Davis can be reached at or 954-356-4730.

An obituary for Monsignor Bryan O. Walsh that ran on Page 1 of Friday's editions had the incorrect day for his death. The monsignor died on Thursday. We regret the error.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.