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Earlier stories

Spotlight Report

Care for new Americans is a constant for bishop

By Monica Rhor, Globe Staff, 7/3/2003

In the early days of Sean Patrick O'Malley 's priesthood, they were the poor on his doorstep: refugees fleeing civil wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador, undocumented immigrants escaping hunger and poverty, maids and housekeepers brought to this country and then exploited by the rich diplomats who employed them.

O'Malley, a Franciscan Capuchin friar assigned to the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., quickly became their champion.

He denounced human rights violations in Latin America from the cathedral. He confronted diplomats accused of abusing employees. He transported medical supplies to war-torn Central American countries. He fought to secure amnesty for migrant workers.

It was ''la luna de miel,'' the honeymoon period of his priesthood, O'Malley said on Tuesday, shortly after being named archbishop of Boston.

For the first five years of his ministry, O'Malley worked as director of Washington's Centro Catolico Hispano, ministering to newly arrived, often impoverished refugees and immigrants.

Those years, from 1973 to 1978, cemented a connection to immigrants and immigrant communities that has often been the trademark of his career and could play a pivotal role in Boston.

Here, O'Malley must serve as a bridge not only to a diocese still raw from an abuse crisis and grappling with hundreds of lawsuits, but also to newcomer communities many believe are the future of the Catholic Church in this country.

''Rome made his appointment with all sorts of messages and meanings,'' said Mario J. Paredes, who worked with O'Malley at the Centro Catolico and was director of the Northeast Hispanic Catholic Center for 26 years. ''He is being sent to a church that is no longer Irish, no longer the old boys. It is a church that is heavily Hispanic, heavily Portuguese, diverse, multicultural, and multilingual.''

Even conservative estimates show that half of Catholic teenagers nationally are nonwhite, a population that continues to swell as immigrants enter the country, said Bryan T. Froehle, executive director of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.

In a few years, specialists say, Latinos will be a majority of US Catholics. At least half of Massachusetts' immigrants come from predominantly Catholic countries or societies, said Steve Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C.

''Traditionally, the Catholic Church has always been the place where immigrants go for help in navigating their new life,'' Camarota said.

For new immigrants and their children, church scandals, no matter how repugnant, may be only one measure of the church's value, he said.

Indeed, some of Cardinal Bernard F. Law's most stalwart support came from Boston's Catholic immigrants, including those in the Vietnamese, Latino, and Haitian communities.

O'Malley acknowledged the importance of immigrant communities during a press conference Tuesday at St. John's Seminary in Brighton.

''We are counting on the faith, the vitality, and the support of our Hispanics,'' O'Malley said in Spanish. ''It is a young community, a community with great ideals. ''

O'Malley, a multilinguist who never said Mass in English until he was named bishop of the Virgin Islands in 1984, served as leader of the Diocese of Fall River from 1992 to 2002. There, his commitment to the needs of immigrants earned him respect, admiration, and ironclad affection. Fall River is home to about 150,000 people of Portuguese descent and more than 20,000 Latinos.

''He's a very loved person, not just liked, but loved,'' said Raimundo Tavares, 39, who attends Our Lady of Assumption Church, the first Cape Verdean parish in North America. ''He reached out to us. It was something that only the heart could really feel. ''

One of O'Malley's first moves in Fall River was a direct nod to the shifting population. He created the diocese's first Latino parish, Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe, carving it out of St. Hedwig's, a traditionally Polish parish where numbers had been dwindling.

One of his last decisions there was to forgo a separate Mass marking his departure, instead integrating the ceremony into the annual candlelight procession honoring Our Lady of Fatima, the incarnation of the Virgin Mary revered in Portugal. The evening walk through Fall River's streets, one of the Portugese community's most cherished traditions, typically draws thousands.

That night, after the procession, O'Malley celebrated Mass in English, Portuguese, and Spanish, a common practice during his tenure in Fall River. While he was bishop there, the Cathedral of St. Mary, the seat of the diocese, became a trilingual parish.

''It was like being among family, like being at home,'' said Joao M. Coelho, 59, a teacher and Portuguese immigrant. ''Not having that barrier of communication is very reassuring. ... It made us feel that we are acknowledged and recognized.''

O'Malley, whose flawless Portuguese acquired the Azorean accent shared by many of his parishioners, seemed to revel in Fall River's many ethnic festivals and religious processions. He often marched as one of the throng, quietly saying his rosary along with the other participants, said Coelho.

On a trip to Portugal in 2001, O'Malley purchased a tile portraying Christ on trial, which he placed on an outside wall of the bishop's residence back in Fall River, just as many Portuguese immigrants do on their homes.

But in Fall River, as in Washington, D.C., O'Malley's work with immigrants extended beyond the symbolic and the spiritual. Under his leadership, the Fall River Diocese began offering citizenship classes, English-language instruction, and legal clinics.

The number of outreach centers ministering to Latinos in the Fall River diocese grew from five to seven during O'Malley's time.

In the late 1990s, when hundreds of Portuguese immigrants faced deportation under a law that allowed the removal of legal residents with criminal records, O'Malley became a vocal supporter of their cause, said the Rev. John Oliveira, pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in New Bedford.

O'Malley's empathy for immigrants and refugees will also help him tackle the daunting task of healing an archdiocese torn by sexual abuse, Oliveira believes.

''This man from day one worked among the immigrant communities of Washington,'' said Oliveira, who heads the Portuguese Apostolate in the Diocese of Fall River. ''His work with immigrants influences everything he does. It opens him to hospitality, welcome, and compassion for everyone, including victims of abuse. He's not just a priest for immigrants.''

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 7/3/2003.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.


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