December 24, 2001

Walsh honored for 'labor of love'

Hundreds gather for his services

By Oscar Corral and Draeger Martinez. Published Monday, December 24, 2001 in The Miami Herald.

Hundreds of men and women who were brought to the United States from Cuba by Monsignor Bryan O. Walsh during Operation Pedro Pan four decades ago lined up to pay their final respects at two Miami churches Sunday.

They remembered Walsh as a pillar of the community, a man who never shied away from tasks even when the odds were stacked against him. They also recalled a person who even in the midst of a massive undertaking never neglected the emotional needs of the children he set out to help.

At a viewing at Our Lady of Charity in Coconut Grove, many of the Pedro Pan generation brought their children and grandchildren to honor Walsh. Later Sunday evening, hundreds more held a vigil for Walsh at St. Mary's Cathedral in Miami.

"He meant everything. We owe him all we are,'' said Gaspar Leon, 53, a West Palm Beach-based retail manager for American Media, Inc. "He was a great man, almost like a father to us. We would have lived different lives if he hadn't started Operation Pedro Pan.''

Tito Sanchez, Knights of Columbus district marshal, worked with Walsh on Knights activities for decades. At the viewing, Sanchez and 17 other Knights flanked Walsh in full regalia: tuxedos with white sashes, double-sided capes and matching feathered hats, even ceremonial swords.

"There are no words to describe the love we had for him,'' Sanchez, 69, said.

Jorge Viera, Pedro Pan Group president, said Walsh empowered him to live in a free society, while at the same time instilling values and compassion.

"He enabled us to be better people and work for our fellow men and women,'' said Viera, 54, a senior vice president of Northern Trust Bank. "That's what we hope to teach the next generation, to be responsive to others needs.''

Elly Vilano Chovel, vice president of the board of Pedro Pan Group, recalled the role Walsh played in her young life.

Because of him, she and her younger sister left Cuba in 1962 and went to a foster home in Buffalo, N.Y., before eventually moving to Miami.

"His labor of love with us never ended,'' Chovel said. "He married us, baptized our children. He baptized my three grandchildren.

"Father Walsh was the living embodiment of compassion. He was humble and simple and great. I feel his thousands of acts of kindness that touched so many lives will be his real legacy.''

Walsh hatched Operation Pedro Pan in December 1960, after a Cuban man brought an impoverished 15-year-old Cuban boy named Pedro to see him, according to Walsh's own account, published on the Pedro Pan website. Pedro Pan became one of the largest operations of its kind in the United States.

Cuban parents, fearful of handing their children over to the Cuban government for communist indoctrination, sent more than 14,000 unaccompanied children to the United States during 22 months from December 1960 until the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962.

Walsh also helped thousands of Haitian and Nicaraguan refugees during the years he spent as an immigrant advocate.

Among those who made their final trip to Walsh's casket Sunday was Juan Jose Redero, who emigrated as part of Pedro Pan at 14 with his two younger brothers, Peter and Marcos.

After being processed in Florida City in 1961, the Redero brothers were sent to a Catholic Welfare orphanage in Schenesville, Pa., a mountain town near Amish country. The culture shock of a new language, climate and diet without the support of their parents was too great for them, Redero said.

A friend at the reformatory where they ended up sneaking Redero in to an office to use the phone. He dialed Walsh's number and held his breath.

"He picked up that phone, and I will never forget it,'' Redero said. "I explained to him what we were going through. He was so busy worrying about all these other children, but the next day, he sent the airline tickets for us to go back to Miami.''

Redero never lost touch with Walsh.

In fact, Walsh's home and portable phone numbers are still programmed in Redero's cellular phone.

"He was a man who was there for us, who understood our cause,'' Redero said. "I will always be grateful.''

Copyright 2001 Miami Herald


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