Clergy Receive High Honor For Service to Hispanic Community

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Auxiliary Bishop Gerald Walsh was the principal celebrant at a Spanish Mass of Thanksgiving to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the archdiocesan Comite Fiesta de San Juan Bautista. The liturgy and dinner that followed honored this year’s 23 recipients of the St. John the Baptist Medal for their service to the Hispanic community.

The evening celebration was held June 23 at St. Cecilia’s Church in East Harlem.

“Tenemos que dar gracias por esta celebracion,” Bishop Walsh said in his homily, which translates as, “We must give thanks for the celebration.”

Among the recipients were Bishop Dennis Sullivan of Camden, N.J., a former auxiliary bishop and vicar general of the archdiocese; Bishop Walsh, vicar for clergy and episcopal vicar of Central Westchester, South Shore Westchester and Yonkers deaneries; and Auxiliary Bishop John Jenik, episocpal vicar of Bronx, North Manhattan and Central Harlem.

Msgr. Robert Ritchie, rector of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, was also an honoree, as was Father Richard Welch, C.Ss.R., judicial vicar of the archdiocese.

One medal was awarded posthumously, to Msgr. Neil A. Connolly, who died in April at age 83. He had served as pastor of St. Mary’s parish on Grand Street in Lower Manhattan for nearly three decades, and at the Bronx parishes of Our Lady of Victory and St. Athanasius, and as episcopal vicar of the South Bronx.

All the recipients had something in common—they are clergy who many years ago traveled to Puerto Rico for a three-month immersion program to learn or improve their Spanish and learn more about the culture. Returning to New York, they were better prepared to serve the Puerto Rican community, and later immigrants who came from other Latin American countries, by celebrating Mass in Spanish and coordinating or overseeing Hispanic Ministry catechism and programs.

The format for the award this year broke from tradition, which is to honor one prominent Puerto Rican in the field of religion, education, medicine, the arts and other disciplines for improving the life of the Church and the city.

Eleven recipients attended the event. An estimated 230 people attended the Mass; nearly 200 attended the dinner, including more than 20 volunteers.

The Comite Fiesta de Juan Bautista was established in 1952; the first set of immersion participants went to Puerto Rico the following year. The official, annual immersion courses ended in 1970; however, less formal courses continued, and still continue, in Puerto Rico and other Latino countries.

The men are all clergy alumni of the immersion program of the Spanish Institute that began in Puerto Rico nearly 65 years ago, during the tenure of Cardinal Francis Spellman, and under the guidance of a group of early Puerto Rican immigrants and their mentor, the late Father Joseph Fitzpatrick, S.J., of Fordham University.

Organizers said the Mass and dinner commemorated the program graduates’ selfless commitment to follow in the footsteps of John the Baptist, the patron of Puerto Rico. Most of the 11 medal recipients who attended helped concelebrate the Mass. 

“We give thanks to the people of Puerto Rico; we give thanks for Cardinal Spellman,” Bishop Walsh said in his homily.

Bishop Walsh acknowledged the importance of spreading the Word of the Lord, the teachings of Christ—not just with words, but also in action, so that others see the Light of Christ in faith-based conduct.

Ray Quinones, president of the archdiocesan Comite Fiesta de Juan Bautista, in an interview said, “This is one of the most important events that we’ve had in the 65 years of the Comite.

“They (immersion participants) are the ones who kept the schools open, they kept the churches open, and they kept the faith for the newly arrived Spanish-speaking people…We were able to identify 23 priests who had gone to Puerto Rico who were still living in the Archdiocese of New York.”

Quinones said the initial graduating classes of the official immersion program numbered 25 to 35, but fewer graduated as the years went by. 

Father Eric Cruz, pastor of St. John Chrysostom parish, the Bronx, conferred the medals after dinner. At the start of Mass, he read a letter of recognition and congratulations from Cardinal Dolan.

Dinner, in the parish hall, was a combination of Latino and Irish-style cuisine, including yellow rice with gandules beans, chicken, pork, potatoes, and corned beef and cabbage. Many medal recipients are of Irish descent.  

Festive dinner entertainment featured a small salsa music group, which provided the liturgical hymns, salsa style.

Another award recipient, Msgr. Robert Stern, a retired priest of the archdiocese, said in an interview that he went to Puerto Rico twice for immersion efforts, in 1959 and in 1960. “It was a brilliant idea; it was a gutsy move,” Msgr. Stern said. “That was the big thing about going to the island—because you lived in Puerto Rico, you learned everything about the culture.”

Father James Flanagan, a parochial vicar at Immaculate Conception parish in Manhattan, told CNY he was honored to be counted among those receiving a medal. “I am grateful to be recognized…It (the immersion program) was a wonderful experience. I went twice, as a seminarian in 1969 and in 1971 as a newly ordained priest.”   

Organizers noted that led by the Holy Spirit, John the Baptist went first to the desert and then to public ministry, calling everyone to repentance and preparing the way of the Lord. They said the priest honorees went to Puerto Rico filled with hope and returned to proclaim the Gospel to Puerto Rican immigrants and help provide education, housing, health and employment.

Among the many fruits from the effort, coordinators noted, was the creation of the Hispanic Apostolate for the archdiocese, the current Office of Hispanic Ministry, and 17 other archdiocesan Hispanic committees from el Caribe, as well as Central and South Americas. 

The honorees, and year ordained, are:

Auxiliary Bishop Gerald T. Walsh 1967

Auxiliary Bishop John J. Jenik 1970

Bishop Dennis J. Sullivan 1971

Msgr. Donald Johnston 1955

Msgr. Patrick J. Carney 1955

Msgr. Walter A. Birkle 1958

Msgr. Peter J. O’Donnell 1958

Msgr. Robert Stern 1958

Msgr. Francis Gorman 1959

Msgr. Neil Graham 1959

Msgr. Patrick McNamara 1960

Msgr. Robert Ritchie 1971

Msgr. John Graham 1974

Father. Joseph O’Meara 1953

Father Thomas B. Fenlon 1961

Father Richard Adams 1965

Father Peter K. Meehan 1968

Father Paul J. Le Blanc 1969

Father James D. Flanagan 1971

Father Lawrence J. Quinn 1971

Father John Duffell 1969

Father Richard Welch, C.Ss.R. 1980

Msgr. Neil A. Connolly 1958

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