July 1, 2003 – Just as Virgin Islanders with local ties to Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law felt personally devastated by his resignation last December amid the maelstrom of sexual scandals involving Catholic clergy, so, too, there was elation and excitement Monday at news that his successor would be Bishop Sean O'Malley.
"What is it about Boston Catholics that nobody can take care of them unless they've been through the fire of life in the Virgin Islands?" one St. Thomas observer quipped.
The V.I. connections of both clerics make them household names in the territory. Law spent his youth on St. Thomas, attending Charlotte Amalie High School and graduating there in 1949 as its class president and valedictorian. O'Malley served as the second bishop of the St. Thomas Diocese, which encompasses all of the U.S. Virgin Islands, from 1984 to 1992.
O'Malley's elevation to archbishop of Boston was announced Tuesday by the Vatican, but was reported online Monday by the National Catholic Reporter.
Network broadcasts said O'Malley arrived Monday in New England from Florida's Gold Coast. It was only nine months ago that he was assigned to the Palm Beach diocese, after a decade of service as bishop of Fall River, Massachusetts. In both, his most prominent focus was on dealing with the aftermath of sexual abuse scandals involving clergy.
On June 22 The New York Times reported that O'Malley is among a small cadre of the nation's Catholic bishops being called upon to move into dioceses victimized by sexually abusive priests and initiate efforts to promote healing. (See "O'Malley among small group of 'fixer' bishops".)
Ordained coadjutor bishop of the St. Thomas diocese in 1984, O'Malley the following year succeeded Edward G. Harper, the territory's first Catholic bishop. In June 1992, Pope John Paul II announced his appointment to the Fall River diocese. In addressing the sexual abuse scandal there, O'Malley won high marks for meeting with victims and establishing strict guidelines for screening priests, church employees and volunteers.
Current and former Virgin Islanders on Monday recalled O'Malley, known by virtually all as "Bishop Sean," as a man of humility, humanity, ecumenicity and erudition.
"Because he is to easy to talk to and he is really down to earth, he's become one of the church's top trouble-shooters," one of his former parishioners on St. Thomas, Charlene Kehoe, said. "They send him into these hot spots where people are so angry and they need someone they can connect with emotionally, and they can do that with him."
"I was by accident watching CNN this afternoon, and — boom! — there was Sean," the Rev. Lawrence Miller Jr. said Monday night from Atlanta, where he relocated in 1995 after having served for 12 years as pastor of the Lutheran Church of the Reformation on St. Thomas.
"He was such a good thinker," Miller, who retired earlier this year, said of his relationship with O'Malley in the 1980s into the early '90s. "I really admired him for his willingness to be affirmative in terms of ecumenical spirit. He was very supporting of our Council of Churches. I admired him for his intelligence and his multilingual ability, but I mostly appreciated him for his spirit of humility as we talked about all kinds of things."
'A way of putting people at ease'
Cleo Hobson, a member of Holy Family Catholic Church on St. Thomas, recalled O'Malley's coming into contact with the homeless in downtown Charlotte Amalie, where the cathedral is located. "He would talk with them and try to help, and that's really what led to the start of Bethlehem House," she said.
O'Malley also was instrumental in beginning the local ministry to persons with AIDS, Dale Garee of St. Thomas said, and "he took the AIDS ministry with him up to Fall River."
Miller, a community activist who among other things was instrumental in mediating a major strike during his years on St. Thomas, also recalled that O'Malley "was very supporting of me when we were going through the need to get the homes in the Tutu area checked out for electrical hazards." That was an initiative undertaken after two children who were Reformation Church members died in a blaze at their home that was caused by faulty wiring.
While O'Malley seemed most at home in simple settings, he also moved comfortably among those in the seats of political power, Miller recalled. "He was always concerned about issues in the community relating to government," he said. "We used to have discussions about them at council meetings."
Mainly, though, O'Malley's image was that of "a man of the people" with a "warm, open way of putting people at ease," Kehoe said. She recalled how his ministry and clerical style touched her personally: "I had been a dropout from the church for 20 years. I would go to midnight mass once a year on Christmas Eve and that was it." The first year O'Malley was on St. Thomas, she did just that, and "I was so impressed that I made an appointment to meet with him, and he said, 'Give the church another chance.'"
That was the beginning of a close spiritual relationship that continues even from afar. She added, "He has a great sense of humor, too. And he loved to go to Pizza Hut and would take some of the young people who worked in the chancery office out for pizza."
Kehoe, too, cited his involvement with other denominations and faiths. "He was one of the first who got involved in the Interfaith Council with Rabbi Bradd Boxman. They were very supportive of each other," she said. "He worked a lot with the Anglicans and Lutherans. He's a true Franciscan, following in the steps of St. Francis."
A friar in the Capuchin Order of followers of St. Francis of Assisi, he was a familiar figure in the islands in his traditional hooded brown habit and sandals. "He did not live in the bishop's rectory," a large house high on a hill overlooking the scenic St. Thomas harbor, Garee said. "He moved down into the town rectory to live with the other priests."
O'Malley's influence was felt in more institutional ways as well, the choir at Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral being a case in point, Kehoe said. "When he was here, they started singing for the high feast days in Latin again," she said, "and it was like going to the opera. When he announced he was leaving, he joked that he was going to take the choir with him."
Also, she said, "He would go out and say mass in people's homes, encouraging them to invite their family and friends. He instituted a lot of things, like The Catholic Islander newspaper and Bethlehem House for the homeless," and the territory's two cable television stations. "He invited Mother Theresa's nuns to come and work in the community. He was involved in working with the handicapped through Catholic Charities of the Virgin Islands. He started a lot of programs that have continued on."
Mother Theresa's nuns operated a hospice for people with AIDS until the structure was destroyed by Hurricane Marilyn in 1995, Garee said, then they moved to St. Croix, where they continue to work.
A desire to 'feel his way in the community'
The first impression that Hobson got of O'Malley when he arrived in the islands was of an outsider "wanting to know us, to feel his way in the community and find out what was going on in each church." Toward that end, she said, he formed a committee made up of a couple of members from each parish in the diocese. She was on that committee, and her belief is that "he was successful."
Hobson is today the minister of the St. Thomas group of w
hat is known as the Secular Franciscans. "We are lay people who have decided to live their lives in a very humble way, in the manner of St. Clare and St. Francis," she said. St. Clare, she explained, was a woman of means who decided to emulate St. Francis of Assisi and take up a humble life.
O'Malley was not only supportive of the group members and their counterparts on St. Croix, Hobson said, but served as a role model. "Some things are so humble about him," she said. "I think he was a great bishop for us here."
His homilies, she said, "caused you to look within yourself. The youngest and oldest persons in the church at the time would be able to relate to his sermons. They were about everyday life."
Miller and Kehoe also mentioned O'Malley's fluency in numerous languages in addition to English. He has a Ph.D. in Spanish and Portuguese literature, and before his assignment to the Virgin Islands he had worked with the Hispanic, Portuguese and Haitian communities in the Washington, D.C., area. Fall River has a large Portuguese community, and Florida's Gold Coast has large Spanish-speaking and Haitian populations.
A bittersweet transition
Law stepped down as head of the Catholic Church in Boston last December after months of pressure on him to resign in light of the accusations involving priests and children, compounded by allegations that he had long known of the problems and had failed to take appropriate action to deal with them. (See "Local reaction to Law resignation is of sadness".)
The elevation of O'Malley now to succeed him is a bittersweet occasion for Virgin Islanders, Garee said, because those who know Law are grieving for what he has gone through, but at the same time O'Malley's many fans are applauding the Vatican's choice of the new leader for Boston's Catholic community. "Both of them I respect a lot," Garee said, "although I know Sean much better."
While Garee, who's also a member of the Secular Franciscans, is too young to remember when Law lived in the islands, "I inherited a lot of memories from my mother and an aunt," he said. "His mother taught my mother's sister how to play piano. I grew up hearing great stories."
In Garee's view, one of the greatest things that came out of Law's having grown up in the islands "was his respect for blacks as human beings, which he took to Mississippi and then to Boston."
Law "probably would have been a priest here," Garee said, except that at the time "we didn't have diocesan priests, members of the different religious orders. All of the priests serving the Virgin Islands were Redemptorists, who sent missionaries out all over the world."
Ironically, he said, it was O'Malley who began the transition to a local diocesan clergy. Today, he said, "we now have local priests," with half a dozen of those serving V.I. churches being from the community.
All of those contacted for this report indicated a belief that O'Malley is a wise choice to step into the situation now — not because of the curious Virgin Islands interconnections but because of who he is and what he has done in the field of reconciliation.
In Garee's view, the sexual abuse scandal was compounded by the church's overriding concern to "protect the bureaucracy at all costs." As a result, he said, "We're on the cross now, and we're suffering, and rightly so. We're a church of saints and sinners, and we're going to grow from it. Sean is a perfect example of the Holy Spirit working through a man who is a healer."
Kehoe, an advertising account executive, recalled that she had done ad work for the diocese under O'Malley. For a certain publication, she wanted to use the image of a miter, the tall hat worn by bishops and other officials of the Catholic Church. "I found some clip art and thought it looked pretty good," she said. But when the bishop saw the results, he called and told her, "That's the pope's miter!"
"I replied, 'That's okay; it's foreshadowing.'"
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