ANECDOTE: “I feed them, and I clothe them and give them temporary help… I think that’s American.” – Bishop John J. Fitzpatrick

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Central Americans Fled their Countries to Escape Criminal Oppression

Texas Border Business

By Roberto Hugo Gonzalez

John J. Fitzpatrick Bishop Emeritus

In May 1987, I had the honor of meeting and interviewing the late Bishop John J. Fitzpatrick of the Catholic Diocese of Brownsville. Since the first time I heard his name and what he was doing to help Central Americans – mainly people in need – he impressed me so much that I knew he was a man that I wanted to interview. I am glad I did.

In 1981, tens of thousands of refugees from Central America specifically from three countries; El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua fled civil wars in their homelands.

Because of this, Bishop Fitzpatrick promoted the opening of a shelter for immigrants under the inspiration of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, who had been a social activist in San Salvador and then murdered by killers while he was celebrating mass. The assassins acted under instructions of General Roberto D’Abuisson, the leader of the Salvadoran army, who later became the President of that country. D’Abuisson distinguished himself as an enemy of the people and cynically anti-Christian.

By 1982 Casa Oscar Romero officially opened its doors to refugees from Central America. For many years the facility sheltered about 130,000 refugees and served approximately 2.5 million meals.

As I remember it, there was a series of revolts beginning in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and then Guatemala. Those revolts were fostered by communist-socialist activists among whom there were many Catholic priests from Spain and Belgium involved. There was widespread bloodshed, which created a flow of immigrants looking for protection and asylum in the U.S.

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At that time, Bishop Fitzpatrick was very committed to welcoming the immigrants looking for a safe haven in the United States. He saw the exodus, similar to what we are witnessing today, of thousands of Central Americans pouring into the Rio Grande Valley.

When he established Casa Oscar Romero, he encountered opposition but remained steadfast. He would say, “They were hungry, and we gave them food; they needed a place to sleep, and we gave them shelter.”

Because of the help Bishop Fitzpatrick was providing to people in need, he was asked by the federal authorities to stop sheltering undocumented immigrants, no matter their political struggles. He had to face federal Judge Filemon Vela who respectfully asked him not to continue.

Bishop Fitzpatrick was summoned to court and was asked to stop violating the immigration laws. He reportedly was confrontational but accepted to shut down the Casa Romero. Instead, he promoted the opening of another institution to shelter the homeless. The Bishop even opened his garage door, so people could take refuge.

What Bishop Fitzpatrick faced was a phenomenon: thousands of Central American and Mexican refugees crossing the border looking for asylum from tyranny or work so that they could feed their families.

I remember him as a gentle and humble man. I have no doubt he will receive the reward promised to a good and faithful servant. I am glad I got to meet him.

On Saturday, July 15, 2006, in the city of Brownsville, John J. Fitzpatrick Bishop Emeritus passed away. He served as the bishop of the Diocese of Brownsville for twenty years (1971-1991). Since his retirement in 1991, he made his residence at St. Mary, Mother of the Church Parish in Brownsville until he left this earth. He was 87 years of age.

Bishop John J. Fitzpatrick in 1987. Bishop Fitzpatrick asked me if who could select the areas for the picture, and so he did. Pictured in the frame, Pope John Paul II, born Karol Józef Wojtyła, served as Pope and sovereign of the Vatican City State from 1978 to 2005. Photo by Roberto Hugo Gonzalez May 1987
Bishop John J. Fitzpatrick in 1987. Bishop Fitzpatrick asked me if who could select the areas for the picture, and so he did. Pictured in the frame, Pope John Paul II, born Karol Józef Wojtyła, served as Pope and sovereign of the Vatican City State from 1978 to 2005. Photo by Roberto Hugo Gonzalez May 1987

“I feed them, and I clothe them and give them temporary help… I think that’s American.” – Bishop John J. Fitzpatrick

McAllen City Magazine, June 1987

It has been said, and rightfully so, that there is an assortment of subjects better off not argued about. This includes religion. The topic of religion is subject to the most objective scrutiny ever pondered in the minds of men. One man’s God is another man’s myth. We are indeed among the blessed to live in a country that allows the freedom for individuals to decide for themselves how to worship, if at all, and the freedom to choose what elements or beliefs to hold sacred in our hearts.

Though at times embroiled in a pan of controversy, and often the recipient of harsh and passionate criticism, it should be acknowledged that, more times than not, the Catholic Diocese of Brownsville has proven itself as a stabilizer and sustaining power in the struggle of maintaining a moral and quality existence for those living in the Rio Grande Valley.

Catholic Diocese Bishop John J.Fitzpatrick seems to take the criticism in stride with his work. “I think many things I’ve done have bothered people’s consciences, and people don’t like that. We like to be left alone and… not be bothered and I bothered a lot of people and I think that’s perfectly okay. Christ bothered a lot of people and ended up in His being killed. I’m sure the people He bothered would have preferred to have been left alone so they could go about doing what He considered to be wrong.”

“I’ve been criticized heavily,” he says, “Because I have espoused the (plight of) refugees from Central America. I have recognized that they are here; that they need to be fed… nobody else is feeding them, so I feed them.”

Bishop Fitzpatrick points out the lack of assistance provided to the refugees including the lack of government involvement. Noticeably absent about the Bishop’s manner is the fanatical ranting and raving of the righteousness of his efforts. Instead, he calmly speaks of his help to the refugees as being the American way.

“Very few others are feeding them,” he laments, “I feed them, and I clothe them, and I give them temporary help… I think that’s American. If they are here and if they are hungry, I think it’s American to take care of the poor.”

In his quiet philosophical manner, the Bishop raises questions about the self-appreciation arrogance exhibited by the American public. “We put up a big statue… in New York Harbor many years ago and then we had the dedication and refurbishing of our ‘lady’… we made a big fuss about what a great nation we were assisting all of the refugees who came from Europe. We said over and over and over, ‘Give me your poor and huddled masses and I will take care of them.’ Apparently, however, in the minds of many, especially here in the Valley, that doesn’t include Central Americans… other hungry people… people who are here because they have been dispossessed of their homes down in El Salvador and Nicaragua… people who are in concentration camps down there… people whose father and mother have been tortured;I think it does.”

The Bishop readily admits his ability to provide for these people is indeed limited, yet he remains resolute in believing his actions are worthy and necessary. He explains that because of his efforts many community members are feeling hurt and frustrated. These feelings, he says, are born of fears. “If they would only get to know some of these people,” he explains, “the fears would be gone. But they make crazy statements that the crime rate is going up. Well, in the four years or five years almost in San Benito, where we had about 20,000 people to take care of, there’s been no increase in crime at all, so when people say things out of fear, I feel that’s a bad way to make decisions.”

In a few weeks, the Bishop hopes to relocate the Casa Oscar Romero – still viewed as a barrel of bad apples within the community – to its new location in Brownsville. He expects the same troubles which have plagued the Casa in the past. Bishop Fitzpatrick expresses a genuine desire for the people of Brownsville to at least give him a chance to help others as well as local citizens without feeling threatened.

Contrary to what many of his critic’s claim, the Diocese has not violated, as far as is known to Fitzpatrick, any American laws concerning illegal immigrants. The immigrants he serves do not intend to homestead in the border area. He raises the fact of high unemployment among the Valley’s own legal residents as a cause for the refugees to only spend time in the area as a stepping stone of joining family in other parts of the country. “No one has said we are violating the law,” he says, “The suits against us have been because we were building mobile homes, or that we were going to be a nuisance.”

“What role the church will play in the future of America is entirely up to the church itself,” says Fitzpatrick. “The mandate for the church is to tear down its self-constructed walls and go into the communities and make a difference,” he says. “In doing so, the church can raise the awareness of America to the sad irony of the world’s greatest nation having enough nuclear weaponry to destroy the earth and yet display total disregard for the hungry people of the land.”

“I think (the church is) going to play a very great part,” he says. “Whether other people like it or not, the church is here to stay… it’s here to say its piece… to represent the poor and to urge people to live in dignity with each other.”

In order to reach a larger audience, the church has become only the fourth diocese in the country to acquire broadcasting facilities. According to the Bishop, it’s “not just cable which the rich people can get, but a station everybody can get.” Through the airwaves, the diocese will be involved in continuing assistance to those in need with programs on “nourishment, health care, and family.” “We think that’s the church’s job nowadays,” he says, “Not just to talk about the hereafter.”

By now, you may realize the character driving Bishop Fitzpatrick is one of compassion, caring, and selflessness. “But who is he?” you may ask, and “Where did he come from?”

John J. Fitzpatrick was born in Canada in 1918. At the age of five, his family moved to Buffalo, New York where he attended all Catholic schools. He spent three years in Rome, Italy before World War II, then returned to the states to finish his studies. He was ordained in 1942 and immediately went to Florida to serve as a chaplain.

He left Florida after a year but returned in 1948 and remained there for twenty-three years in a variety of jobs ranging from running two newspapers to pastoring. In 1968 he became the Auxiliary Bishop. Three years later he was transferred to his present post. May 27, 1987, he observed his sixteenth anniversary in Texas. “I’ve been in the south now for forty years… I’ve worked hard here (in Texas), and hope to die here.”

Among some of his most noted accomplishments here, Fitzpatrick says, “One of the major things is, we have recognized that following the decree of the 2nd Vatican Council, we have called forth the laity to assume some responsibility from the church. We have had a rather large education program to train and inform people to assume certain (roles).

“A priest simply can’t do everything, and in a parish where we have 5,000 Catholics to every priest and lots of needs, we’re training people to help in family life. Surely married people know more about family life than we do and can be of service to others who are having problems.”

The bishop also gives much credit to Valley Interfaith as a source of direction for many people. This organization is responsible for much of the effort to help people do their own thinking and organizing locally for the betterment of schools, streets, and other necessities.

An unlikely candidate to earn the Bishop’s praise is the role played by the television evangelists… “I think there are lots of people… who have discovered Jesus Christ by listening to these people. That’s good.” However, he adds, “These evangelists don’t do much more than… preach about the personal relationship with God, without any effort made to insist that (people) have to demonstrate this relationship with other people… that the way to prove their relationship with God is how they treat their neighbor.” MCM

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