Still grateful after 47 years

Photo Caption: Forty-seven years after leaving Cuba as teenagers and living in Guardian Angel Home in West Peoria, the nine reunion participants pose with former home chaplain Fr. Richard Mullen in Champaign June 27

By: By Tom Dermody

The Fourth of July weekend is all about gratitude for the freedoms we enjoy in the United States.

But for 14 people who came to this country from Cuba as unaccompanied teenagers in 1962, last weekend was a treasured chance to say “thank you” — to God as well as to individuals and groups in the Diocese of Peoria who welcomed and guided them.

“We owe everything to them,” said Ricardo Jiminez, now of North Port, Fla., following an emotional reunion of nine of the original group of 14 who found support and a fresh start at Guardian Angel Home in Peoria in the early 1960s.

He was speaking of people like Father Richard Mullen, now a senior priest of the diocese living in Champaign, who was chaplain of the orphanage when the Cuban youths arrived. On Saturday, Father Mullen celebrated a Mass with the reunion group in the chapel of The High School of Saint Thomas More.

“They had nothing but the clothes on their back when they got off the plane” in 1962, Father Mullen recalled. The 12 boys and two girls had been accepted by the diocese from among 14,000 youths sent to the United States by concerned Cuban parents under a program called “Operation Pedro Pan.”

Their parents feared that the new Cuban government led by Fidel Castro would take their children and indoctrinate them into communism, perhaps sending them to Russia. On “blind faith,” said Father Mullen, many opted to let their children go to Miami unaccompanied — some to relatives or friends, but half to a refugee camp. While at the time they expected to see their children again in a matter of months, for some it turned out to be decades.

Under the leadership of Bishop John B. Franz, the Diocese of Peoria agreed to assume care for some of the teenagers. The late Father Cyril Schlarman, then superintendent of Guardian Angel Home, went to Miami to make arrangements.

“I am so grateful to Father Schlarman,” said Ana Ferran Parent, who was the oldest among the group selected for the diocese at 18 and was accompanied by her brother, Alberto. The youths, who knew limited if any English, were enrolled at Spalding Institute or the Academy of Our Lady in Peoria. All but one went on to earn college degrees, most at Catholic colleges or the University of Illinois. Two, including Parent, have doctorates, and many enjoyed highly successful careers.

And while Father Mullen credits that success to their work ethic, the former Cubans point back to their experience at Guardian Angel Home and the love and assistance they received there and in ensuing years.

“We are here to say thank you for all you did for us,” said Parent after reunion group members placed flowers on the grave of Sister Mary Amata Griffin, OSF, at St. Mary’s Cemetery in West Peoria.

“And we miss you,” said another group member.

Parent, now a member of Epiphany Parish in Normal, recalled she had left not only her parents but a serious boyfriend behind in Cuba. Sister Amata — one of the Franciscan Sisters staffing the home — “was like a mother to me,” offering advice and “teaching me how to live in this society.”

“She always looked after my welfare,” said Parent of Sister Amata, who died in 2002. “She meant a lot to me.”

While Parent still lives in the diocese, reunion group members came from across the United States. On Sunday some, like Jimenez, got their first look inside Guardian Angel Home in 47 years, courtesy of a tour organized by Catholic Charities.

“This used to be our playground,” said one member of the group as they circled the building. “That was all corn,” said another, looking at a building that stood in what was a field in 1962.

But Jimenez said the historic building itself is much the same as nearly five decades ago. After the group enjoyed lunch in the home’s dining room, he showed a 10-minute DVD with dozens of photos set to music from the era showing the group at Guardian Angel in the 1960s.

In planning for the reunion Mass, Father Mullen noted that Saturday was the feast of St. Cyril. He offered the Mass for Father Schlarman and for the intentions of the reunion group.

“He was extraordinary,” said Father Mullen of Father Schlarman. “He did an awful lot for those kids.”
The group said the same of Father Mullen, with several calling him their “mentor.”

They presented Father Mullen with a plaque that reads “Father Mullen: 47 years later, we remain grateful to you. The Cubans of Guardian Angel Home.”

“It was just beautiful,” said Father Mullen of the entire reunion weekend. “I was on Cloud Nine. It was like all 47 years had just fallen away, and here were the kids again.”

Father Mullen called it amazing how the group has stayed connected through the years through correspondences including the exchange of Christmas cards. Given the success of the 2009 reunion, is another get-together planned?

Maybe, said Jimenez, “but there won’t be another one like this one.”

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