Forty days after Hurricane Maria battered the island of Puerto Rico, Cardinal Dolan and Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn brought financial support, prayerful solidarity and the family love of New York’s Puerto Rican Catholic community on their pastoral visit to Archbishop Roberto Gonzalez of San Juan and the people of Puerto Rico last week.
The cardinal, speaking at a noon Mass he offered Oct. 30 at the historic Metropolitan Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Baptist in Old San Juan, told the small congregation about the affection that Archbishop Gonzalez inspired in the members of the New York delegation, which also included three priests and two lay leaders.
“We know he belongs to you. He’s part of our family, too,” Cardinal Dolan said.
Archbishop Gonzalez, 67, has served as the spiritual leader of the Archdiocese of San Juan since 1999.
A native of Elizabeth, N.J., Archbishop Gonzalez was ordained for the Franciscans of the Holy Name Province, headquartered in Manhattan. He served as pastor of Holy Cross parish and parochial vicar of St. Pius V, both in the Bronx, before he was consecrated an auxiliary bishop of Boston in 1988.
When the cardinal was finally able to reach Archbishop Gonzalez by phone after the hurricane, he said the archbishop responded to a question about his most pressing need by answering, “Your prayers.”
Cardinal Dolan told the congregation that the people of the Archdiocese of New York and the Diocese of Brooklyn were “praying with and for you every day.”
The faithful of both dioceses also responded by giving “many gifts and offerings,” which the prelates brought to Archbishop Gonzalez. “We do that with joy today,” the cardinal said.
More than $700,000 was collected from the people of the Archdiocese of New York, and an additional $115,000 was raised in the Diocese of Brooklyn.
Speaking near the end of Mass, Cardinal Dolan assured those who were present that while they may feel isolated or alone at times, they were not. “Know of my love and prayers always,” the cardinal said.
The message was a balm for Gladys Soto, a secondary school teacher from Bayamon who traveled by car, ferry and foot to attend the Mass.
“The caring, and the happiness and the pain. It makes me want to continue to move forward with the love of Christ,” she told CNY through a translator after Mass.
“That’s when you become brothers and sisters.”
Ms. Soto’s school is currently closed. It lacks essentials, including electricity, needed to reopen, she said. In the meantime, she said she regularly encounters her students and feels that she is still able to offer them lessons of a different sort.
“They taught me a long time ago that children are our future,” said Ms. Soto, a Spanish teacher who also offers instruction in psychology.
Her final comment was one of gratitude to the New Yorkers for their visit. “Thank you for thinking of Puerto Rico and for coming here,” she said.
The priests who made the daylong visit with Cardinal Dolan and Bishop DiMarzio were Msgr. Kevin Sullivan, executive director of archdiocesan Catholic Charities; Father Eric Cruz, pastor of St. John Chrysostom parish in the Bronx and director of Bronx Catholic Charities; and Father James Cruz, pastor of St. Raymond parish, the Bronx. The latter two priests both are of Puerto Rican descent, and each has family members living on the island.
Another member of the archdiocesan delegation, Wanda Vasquez, the director of Hispanic Ministry, is a native of Puerto Rico who had visited the island of Vieques the week before to escort her mother, who lives there, to New York.
Archbishop Gonzalez gave the New Yorkers a personal tour of various church facilities and operations in San Juan and surrounding municipalities on a hot day with temperatures approaching 90 degrees.
Traveling by van through the cobblestone streets of Old San Juan, one could see a large uprooted tree about a half-block from the cathedral lurching precariously to one side. Signs in many store windows revealed shortened business hours necessitated by the lack of electricity. In outlying areas, piles of debris were common on the side of the road.
A press conference was held at the headquarters of Caritas Puerto Rico in San Juan, where Father Enrique Camacho, the director, marshals a dedicated band of workers. Together with counterparts in Puerto Rico’s five other dioceses, and some disaster relief workers from various Catholic and other agencies from the U.S. mainland, they provide one of the most effective island-wide responses after Hurricane Maria.
Addressing Caritas employees who were assembled along with media representatives, Cardinal Dolan thanked them for their presence and the work they have been doing.
“St. Paul taught us that when one part of the body of Christ is suffering, we are all suffering,” the cardinal said. “We are with you.”
Bishop DiMarzio said, “We come as representatives of the Puerto Rican city that is New York.”
Archbishop Gonzalez, addressing the media, called the island’s current status “still very severe.”
“I hope we do not lose our sense of urgency,” the archbishop said. “We have to renew our sense of urgency.”
Speaking of physicians and others who have come to offer their assistance in Puerto Rico’s time of need, Archbishop Gonzalez urged their continued help. “This is the moment we need them to stay.”
In a brief interview with Catholic New York after the press conference, Archbishop Gonzalez said the situation in San Juan was improving. “Roads are opening. Schools opened today. Things are beginning to move again.”
He called the visit by the prelates, and the others from New York, “a moving gesture of fraternity and solidarity, what it means to be Church.”
“From the bottom of my heart, I want to express a word of deep gratitude for their generosity and spirit of sacrifice. New York is a big city that has a big heart,” Archbishop Gonzalez said.
“It is a generous city that welcomes people from all over the world with kindness and tolerance. We are the beneficiaries of your kindness.”
Archbishop Gonzalez said a number of other bishops have contacted him and sent donations for Puerto Rico.
The New York group visited an enormous cross on a hilltop that serves as a landmark. Visible signs of damage were apparent at the site, which Archbishop Gonzalez said would serve as a future shrine to Our Lady of Providence, the patroness of Puerto Rico. At this point, the archbishop said he calls it “the Shrine of the Living Stones.”
Some of the stone tiles were missing from the base of the cross and an altar in the foreground, and plastic fencing cordoned off the damaged sections. A large tent for regular devotions with young people that are popular at the site was carried away in the hurricane. One of the life-size Stations of the Cross figures remains toppled to the ground.
The day’s final stop was at the Carmelite Sisters’ Monastery of San Jose in Trujillo Alto, where the visitors joined the sisters in their chapel for a stirring chorus of “Salve Regina.” The hurricane’s winds shattered some windows in the chapel, where chain link fencing has been installed to secure the monastery.
Eleven members of the contemplative congregation hosted their visitors in a large community room, where they played music and served juices and snacks.
One sister, addressing the New Yorkers, spoke of the need for “spiritual reconstruction” in the storm’s wake. She noted that the monastery’s tree-lined landscape was reshaped to reveal formerly hidden houses and neighbors nearby.
“Material things, finally, are not the most important,” she said.