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WASHINGTON, D.C.Tenants found unity in 'Padre Sean'
By Marcella Bombardieri, Globe Staff, 7/27/2003
They shivered through winters without heat or hot water. They battled rats and cockroaches, and the drug dealers and prostitutes who took over vacant apartments. And then came the final indignity - eviction notices from the building's owners, who hoped to cash in by renovating and selling the building.
That's when Brother Sean P. O'Malley moved in.
In 1977, O'Malley took up residence in one of the capital's most undesirable addresses to fight for the rights of its tenants. Joined by a few nuns, a former United Farm Workers organizer, some student activists and the tenants themselves, O'Malley helped win one of the first victories for low-income residents in the Washington housing crisis of that era.
Ministering to the poor was something O'Malley had vowed to do as a Capuchin friar, but he pushed his devotion to the voiceless to an unusual extent. Leading a rent strike fit his sense of social justice and style of leadership, said Randy Keesler, a fellow Kenesaw resident.
"It was not enough for Sean to be a safety net. He saw that you need to help people struggle so they can get justice," said Keesler, now with the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. "Helping people is not enough. You've got to change some things, so you have to confront some things."
By the time he moved into Apartment 104 at the Kenesaw, "Padre Sean" was renowned for his work with the capital's burgeoning Hispanic immigrant population, which centered around the tattered Mount Pleasant neighborhood of Northwest Washington where the Kenesaw, a crumbling edifice of brick and wrought iron, stood.
In the first years after O'Malley finished his graduate studies and became director of Washington's Centro Catolico Hispano in 1973, he worked to open safehouses for battered women and men with nowhere to go, provided food and medicine to the needy, and lobbied the Immigration and Naturalization Service on behalf of immigrants. He opened a Spanish-language bookstore and founded a community newspaper still thriving today. He ran from one Mass to the next, saying most of them in Spanish but others in Portuguese or French.
But O'Malley also had a provocative streak. He confronted ambassadors who were mistreating their servants; in some cases his staff literally rescued domestic workers deprived of their passports and kept in near-slavery conditions. He criticized the State Department on national television for failing to punish the abusive diplomats.
Once, O'Malley gave a sermon about human rights to a cathedral full of Latin American diplomats. A quarter-century later, people remember his words as so incendiary that, one by one, the dignitaries stood up and walked out.
The Centro Catolico's offices were already in the Kenesaw, but by night O'Malley stayed at the Capuchin College nearby -- until the eviction notices arrived.
According to the tenants, the building's owner, Antioch Law School in Washington, had been collecting rent but not providing services -- a charge not disputed today by school officials from that era. Antioch was in financial trouble and hoped to sell the decrepit but stately building to a developer.
Facing eviction, a Dominican family turned in desperation to a legal aid clinic called Ayuda, where O'Malley served on the board. It's not that they wanted to stay in the Kenesaw, where their six children suffered from the cold and from fleas spread by rodents. They simply had no other place to go, according to Silverio Coy, then a law student working at Ayuda, and a contemporary newspaper account.
"There were fires every week and it was so unsafe," said Coy. "Nobody seemed to be able to take control of the environment. They were just sharing the shell."
Coy thought about trying to organize the 20 or so families that remained in the 80-unit tenement to try to take it over. A provision of District of Columbia law allowed tenants the "right of first refusal" to buy a building being converted to condominiums. Yet, it seemed nearly impossible, since the residents were timid and had no money. So he consulted O'Malley.
"Father O'Malley was moved," said Coy, now an immigration lawyer in Falls Church, Va. "He said `We have to find a solution. We have to draw the line here."'
The critical moment came at a face-off in the Kenesaw lobby in March of 1977. Antioch offered $1,000 to anyone who would move out. O'Malley and Coy made a counteroffer: a helping hand to those willing to stay and fight. "Father O'Malley said, `We can help you find a way to keep your home. I myself would be willing to move into the building,"' Coy recalled. "That kind of changed the whole thing."
The tenants decided to stay, and thus began an epic campaign. They immediately tried to make O'Malley the president of their cooperative, but he preferred to encourage the tenants to lead themselves, according to the accounts of more than a dozen people involved.
Eventually, a couple of strong leaders emerged from the ranks of the residents. And a few more activists and immigrants were recruited to move in.
The residents were the kind of people who had their hands full just feeding their families and keeping themselves warm. Leonor Silva was an Ecuadoran immigrant who kept water boiling on the stove to fill the apartment with steam so that her three children wouldn't freeze.
Isabel Marin was a Mexican maid who wrapped a sweater around her head while she slept to keep the cockroaches from climbing on her face at night. Before arriving at the Kenesaw, Marin had been mistreated by the diplomats for whom she worked without pay. When she escaped with 95 cents to her name, O'Malley took her to get a job.
With his calm, good-humored demeanor and obvious commitment, O'Malley, the residents said, gave them courage and taught them to work together.
"He always wanted us united. Unity was the most important thing to him," said Irene Baldizon, a Nicaraguan raising two children on her own. "He would tell us we had the same rights as any other person."
The residents stopped paying rent and put the money in escrow. Everyone pitched in to clean, repair, paint, and decorate the halls with children's art. They used the same baseball bats to confront rats in the basement and drug dealers on the upper floors.
They took turns guarding the front door at night to ward off troublemakers. And there were plenty of troublemakers to keep out. Some residents remember stabbings in the street outside, and one recalled that during a fight, someone threw a brick through O'Malley's window.
The friar didn't wield a paint brush or baseball bat, but he took his shift guarding the door just like everybody else.
He slept in one room of his nearly bare apartment -- on the floor until someone found him a bed. The second room he turned into a small chapel, where he said a nightly Mass for 10 or 12 residents. When strategy meetings ran late into the night, he'd take a group to his favorite restaurant -- Roy Rogers.
O'Malley also lent the dignity of his robes to the political side of the effort, meeting with banks and politicians and marching in protests.
Edgar Cahn was dean of Antioch Law School, which later became the law school of the University of the District of Columbia. Cahn recalls he didn't enjoy being portrayed as a slumlord, but that the earnest priest in a brown robe and sandals was hard to resist.
"If it had just been a student-led manipulation of the tenants, I would have been very uncomfortable," said Cahn, recalling that many of his students sided with the tenants, and one even moved into the Kenesaw. "His leadership really meant that the group stood for the interests of these disenfranchised immigrants."
The tenants won over Cahn, but they had a harder time with Antioch's trustees. So O'Malley and Coy flew to Ohio, home of Antioch's main campus, to chastise the board. "This is a matter of doing justice to these people," O'Malley told them, according to Coy. "You can't displace these poor people and go along with your lives as if you've done nothing wrong."
They lobbied then-first lady Rosalynn Carter, entreated HUD, and recruited city councilors. After a year and a half, they cobbled together enough in loans from a public agency, the D.C. Development Corporation, and a bank, to buy the building for $890,000. After that came to the long struggle to raise $1.45 million for renovations which took years to complete.
The co-op has enabled many residents to afford a decent standard of living and send their children to college. While some have died or moved away, many still live in the Kenesaw. One man even asked for his ashes to be spread in the garden.
Though Mount Pleasant has changed a lot, and there are a number of well-off white families in the building (renamed the Renaissance by the condo association), residents say they feel a sense of family and work together to keep up the garden or help a sick neighbor.
For that, and for so much else, many credit O'Malley, whose picture hangs above Isabel Marin's bed. Even though he was just one of several leaders, resident after resident -- some of them tearing up -- insisted they could not have won without Padre Sean.
"Thanks to God, we live here like millionaires. For those of us who are poor, this is a lot," said Silva, sitting at her kitchen table as one of her five grandchildren colored next to her. "Padre Sean left us with all of this and he still has nothing."
This story ran on page B10 of the Boston Globe on 7/27/2003.