Kevin Cullen

Quietly doing God's work

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Kevin Cullen
Globe Columnist / April 17, 2008

WASHINGTON - At approximately the same time the pope was standing in the White House, Sister Carmen Soto was standing in a food pantry on Monroe Street in Mount Pleasant, 3 miles north of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

They give out food at Centro Católico Hispano, the Spanish Catholic Center, on Wednesdays. And, pope or no pope, people need to eat.

"Thirty bags," Sister Carmen said, pulling a can of SpaghettiOs down from a shelf. "We give out about 30 bags."

An elegant, diminutive old man appeared at the door. He smiled.

"Buenos días, hermana," he said, bowing slightly.

"Buenos días, Señor Barba," Sister Carmen replied.

Eugenio Barba is 78. He is from Ecuador, and every Wednesday he comes to bag the food they give away to the poor. He is one of 100 people who volunteer at the center.

"They give us so much, the sisters and the priests," Eugenio Barba said. "So this is how I give back. It's not much. But it's something."

Centro Católico Hispano started 41 years ago, but it really came into its own when a young Capuchin priest named Sean O'Malley took it over in 1970.

O'Malley, now a cardinal and Boston's archbishop, is a legend in Mount Pleasant. Old Salvadoran women still tell the story of when O'Malley said a Mass for the Washington diplomatic corps.

He got up in the pulpit and told the smartly dressed ambassadors and consul generals that he had heard from too many of the women who cooked and cleaned for them that they were treating their domestics shabbily. Many in the congregation got up and left. O'Malley kept talking as the indignant big shots walked out.

"That's a true story," the Rev. Mario Dorsonville, the Colombian priest who now runs the center, was saying. "And the people here, they don't forget that he was on their side, the poor people, the working people."

More than 30,000 people pass through Centro Católico Hispano every year. They come from 75 different countries, and not just those for whom Spanish is a first language.

There's a growing number of Ethiopians. They get their teeth fixed in the dental clinic that Sister Janice Heisey runs. Or they bring their children to the medical clinic where the surgeon is a nun named Sister Dede Byrne whose sense of humor is as sharp as her scalpel. They get job training. They get heard.

Father Mario says they don't have a fancy mission statement. They keep it simple.

"What did Jesus do?" Father Mario said, shrugging. "He healed the sick. He fed the hungry. So that's what we do."

It is obviously a big deal that Pope Benedict XVI is here. But lost in the wall-to-wall coverage of the pope's visit is the simple fact that every single day, there are priests and nuns and lay people who work with the most vulnerable among us. They don't get treated like celebrities. They don't get invited to the White House.

But, like Father Mario, like Sister Carmen, like Eugenio Barba, they show up. Every day. And they take care of people who need to be taken care of. They don't preach social justice. They practice it. They do God's work.

Marcus Kebede lives in Washington. He is 46 and he drives a taxi. He grew up in Ethiopia and he is extremely lucky to be alive because he has seen war. Some years ago, he found himself in Rome.

"I was a refugee," he said. "I had no place to go."

He was befriended by priests and nuns in Rome, and they did everything they could to help him. They got him to America 16 years ago. He is an American citizen now.

And while he can't remember all the questions the priests and nuns in Rome asked him, he remembers the question they didn't ask him.

"They never asked me if I was Catholic," Marcus Kebede said. "I'm not. But they never asked."

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at

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