During the recent conclave, many Catholics saw Cardinal Seán Patrick O’Malley, O.F.M. Cap., of Boston, interviewed frequently on the news. While many know the cardinal for his work running the Archdiocese of Boston, what they might not know is that prior to that he was the second bishop of the mission diocese of St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, a position he held from 1984 to 1992.
During this time, which he remembers fondly, Bishop Seán, as he was known, lived and worked among the people of the islands of St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John. With the help of Catholic Extension, and in response to the devastating poverty he observed, Cardinal O’Malley led the development of the island’s first homeless shelter. It is called Bethlehem House, he explained, so that we now can say there is, in fact, room at the inn for everyone.
“I have a very warm spot at the bottom of my heart for Extension,” Cardinal O’Malley said.
Catholic Extension donors also helped Cardinal O’Malley rebuild the fledgling diocese after Hurricane Hugo hit in the fall of 1989.
Following the hurricane, Catholic Extension provided funding so that roofs could be put back on churches and critical repairs could be made to other church buildings. “The hurricane destroyed virtually all of our institutions,” Cardinal O’Malley said. “It was quite a process of rebuilding.”
What’s more, “When I became bishop, the entire budget for the diocese was $30,000,” Cardinal O’Malley said. “If you are acquainted with a bigger city parish budget, $30,000 often is what is spent on the choir!”
Richard Bourne-Vanneck, a St. Thomas native who is president of the Bethlehem House board, spoke of Cardinal O’Malley’s legacy. Right after Bethlehem House opened, Bourne-Vanneck said, “Our local media ran major editorials, which said that the Catholic diocese has done more for the poor and the needy than any other source, including the government.”
Underscoring Cardinal O’Malley’s belief that many on the island lived “just a paycheck away from homelessness,” Bourne-Vanneck noted that “our diocese is a very small and a very poor diocese. We have a very limited population pool, and the Virgin Islands have the highest per capita incidence of poverty under the American flag, with the exception of some portion of Puerto Rico.
“Much of the poverty you see here are people living under trees or in abandoned cars,” he added.
Coupled with the high cost of living because everything needs to be imported, the situation can become almost beyond hope for many. “The efforts of the Church are desperately needed...there is nowhere else for the poor to turn except to the Catholic Church for the provision of these needs,” Bourne-Vanneck said.
Caring deeply for the poor will long be part of Cardinal O’Malley’s legacy on the Virgin Islands. And, Catholic Extension is fortunate to have played a part in those efforts.