Bishop’s Words Still Echo

Bishop Josu Iriondo
New York Daily News/March 23, 2011

It has been five years since the passing of my friend Bishop Francisco Garmendia.

The Basque bishop came to New York as a young priest in 1964. He told those at his first homily in New York: “Your joys will be my joys, and your sorrows will be my sorrows.”

His generosity, commitment and dedication to the less fortunate continue to serve as an example to others who follow in his path.

If he were alive and well, I believe Bishop Garmendia would lead one of his public prayerful processions on March 25 to commemorate the tragedy that occurred at the Happy Land Social Club 21 years ago.

On that fatal morning in 1990, a dollar’s worth of gasoline and two matches were used to torch a nightclub where 94 people were partying.

Sixty women and men were widowed, and 106 children were orphaned.

On the morning of March 26, 1990, the late John Cardinal O’Connor, who served as the archbishop of New York, and Bishop Francisco Garmendia, who served as the pastor to St. Thomas Aquinas Church on Crotona Parkway, led a prayer service in front of the remains of the Happy Land club.

They gathered to pray for those who had died, and offer comfort to the community that survived.

The 87 fatalities were part of a human tragedy of people from different heritages, including Hondurans, Garifunans, Puerto Ricans and other New Yorkers.

They all had families and friends who loved them and cherished them and miss them dearly.

On the 10th anniversary of the Happy Land Social Club tragedy, Bishop Garmendia lovingly asked the crowd to “Give great applause for those angels who are here among us.”

I invite those who will pay their respects this year at the Plaza of Eighty-Seven, the memorial across the street from the club site, to also recall the spiritual, psychological and concrete blessings offered by Bishop Garmendia during that difficult period and each year that followed.

The love and kindness he displayed for our South Bronx community is unforgettable – especially his pastoral care for the surviving family members of the Happy Land tragedy.

His compassion for the preciousness of all human life, and his reminders of our mission as witnesses to Christ’s calling to help those in need, are very much alive in our hearts.

The Resource Center for Community Development, a social service agency now known as The Hopeline, was begun in the basement of St. Thomas Aquinas rectory by Bishop Garmendia.

Thankfully, it was in place at the time of the tragic Happy Land Social Club fire.

During that relief effort, Bishop Garmendia let people know, “We are trying to deal with the needs of the people as they arise.

“At the moment, these include helping newly arrived immigrants, the poor and those who do not speak English.”

The Hopeline continues to- grow as it serves the needs of many through its food pantry, clothing bank, citizenship orientation and literacy programs.

The Hispanic Catholic Charismatic Center, also founded by New York’s first Hispanic bishop, began 1899 Daly Ave.

It is now located at St Anthony of Padua – bursting with young new members, and providing spiritual renewal and ministries to the corporal and temporal needs of the Hispanic community.

It is wonderful that on June 29, there will be a street naming in memory of Bishop Garmendia.

I look forward to celebrating this occasion and also to commemorating the anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood that same day.

So many of us have been blessed by Bishop Garmendia’s examples of generosity and by his dedication to the evangelization of the South Bronx and the Hispanic community.

I encourage all South Bronx residents to pray for all of the lives we have lost and for the,families and friends who continue to grieve those losses.

Let’s recommit ourselves to serving those who live among us, and treasuring the memories of those who taught us how to love our neighbor.

Bishop Josu Iriondo is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of New York.

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