My Testimony about Bishop Francisco Garmendia, by Tommy Terzi

Bishop Francisco Garmendia was my Spiritual Director. Through the friendship of Tony and Lillian DeFeo (two very dear friends of the bishop) that’s how I met the bishop. They thought I should meet him, and ask him to be my Spiritual Director!

Lillian called him, and next thing I knew, I was in his office. We spoke a while, bonded a little, and he said he would pray about it. I was about to leave when the bishop asked me if I could hang this picture for him. Next thing I know I’m hanging the picture. “Nice job, ” the bishop said.” Then he said, “I have some other pictures you could hang, the next time you come.” The next time!!?  (Betty Cleary, the bishop’s secretary thought and laughed to herself, “This poor guy doesn’t know what he’s in for” she told me later on.) “Does that mean that you’ll be my Spiritual Director?” He said, “Well it looks like that’s what the Blessed Mother wants.”

How blessed was I.

We became best of friends in so much as he once turned and said to me, “Tommy sometimes you’re like my son, and sometimes you’re like my brother.” I could have died happily right then and there. I loved this man, and became his “right-hand Man,” as Betty was his “right-hand Girl.”  Between ALL the work that had to be done, the three of us still managed to have fun.

Here we were working with a male Mother Teresa! Thanks be to God he’s finally resting with the Lord—-finally Resting. We all look forward to seeing him again, when it be God’s Will.

Talking about working with the bishop, let me tell you about the first “big job” he sentenced me to, I mean—gave me. He asked me one day as we were walking down the front steps of St. Thomas Aquinas, if I would turn around and look up at “that space” over the doors. Didn’t I think that a nice statue of our Blessed Mother, looking over the Parish, would fit there very nicely. (He knew I was friends with a man who owned his own statuary) I told him, “Bishop, do you know what that would take to do?! ”  “No, but you know!” Who could EVER say no, or decline anything that Bishop Garmendia would ask of you—and boy, he took full advantage of it. You never knew what you were getting into, or where it would take you to! So allow me to fast forward and tell you what happened.

I called my statuary friend and told him what the bishop wanted. Without hesitation he said, “Tommy, I’ll donate the statue, ( a five foot statue of the Blessed mother, and he would have it painted) but you have to pay the painter, and he’ll give you a break.” Next, I found a carpenter who would install the statue——no charge—-and install he did! Praise God, and thank you Mother Mary! So, that’s how the statue of the Blessed Mother came to be sitting atop the church, looking over the parish of St. Thomas Aquinas. Amen.

On to my next adventure—-off to Cuba with the bishop and Pope John Paul ll. Yes, the bishop invited me to go along with him to Cuba as sort of an unofficial sidekick. It was a holy thrill of my life! One day he was invited to Castro’s palace for lunch with the Pope, cardinals, and other bishops. He tried to get me in with him—-but couldn’t swing it. He told me when he got back to our room, he would share with me—-and he did. He met with Castro, and Castro tried to impress the bishop with scripture he knew. (Castro had been schooled earlier in his life by the Jesuits) He asked the bishop, after having finished quoting scripture; “Well what do you think of that my dear bishop?” Without missing a beat the bishop replied, “Too bad Fidel, you would have made a good Jesuit.” A big smile spread across the bishop’s face after he told me that. I told him, “Only you bishop, could have gotten away with that, what did he say?” “He just shook my hand and gave me a smile.” I was going to ask the bishop a few questions, however I saw he was tired so I asked him to just tell me one more highlight of being here in Cuba. Without any hesitation he said, “Seeing the faith, hope, and spirituality in the eyes of all the people.” The people of Cuba left an indelible mark on the heart of the bishop, as did the people of Mexico, when we pilgrimaged to Mexico to be with Pope John Paul ll, along with the cardinals and bishops.

On one occasion while visiting Guadalupe, we wound up 1 inch from the glass covered Tilma of Guadalupe. What an experience that was! The bishop and I just stared at the image of Our Blessed Mother on the Tilma, as Juan Diego must have stared at her. We looked at each other, smiled, said a prayer, and off we went to Santiago where the Holy Father was offering a Mass for the people. We were amazed when we arrived at the area where the Mass was to be offered. A simple stage had been erected in a huge field as far as the eye could see, filled with thousands of people as far as the eye could not see! Bishop and I sat about 10 feet away from the Holy Father. I was filled with awe and humility between being this close to the Pope and the thousands of people, and of course my Spiritual Director—-His Most Reverend Archbishop Francisco Garmendia.

There are too many stories to mention here, like always praying to St. Joseph for a parking spot whenever we had to go to Manhattan——we always got one and never had to pay for parking! Most memorable though, was when he wanted to introduce me to Mother Teresa! Mother was in her convent in the South Bronx, and asked the bishop to please come over and offer a Mass for all the Sisters. So I went along—–met Mother Teresa—–she wrote on a piece of paper, “God bless you, Sister Teresa.” That’s how humbly she signed her name. I put that precious piece of paper in a small gold frame which is above my desk, and I’m looking at it right now. How blessed I was that day to be in the company of two Saints——-Mother Teresa and Bishop Garmendia. At times I ask them to intercede for me, as I will ask them to intercede for you.

May God and Mother Mary bless us all.

Thank you for letting me share.

An Unsung Pro-Life Hero

by John Burger
Human Life Review, Winter 2006
When Bishop Francisco Garmendia was laid to rest last November, eulogists and obituary writers focused on the fact that he was the first Hispanic bishop in the Catholic Archdiocese of New York. They described his social concern – he had founded a social-services agency- and noted his pastoral care for families after a fatal nightclub fire. They spoke about his holiness, his gentleness, his humility, and his low-key personality. He was vicar of the South Bronx at a time when it was a veritable hell on earth; they mentioned the regular religious processions he led through a major park in the Bronx.But there was one aspect of his life that was completely overlooked by the eulogists in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and by writers of tributes in the Spanish and English, language press: his great concern that women were aborting their children, and doing so at an extraordinary rate.As a bishop, Garmendia took seriously the implications of being a “shepherd.” He was not a pro-life ‘star’ as New York’s Cardinal John O’Connor was during the same era – but as a Catholic and as a priest he was devoted to Christ and His Blessed Mother, and he brought his concerns about the abortion catastrophe to them.

Francisco Garmendia was a native of the Basque region of Spain, born in Lazcano in 1924. He was one of eleven children in a devout Catholic family; they were led by their parents in daily recitations of the rosary. Two of his sisters would enter religious life. Francisco experienced a call to the priesthood at an early age and entered the seminary in his adolescence.

As a member of a religious order called the Canons Regular of the Lateran, he soon found himself in South America.  Based in Salta, Argentina, he would ride his horse into the mountains several times a week to bring the sacraments to the Indians.

Around the same time, thousands of miles away in the New York suburb of Yonkers, Betty Cleary and fellow members of the lay evangelization movement the Legion of Mary went knocking on door. It was 1964, and they were discovering more and more Spanish-speaking Catholics in the neighborhood of St. Peter’s parish – immigrants who were not, for some reason, coming to church.  Word traveled up the hierarchy that St. Peter’s needed a Spanish-speaking priest.

That word translated into a new mission for Padre Francisco Garmendia, who soon became known to Miss Cleary and others at St. Peter’s as Father Francis.

“I remember the first homily he gave when he arrived,” Miss Cleary said: Your joys will be my joys, and your sorrows will  be my sorrows'”

Father Francis arrived in New York on Sept. 8, celebrated by the Church as the birthday of Mary.

After 13 years of working with immigrants in New York Father Francis was named an auxiliary bishop for the archdiocese. Archbishop Fulton Sheen, well known to Catholic television audiences in the 1950s and living his final years in New York City, wrote to him on the occasion: “Welcome to the greatest fraternity on earth!” Bishop Garmendia’s devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary was apparent in the motto he took as a bishop: “I am all Thine, My Queen and My Mother, and all that I have is Thine.” Cardinal Terence Cooke named Bishop Garmendia his Vicar for Spanish Pastoral Development; in 1986 Cardinal John O’Connor appointed him Vicar of the South Bronx.

There were two other priests, native New Yorkers, consecrated bishops in the same ceremony as Bishop Garmendia in 1977. One would go on to become the archbishop of Newark, N.J., and later Washington, D.C.: Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. The other was Bishop Austin Vaughan, a longtime auxiliary bishop of New York who, like Bishop Garmendia, had a grave concern about what America was permitting to be done to unborn lives. He was the first Catholic bishop in the United Stats to be arrested for his pro-life activities: He took part in Operation Rescue blockades of abortion businesses.

Bishop Garmendia was concerned too, but he took a different approach. “He was concerned that innocent babies were being killed and that was an injustice,” recalled Msgr. Philip Reilly, founder of the Helpers of God’s Precious Infants. “He was concerned that mothers were being exploited. He was aware of his responsibility to reach out to the Spanish so they wouldn’t be taken in by false promises.”

A Man and His Mission

Garmendia’s territory, the South Bronx, has long been viewed as a lawless place. There have been periods of in history when buildings burned and crime reigned in the streets. It’s an inner-city place of high-density population, with many people living in low-income housing projects.  There are high concentrations of immigrants,  particularly Latin Americans. Gangs and the illegal drug trade plague some neighborhoods.

There is also a particularly high abortion rate. In 2001, the year Bishop Garmendia retired, there were 21,706 live births in the Bronx, 20,356 abortions, and 2,289 “spontaneous terminations, according to New York City’s Health Department. In the city overall that year, there were 91,792 abortions – including 29,684 by Hispanic women, and 44,213 by black women. In 2004, the latest year for which statistics are available, there were 20,854 live births in the Bronx, 20,594 induced abortions, and 2,139 spontaneous terminations.

Betty Cleary’s Remarks on June 29, 2011

Dear Friends:

Isn’t it a beautiful day and how appropriate to celebrate and honor our dear friend Bishop Francisco Garmendia who has a special place in heaven as in our hearts. A warm welcome to Bishop’s nephew and his wife representing the family members in Spain. Bishop entered so many lives in a casual way. He knew immediately what each one needed. Like Jesus the Good Shepherd, he loved his flock, called each by name, fed us with knowledge of God, gave us Hope and taught us how to minister to our fellow men. He was a Spiritual father, friend and confidant to all.

On September 8th 1964, I met Father Garmendia outside the Chapel of St. Peter’s Church in Yonkers. As a member of the Legion of Mary, I along with Eva O’Neill were assigned to visit the Hispanic families moving into our parish. Msgr. Voight, our pastor, anxious that their Spiritual needs be attended to, requested the chancery to assign a Spanish speaking priest, Eve and I continued to volunteer under Father Francis’s direction in various ways such as CCD, preparation for First Holy Communion, Christmas Shows etc. Eve, in time moved upstate. I continued to volunteer while working full time. Occasionally I would do typing for Fr. Francis. I became familiar with many of his Pastoral Ministries before and after his reassignment to South Bronx parishes, and eventually to St. Thomas Aquinas.

Early in June of 1977 Bishop called to say he had been called to visit Cardinal Cooke who presented him with a question: “Would he accept the Office of Bishop?” I interrupted him and said. “What did you do?” He said, “I cried,” and then the Cardinal asked me again and I said, “Yes, but please do not take me from my people and put me in an office.” Cardinal Cooke said, “No, you will never be taken from your people. Your home will always be at St. Thomas Aquinas.”

How proud we all felt at this great honor to our beloved pastor not only a Bishop but also the first Hispanic Bishop of the South Bronx.

In the Fall of 1984, I took early retirement from the Telephone Company. A few months later, Bishop called to say he had been Appointed by the Cardinal to be Vicar of the South Bronx and would need a secretary. I told him I had no experience as a Secretary. My knowledge of Spanish was limited but I had grown to know and love the Hispanic Community from my work with the Lay Apostolate. He knew this and so I agreed and began my work at St. Thomas Aquinas I have never regretted it.

What are some of my many memories?

Joys and sorrows become a part of every family. Fr. Francis became a part of my family during his three years at St. Peter’s up to his last days at Rosary Hill. He officiated at weddings, christened new babies, visited our sick and said funeral Masses for loved ones. Not just for my family but to all his people. How blessed we were to know him.

One of my oldest memories is of a nephew about l3years old. He stopped at our home after Mass and asked me very directly, “If Fr. Francis died today, he would go straight to heaven right?” He was so serious. I answered, “I think so,” but it stayed in my mind and in the years ahead it was confirmed by many people who felt as he did about Fr. Francis. He was special; he cared about each individual soul.

I remember Bishop telling this story many times: When he first came to the South Bronx he went out for a walk and met a gentleman who asked him where did he live. He answered, “I live in the South Bronx.” The man said, “Oh! The South Bronx, is the devil’s playground?” Father responded, “Oh no, you are wrong, we will make it Our Lady’s Playground.” And he did.

I think every Catholic in the South Bronx has a Rosary, a Miraculous Medal, or a Divine Mercy medal given to them by Bishop. They participated in Rosary Processions, Rosary Rallies, Legion of Mary Praesidiums, Home Consecrations to Our Lady of Guadalupe, Divine Mercy Devotions, Right to Life Marches etc., etc. What a beautiful testament of the faith of our good Pastor and his beloved Hispanic people.

He also served as Chaplain on Pilgrimages for the handicapped to shrines in Europe, St. Anne’s in Canada and The Holy Land. The Pilgrimages were founded by Mrs. Mary Varick who was healed of cancer of the leg at St. Anne’s. In thanksgiving she promised to take other handicapped on Pilgrimages in spite of the fact that she still suffered from the effects of childhood polio.

Bishop loved his priesthood. There are endless accounts of his promptness to visit the sick or the deathbed of one of the faithful no matter what time of day or night. How comforting for families to know that their loved one was safe in the arms of God who first gave them life.

Many of you have memories of Bishop. Write them down and send them to Fr. Labrado or Fr. Alexis at St. Thomas. God willing, in the near future, a history of the Catholic Church in the South Bronx will be written. There have been and still are many shining lights in our midst. Bishop was a close friend to many of them. Mother, Teresa, Fr. Cizek, a Fordham Jesuit who was in solitary confinement for 5 years in a German prison camp, Cardinal Cook, Cardinal O’Connor, Mary Varick some of whom are already known as ‘Servants of God.” We hope & pray for this recognition to be given to our Bishop Garmendia.

I am sure that Bishop is so proud and grateful to each and everyone who has placed so much love and effort in order to make this a memorable day in the history of the South Bronx and in particular St. Thomas Aquinas Parish.

One last request: Love, pray and offer your help to your new Pastor Fr. Labrado and Fr. Alex, your wonderful office staff, and the volunteer parishioners who worked so hard to make this event possible. Also don’t forget Rosa Graziani and Miriam Rodriguez along with the sick and those recuperating from surgery.

God bless you all and enjoy the rest of the evening.


The Passing of a Dear and Blessed Friend

A small group of close friends, gathered around the bedside of our dear friend Bishop Francisco Garmendia knowing it would not be long before he would leave us. What can you do or what can you say?  He had already passed into that area of what is often referred to as the “Vestibule of Heaven.”  It was sad. He had been ill for over 4 years. His memory would fail him at times but not his faith and deep love of Our Blessed Mother. The Rosary was his companion as it had been all his life. Each of us remembered him from other days. To all, he was a shepherd, pastor, teacher and friend.

Then an unexpected friend arrived. The beautiful worldwide traveling statue of Our Lady of Fatima which had come to Rosary Hill Chapel on the same day November 14th and was scheduled to leave in 4 hours. Before leaving however, She was brought down to visit Bishop. All knew of Bishop’s total devotion to our Lady, His Episcopal motto was “I am all Thine My Queen and My Mother and all that I have is Thine.” They knew each other well.

The statue was placed close to the bed and Our Lady looked down on him. She had on a beautiful jewel studded cape of white satin. The Dominican Sisters in their white habits accompanied Her and sang the beautiful “Salve Regina.” How could we be mournful, He was on the last lap of the journey and Our Lady came to tell us She would take care of him now, no need to worry.

On Tuesday, his condition remained somewhat the same however Sr. Helen Winters decided to stay with him throughout the night. Early on the 16th Sr. Kevin called to say that his breathing had changed and she did not expect him to last the day. When Tommy Terci and I arrived about 9:30 a.m. other friends were already there. Arlene Vega who moved to Panama last year was in Florida to attend a wedding the previous weekend and decided spontaneously to come to NY to visit him unaware of his critical condition He passed away quietly at 11:10 a.m. The entire Church was represented at his bedside. Sisters, Seminarians, priests and laity. All the Bishops were in Conference in Washington. Bishop Iriondo returned home immediately on hearing the news. Bishop’s sister, brother in law, nephew and 2 nieces arrived from Spain the following day.

The wake at St Thomas Aquinas was beautiful. There was such an outpouring of love displayed by his people as they came to him crying and carrying their Rosaries. He was their Monsenor and he had come home to them. The kitchen was in a flurry. All were welcome to come and eat. The Rosary was being prayed continually at the coffin. In the evening, the church was filled wall to wall at the Mass of the Eucharist. When it came time to close the church, close friends offered to stay the night and Fr. Nieto agreed.

On Tuesday, the Mass was held at St. Patrick’s. Cathedral and here again was a gift from Our Lady. Prior to the Mass, Bishop Iriondo spotted Mm. Ervita Granda, who works at Rosary Hill in the Housekeeping Department and asked her to read the Prayer of the Faithful in Spanish at the Mass. She was very close to Bishop. She was able to speak to him in Spanish and did so, oftentimes consoling him or at other times, he consoling her. Never could she have dreamed of speaking from the pulpit of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

Bishop was laid to rest at Our Lady of Peace Mausoleum at Gate of Heaven Cemetery. Valhalla, New York. We thank God for the privilege of knowing him and ask him to intercede for us who are still on the journey. He was and will always be our Shepherd, spiritual father, teacher and friend.

We are deeply grateful for the opportunity to have shared in a minute way the ministry of the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne. We have watched their care of the dying, their hospitality to the families, their love for the Lord, the poor and the dying. All who enter the Home speak of the atmosphere of peace and love that pervades. It is a credit to their Foundress Rose Hawthorne, daughter of the noted author Nathaniel Hawthorne. Pray that they may receive many vocations.

~ Friends of Bishop Garmendia