COURTESY OF: Ana Rodriguez Soto - Florida Catholic newspaper
MIAMI | When he commissioned the mural for the interior of the dome of the San Juan Bosco church, Bishop Emilio Vallina explained that he had a biblical passage in mind. "Come to me all you who are burdened, and I will give you rest."
The image of a modern Christ, with his arms wide open and surrounded by faces of all races and colors, very appropriately characterizes the 61 years of priesthood of this Cuban exile who, quietly but persistently, transformed “an old local where cars were sold, dirty and full of sawdust ”, in the mother church of their exile companions, and in a place of refuge for the poor and crowded masses of Central and South America who followed them in the neighborhood.
Archbishop Vallina, pastor for 43 years of the San Juan Bosco church in Little Havana, died on October 19 at the age of 87.
His face and ministry were as recognizable as loved among Miami Cubans as that of his exile partner, Mgr. Agustín Román. In 2008, the stretch of West Flagler Street where the church is located, between 13th and 14th Avenues, was renamed in his honor.
Expelled from Cuba, Father Vallina arrived in Miami on July 8, 1961 and began to celebrate mass in the Gesu church, in the center of the city, and then spent 21 months in Little Flower, in Coral Gables. In May 1963, he received a call from the first archbishop of Miami, Coleman F. Carroll, whom he described as "a man of God and father of Cubans."
Bishop Carroll told him that he would take over a new parish the next day, a parish that had been founded in October 1962 in an area where successive waves of Cuban exiles had been taking hold: the area that later became the little Habana.
"Since the orders are to obey them, not to discuss them, I took the registration books, my chalice and the paten and some decorations, and there I went," Msgr. Vallina told La Voz.
He began celebrating Sunday Mass at the Tivoli Cinema on West Flagler Street and Seventh Avenue, while he used weekdays to go door to door to try to create a community. After six months of doing that, he received another phone call from Bishop Carroll.
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"I need to see him at 12:30 p.m. at the corner of Flagler and 13th Avenue ”, Archbishop Vallina recalled. "When I got there, he handed me some keys and said, 'Your house.'"
“It was an old place where cars were sold, dirty, full of sawdust. We started by cleaning all the grease from the floors and we accepted everything that people donated. This is how the parish of San Juan Bosco started, ”Msgr. Vallina recalled.
The name was chosen due to the devotion of Cubans to this saint.
In the decades that followed, San Juan Bosco has welcomed several waves of Cuban exiles, as well as refugees from Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, and other countries in Central and South America.
With the financial support of the Mercy Hospital and the Cuban Order of Malta, Msgr. Vallina opened a free clinic for poor and undocumented immigrants, who otherwise do not have access to health services. (The San Juan Bosco Clinic is currently located on the grounds of Corpus Christi Parish in Miami.)
Msgr. Vallina also opened an after-school program to care for the children of parents who work in the area. Currently known as the San Juan Bosco Leadership Learning Center, it provides homework help, tutoring, and knowledge expansion classes to 250 low-income children, in grades Kindergarten through 12th.
In 1986, Msgr. Vallina began raising funds for the construction of a new church, which was finally inaugurated in 2001. His final touch was the mural of the Christ of the Immigrants, painted by the Venezuelan artist Abdón José Romero and his wife. , Sonia, using the classical fresco technique, to ensure its survival for centuries.
Msgr. Vallina said that he hoped that the painting “would capture the pain and hope of all those who have passed through the parish”