Cubans Recognize a Hero of Charity (Part 1)

Friar Is 1st to Be Beatified on Caribbean Island

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By Dominik Hartig

HAVANA, Cuba, NOV. 27, 2008 (Zenit.org).- The people of Cuba will witness Saturday the first beatification ceremony performed on the island, as Friar José Olallo Valdés is raised to the altar.

Called a "hero of charity," the religious of the Hospitaller Order of the Brothers of St. John of God is the second Cuban to be beatified.

ZENIT interviewed Father Félix Lizaso, of that same order, the postulator for the beatification cause, to learn about the spiritual legacy of Friar Valdés.

This interview will be published in two parts. Part 2 will appear Friday.

Q: Tell us, first of all, who José Olallo Valdés was, and his significance for the members of the Hospitaller Order of St. John of God, in particular, and for the faithful, in general.

Father Lizaso: Brother Olallo Valdés was a religious of the Order of St. John of God, whose existence was practically unknown, being the last survivor in Cuba at the time when the legislation of the Spanish government suppressed religious orders in Spain and Latin America, around the year 1835. Scarcely a few annals of the order bear any record of his existence.

He was born in 1820 in Havana, Cuba, and spent the entire 69 years of his life in Cuba, 54 of them in Camaguey, where he died in 1889. His full name was José Olallo Valdés, but he always signed as Fray Olallo Valdés. Popularly, he was known as "Father Olallo," although he never became a priest because he refrained from being ordained when it was suggested to him, in order to be able to continue his nursing work at the hospital.

Among men, the name José was often combined with another given name, just as the name María is used in combination with other names for women; that is why we consider it more appropriate for him to be referred to as Blessed Olallo Valdés.

For the centenary of his death, in 1989, due to his popularity and fame of saintliness among the people, a group of laypeople of Camaguey commemorated the anniversary. This was the occasion for Archbishop Adolfo Rodríguez Herrera of Camagüey and Manuel Cólliga, a Spanish resident in Havana of the Hospitallers, to invite the then recently appointed superior-general of the order, Australian Friar Brian O'Donnell, to the commemorative ceremonies. Archbishop Adolfo took advantage of the opportunity and asked Father Brian if the order could support the investigation of Olallo Valdés's cause, with a view to his canonization.

This led to the preparation and celebration of his process toward beatification. Brother Olallo, known as "father of the poor" and "apostle of charity," lived and died amid great admiration as an exemplary and worthy man, and as an outstanding nurse and enthusiastic servant of the most underprivileged members of society in Camaguey, fully embodying the hospitaller charism of his vocation.

Upon his death, the people and the entire society of Camaguey came together, despite their strong social and political differences, to honor him with a solemn burial. After that, a collection was taken up, in addition to other fundraisers, with the aim of building a mausoleum which, for one century, has been visited by a great number of devotees seeking help and intercession.

Brother Olallo's beatification is particularly significant for all of Cuba, as well as for Camaguey. It is equally relevant for the Brothers of St. John of God, insofar as it represents the discovery of a religious who, in a short time, has become admired for his outstanding hospitaller features. His extraordinary testimony of saintliness and hospitality, and his popular renown as a saint, which have been recognized by the Church in a relatively short time, appear at a very special moment for vocations, not only in Europe, but also for Latin America and for the whole order. This beatification may serve as a strong catalyst for everyone.

The motto used for his beatification is indicative: "He cared for the poor, the sick, lepers, the abandoned and dying; for sick and uneducated children; for elderly people lacking a family, for sick people in jail; for Africans and Asians; he was against slavery. He endeavored to be everything for everyone."

Q: José Olallo will be the second blessed of Cuba and, for the first time, a beatification is to take place on the island. What does the Church in Cuba expect of this historical event, and how is it preparing for it?

Father Lizaso: Yes, indeed. Our Blessed Olallo will be the second Cuban beatified, and the first to be beatified in Cuba. However, actually, he is in a sense the first, because he is undoubtedly the most popular and venerated on the island as a saint.

The first Cuban to be beatified, José López Piteira, was merely born in Cuba, of Spanish immigrant parents who stayed on the island for only a few years; he returned to Spain with his parents as a child. He later became an Augustinian religious and died a martyr very young, in 1936. In fact, he was not known in Cuba, the only record being his certificate of baptism.

The beatification of Brother Olallo Valdés, of the Order of St. John of God, historically the first to be performed on the island, will take place in the city of Camaguey on Saturday. The approval of the beatification and the miracle has stirred great enthusiasm, because of the significance, encouragement, and comfort for Cubans and the Church in Cuba from a saint of their own country.

The Cuban bishop's conference recommended that the occasion be celebrated with due preparation, to ensure a better knowledge of the life and testimony of Olallo Valdés, and to awaken deeper and more realistic awareness of the event.

The archbishopric of Camaguey has distributed a questionnaire with 100 items on historical, cultural and religious aspects concerning the new blessed, which will also contribute to this preparation. Furthermore, frequent pilgrimages are being made to his tomb and to the church of St. John of God, where his body has been venerated since 2004. These involve the various Christian communities and associations, including those of artists and other religious and cultural entities, giving rise to particular enthusiasm and interest.

The Brothers of St. John of God have also contributed generously from the beginning of the examination of the cause and are doing so now, perhaps to a greater extent. Every effort will be worthwhile and Cuba deserves it, together with the Cuban people, and Father Olallo himself.

Olallo's saintliness, as well as this beatification, are also concrete signs that the Church is always in the midst of the people, of its needs, and ready to serve for their own good. That is what Olallo did, and his life stands as a lasting example to be followed.

Furthermore, all this will increase knowledge of his life and wonderful testimony, thus spreading, for the benefit of all, his veneration, devotion, imitation and intercession, not only in terms of faith and religiousness, but also in the social and health care sphere, where he was most involved.

Q: Can Olallo's beatification encourage the religiosity of the whole Christian people, beyond Cuba?

Father Lizaso: Undoubtedly. A saint does not only exert his or her influence at local or institutional levels, which in this case would mean Cuba and the Brothers of St. John of God, but, especially after canonization, the value of their testimony and intercession becomes appreciated universally, throughout the Church, all over the world.

The example and testimony of Blessed Olallo, currently known and venerated almost exclusively in Cuba, resounds mainly among the Christians of the island. In fact, the worthy humanitarian and Christian welfare work to which he wholly devoted himself accounted for the broadcasting of his exemplary life, and provided the postulator with enough material for the examination of his cause. Among the Cuban people, Father Olallo is considered a main character and a local and national hero, and this, of course, also contributes to the welcome and acceptance his beatification awakens at every level.

Besides, without any doubt, the step involved in the beatification of our Olallo has been received with particular satisfaction by all the Cuban people. However, throughout the Hospitaller Order, spread all over the world, he has begun to be known in many other places, as well as by a number of Cubans abroad, many of whom greet the event with much hope and joy.

[Translated by Clara Iriberry]