By Kenneth J. Souza
FALL RIVER, Mass. — Even though it’s been more than 30 years since Cardinal Humberto Medeiros, the former archbishop of Boston and much beloved priest of the Fall River Diocese, passed away on Sept. 17, 1983, his surviving relatives and former parishioners still miss and remember him.
“I think about him every day and I pray to him,” said Natalie Souza, Cardinal Medeiros’ sister.
So when she heard that Father Jay Mello, the parochial administrator at her home parish of St. Michael’s in Fall River, was planning to commemorate what would have been her brother’s 100th birthday with a special Mass celebrated by Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha, S.D.V., on October 6, she was thrilled beyond belief.
“I’m happy that they’re celebrating his 100th birthday. I’m glad they haven’t forgotten him,” Souza told The Anchor. “And I really like Father Mello. In some ways he reminds me of how my brother was.”
In fact, Cardinal Medeiros had his humble beginnings serving as pastor of St. Michael’s Parish from 1960 through 1966.
“What is special for me is that in him we see someone from St. Michael’s Parish, both as a parishioner and as a pastor, who became a cardinal of the Catholic Church,” Father Mello said. “He was in the conclaves that elected Pope John Paul I and St. John Paul II. It really is something extraordinary.”
While Father Mello is too young to remember Cardinal Medeiros — he was just three years old when the cardinal died suddenly during open-heart surgery in 1983 at the age of 67 — he has heard much about him from those who knew him personally.
“The people of the parish who knew him don’t speak so much of his accomplishments and elevation to the college of cardinals, but they speak of a holy and pious priest who was a compassionate pastor to them and their family,” Father Mello said.
“When Uncle Bert died, I was still in my 30s, so he seemed like he was kind of old to me, but now that I’m older, I realize he really wasn’t that old,” said Deborah Desmarais, Cardinal Medeiros’ niece and Souza’s daughter. “Everything is relative.”
Desmarais’ cousin, Kathleen Lapointe, remembers “Uncle Bert” coming to visit her vovó and his mother in the three-tenement house where they all lived.
“I remember Uncle Bert would come on his afternoon off, every Wednesday, and we would meet him at the top of the street,” Lapointe said. “Sometimes he would retire to what we called the parlor to pray his Breviary and he would make a game of it: Who could be the quietest? Because there were a bunch of cousins and we all wanted his attention.”
Even after her vovó passed away, Lapointe said Cardinal Medeiros still made a point of coming to spend the holidays with the family.
“I think he especially felt rooted to this parish. It was like where they belonged,” she said. “They came here from St. Michael’s in the Azores to St. Michael’s in Fall River. The Masses at St. Michael’s were in Portuguese and they felt like it was the same Mass, the same language, the same Lord, the same everything. I think they always clung to their religion and their parish, because that was their home.”
Desmarais agreed that her fondest memories of her well-known uncle are the frequent visits he made to spend time with the family — something he never stopped doing even after he became the high-profile archbishop of Boston.
“I remember we would have clamboils at my Uncle Leo’s house,” Desmarais said. “Uncle Bert would bring his secretaries with him — people like (Father James L. McCune) and (Msgr. William Helmick). Those were great times and he could just relax and be himself. I think he was happiest when he was just serving as a parish priest — I think that’s what he really liked doing. He reminds me of (Pope Francis) in that he liked being with the people.”
Describing her late uncle as a generous and gifted man who appreciated the arts, Lapointe vividly recalled family excursions to Providence, R.I. to see theatrical shows like “Peter and the Wolf” and big-screen Cinerama movies.
“We were a poor family living here in Fall River,” Lapointe said. “Our parents really couldn’t afford to take us into Providence, R.I., so we didn’t know much about that at all.”
“I remember him taking us all to see the movie ‘It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World’ in Providence,” Desmarais said. “There must have been 14 of us — he took all the kids and our parents as well. Uncle Bert paid for all of us. I still love that movie, that’s one of my favorite movies, and it always reminds me of him. I remember how much fun that whole night was.”
While Desmarais said Cardinal Medeiros was a brilliant man and a skilled administrator, he preferred the pastoral aspects of his ministry. When he was named bishop of Brownsville, Texas in the late 1960s, for instance, he would often go celebrate Mass with the migrant workers in the fields.
“He loved serving the migrant workers down there,” Souza agreed. “Of all his assignments, the place he always said he enjoyed the most was Brownsville, Texas.”
Born Oct. 6, 1915 in Arrifes, on the island of São Miguel in the Azores, Cardinal Medeiros emigrated to the United States with his family in 1931 and settled in Fall River where they joined St. Michael’s Parish. The future cardinal was a quick learner and excelled in his studies.
“I was nine years old and my brother was 15-and-a-half when we came here,” Souza recalled. “He went to work in the mill and then when he was 20 he went to study at Durfee (High School) and finished his studies in two-and-a-half years! He had some of the highest marks ever back then.”
After graduating from BMC Durfee High School in Fall River in 1937, Cardinal Medeiros entered the Catholic University of America, where he obtained a Master of Philosophy degree in 1942 and a Licentiate of Sacred Theology in 1946.
“I think he was set to become a priest from an early age,” Lapointe said. “When he was studying at Durfee, I remember hearing the story that he was offered a scholarship by a wealthy Protestant woman in Fall River to attend some Ivy League school, but he declined it because he wanted to go to Catholic University. But she ended up paying for his books and first year at school and he told us many times that whenever he celebrated Mass he would always include her in his intentions.”
The future cardinal was ordained by Bishop James E. Cassidy on June 15, 1946. He served several parishes in the diocese, including St. John of God in Somerset, Holy Name in Fall River, and ultimately his home parish of St. Michael’s, where he became pastor in 1960.
“Even today, I always think of Uncle Bert when I walk into St. Michael’s Church,” Desmarais said. “I mean, the altar has changed, but I remember him walking through the same doorway and speaking from the pulpit. I remember him giving a sermon one time where the basic premise was about vanity and superficial things and he started talking about how you shouldn’t be so concerned about what your hair looks like or your bangs and we all thought: ‘Well, he must be talking directly to us!’ We started taking it personally.”
Cardinal Medeiros initially served as bishop of the Diocese of Brownsville, Texas from 1966 through 1970. When Cardinal Richard Cushing retired, he was named the fourth archbishop of Boston on Sept. 8, 1970 and was later elevated to cardinal by Pope Paul VI on March 5, 1973.
“We all went to Rome when Uncle Bert was made a cardinal,” Lapointe said. “There were two planes full of people from St. Michael’s Parish who were taking their vacation from the factory to go to Rome. Everybody stopped what they were doing and took the week off. It was amazing to see our parents receive Communion from the Holy Father; and we all had a private audience with the pope. I had never even been on an airplane before.”
While there have been numerous memorials and namesake landmarks dedicated to Cardinal Medeiros over the years — from the Cardinal Medeiros Home for Retired Priests here in Fall River to Cardinal Medeiros Avenue in Cambridge to a statue in his hometown of Arrifes in the Azores — his surviving relatives agreed that the 100th birthday celebration at his home parish of St. Michael’s would have meant the most to him.
“Remembering the cardinal and celebrating the 100th anniversary of his birth is important for us as a parish,” Father Mello said. “We remember our most well-known parishioner and pastor, and in doing so recall the importance of being members not just of a wonderful parish, but of the Catholic Church, of which he was a significant leader.”
And the family members are touched that others still fondly remember Cardinal Medeiros with the same affection.
“I still miss him a lot,” Lapointe said. “We all had a lot of love for him.”
“We had a lot of wonderful times with him,” Desmarais agreed. “He was a fun uncle and he had a great sense of humor. I can still remember Uncle Bert’s laugh — he had a big, hearty laugh.”