Stonehill professor, author writing biography on Cardinal Medeiros

By Kenneth J. Souza
Anchor Staff

NORTH EASTON, Mass. — Those who knew the future Cardinal Humberto Sousa Medeiros during his time serving as priest, pastor and chancellor in the Fall River Diocese from 1946 to 1966 fondly recall him as a brilliant but humble servant of God and His people.

He likewise earned the respect and admiration of the largely Hispanic population he served as bishop of the newly-formed diocese in Brownsville, Texas in the late 1960s.

But Cardinal Medeiros’ best-known tenure as the fourth Archbishop of Boston from 1970 until his death in 1983 was often mired in controversy and overshadowed by the fact that some Boston Catholics were reluctant to accept a non-Irish cardinal as their leader.

Church historian, professor and author Father Richard Gribble, C.S.C., hopes to change some of those misperceptions with the first ever in-depth biography on Cardinal Medeiros that he is currently researching and writing.

“(Cardinal Medeiros) was always seen as the archbishop who wasn’t Irish-American, and he just wasn’t accepted,” Father Gribble recently told The Anchor. “But I think there’s a lot more to it than just the fact that he was Portuguese and not Irish. That was the justification of it, if you will — I wanted to bring to light the life of a good man whom I think has been somewhat ignored and/or unjustifiably maligned by history.”

A professor of religious studies at Stonehill College, Father Gribble has published several previous books including the definitive biography of another famous priest who, like Cardinal Medeiros, has been laid to rest within the Fall River Diocese: Servant of God, Father Patrick J. Peyton, C.S.C., the famed “Rosary priest” and founder of Holy Cross Family Ministries.

“I really thought (Cardinal Medeiros) deserved a good biography and I’ve done some biographies so I think I have the facility for doing that well,” Father Gribble said. “I go into it knowing pretty much how to approach it.”

Father Gribble’s interest in Cardinal Medeiros began about a decade ago, when he began research for an article entitled, “Cardinal Medeiros and the Desegregation of Boston’s Public Schools, 1974-1976,” that was published in the Spring 2006 issue of Journal of Church and State.

“When I was doing research for that, it became pretty clear to me that, at least from my perspective, he really wasn’t getting a fair shake,” Father Gribble said. “Because the basic thing he was trying to do was to make sure that integration of the schools went forward. When some people didn’t want to bus their kids to certain regions, they (decided) to put their kids into Catholic schools, and he put a cap on the enrollment. And so a lot of these (students) couldn’t get in, because he knew the reason they were doing it was to avoid busing.

“He got hammered because of that, really badly, especially by South Boston people. I just thought he was trying to carry out a basic idea and now that I’ve learned more about him — especially about his time in Brownsville, Texas — I realized he was a great champion of migrants and the poor and so I just thought that since nobody had done anything on him, here’s a cardinal-archbishop who was a local guy who I think deserves a better shake.”

Father Gribble began laying the groundwork for the tome about two years ago, when he interviewed some of Cardinal Medeiros’ surviving relatives, including his sister, Natalie Souza, who still resides in Fall River. He then traveled to Brownsville, Texas in the summer of 2015 to look into their archives.

“They told me they didn’t have anything on Cardinal Medeiros and I found that strange, since he was the bishop there,” Father Gribble said. “But they told me their archives were started later. I also contacted Corpus Christi, Texas — because Brownsville was created from Corpus Christi — and they didn’t have anything either. Then I went to the Texas Catholic Archives based in Austin, and they told me they had a couple of boxes of material about Cardinal Medeiros. I was also able to get some microfilm copies of the diocesan newspaper, which was started by Cardinal Medeiros when he became bishop (in Brownsville).”

Founded July 10, 1965, the Diocese of Brownsville was fragmented from Corpus Christi and put under the guidance of its auxiliary bishop, Adolph Marx. But Bishop Marx died suddenly on Nov. 1, 1965 — just two months into his tenure.

Msgr. Humberto Medeiros, who at the time was serving as pastor of St. Michael Parish in Fall River and diocesan chancellor under Bishop James L. Connolly, was named his unlikely successor.

“Basically he was the first bishop, because he had to organize everything when he came in — there was no chancery, there was no Tribunal, no diocesan newspaper, there was nothing,” Father Gribble said. “He had to do all of that.”

During Father Gribble’s next stop to rummage through the archives in Boston, he was pleased to find some 120 boxes of material on Cardinal Medeiros — several of which were labeled “Brownsville.”

“Apparently Cardinal Medeiros brought all the Brownsville stuff back with him when he came to Boston,” he said. “It really should be down in Texas, but it’s all here. So that makes things easier for me, because it’s very accessible. I spent a lot of time this past summer in Boston and went through about 17 or 18 boxes of stuff — everything I could find about his time in Brownsville.”

Scheduled to deliver a preliminary paper on Cardinal Medeiros at a conference in January, Father Gribble hopes to complete his work on the Brownsville years this fall.

“Then I can go to Fall River and get more information and dedicate next summer to research in Boston,” he said.

Father Gribble has already done some fieldwork in Fall River — including trips to the diocesan archives and obtaining back issues of The Anchor — and he plans to interview some older parishioners of St. Michael’s Parish who knew the late cardinal, and friends like Father John Driscoll.

“Father Driscoll preached at his consecration as bishop, they were close friends,” Father Gribble said. “I know they wrote letters to each other, and when Father Driscoll wrote to him, he didn’t write ‘Dear Bishop,’ he wrote ‘Dear Bert.’ There was no hierarchy between those two guys. He would have great insight into everything — about his time in Brownsville, why he came back to Boston, when he was getting hammered over the busing situation — I’m sure they communicated on a regular basis.”

Because “there hasn’t been anything extensive written about him other than a couple of dissertations about his time in Boston,” Father Gribble said he felt compelled to tell Cardinal Medeiros’ amazing life story. From his humble beginnings when he emigrated with his family from the Azores in 1931 to his accelerated education and eventual ordination to the priesthood in 1946 to his quick ascent within the Church hierarchy — from monsignor to bishop to cardinal — the biographer said he “tries to get into the shoes of the person I’m writing about, so-to-speak, to understand what he thought.”

Fluent in at least seven languages and having graduated first in his class from B.M.C. Durfee High School in Fall River after being in America only six years, Cardinal Medeiros can best be described as a “genius,” according to Father Gribble. 

“Cardinal Medeiros never gets any credit at all for liquidating the debt (in Boston) that he inherited from Cardinal (Richard) Cushing,” he said. “I don’t know how he did it, but somehow he paid it all off and Rome noticed because he was made a cardinal just three years into his tenure as archbishop and his predecessor had to wait 14 years.”

Father Gribble said the future cardinal’s brief but productive tenure in Texas also provides fascinating insight into his personality.

“When he first showed up there, there was a big strike going on between migrant workers and the growers and he was literally thrown into the fire,” Father Gribble said. “But he stuck up for the migrants and made sure they got minimum wage and good housing and things like that. He was a big champion of the poor and he was very much beloved in Brownsville. He started schools, he started parishes — and being an immigrant himself, he could understand from his own personal experience what those people were going through. And he spoke Spanish fluently, so he didn’t have to go through an interpreter. When you can talk to someone directly, that endears you automatically to those people.”

Father Gribble noted that Cardinal Séan P. O’Malley, OFM, Cap., and Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha, S.D.V., are aware of his project and have given him their blessing and access to research material.

As a biographer and historian, Father Gribble hopes to paint an accurate portrait of his subject, but he’ll also have to “be judicious” with some material.

“I don’t know what I’ll find but I’m sure, if I get access to it, I’ll find some stuff in there about the sex abuse crisis in Boston because Father (James) Porter in Fall River and Father (John) Geoghan were both active during Cardinal Medeiros’ time,” Father Gribble said. “I have to be honest and I want to be honest, because that’s what an historian does, but I’m a little cautious about handling that.”

Once he’s collected all the research material, Father Gribble said he’ll start thinking about how to organize the book.

“As I research and read, I can start thinking about certain things and know how to approach it and decide whether it would be best to (write it) chronologically or thematically, whatever it might be,” he said. “I’ve already got a couple of chapters in my mind for Brownsville, Texas; I think there will at least be one chapter, maybe two associated with his time in Fall River; and then several chapters devoted to Boston.”

Although he admits he’s a “hard worker and diligent researcher,” Father Gribble said he hasn’t set a specific date on when the book will be completed.

“I think I just have to wait and see when all the research is done,” he said. “I just don’t know how much is there.”

Father Gribble anticipates the book will get a good reception in places like Fall River, Boston and Brownsville, but said he’s hopeful there’s a market for a biography of Cardinal Medeiros in general.

“We can’t rewrite history, but he deserves at least someone to look seriously at his life and I hope I can do him justice, both historically and for the man of God he was,” he added.

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