The Compass: Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay
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June 30, 2000 Issue
Local News

Cuban refugee returns 'home'

Oscar Pichardo comes back to former diocesan orphanage after 39 years

By Jeff Kurowski
Compass Assistant Editor

It has been nearly 39 years since Oscar Pichardo, then a 10-year-old, first arrived in Green Bay after fleeing Cuba, but he remembers it like it was yesterday.

Last week, Pichardo reflected on his journey during a visit to the offices of the Diocese of Green Bay, the former location of the St. Joseph's Home for Children, where he and 36 other Cuban refugee children stayed in 1961-62. The visit marked the first trip back for Pichardo, who now lives Southern California.

"There was turmoil in the country and my father and uncle were involved in a counter revolution," he explained. "They distributed religious material. My uncle was put in prison and my father was fearful about what would happen to him, so he wanted to get us out."

In August of 1961, Oscar and his older brother Jesus, 11, were taken to the airport to board a plane to Miami. The boys were prepared with a contrived story about their destination.

"We had an aunt who was a nun in Puerto Rico," said Oscar. "My brother and I were supposedly going to study for a year in Puerto Rico. I remember being put in a glass room and questioned for four or five hours. We then had to walk between a row of soldiers to board the plane."

In Cuba, at this time, the private schools were being closed, and all non-Cuban religious were being sent out of the country. At age 12, boys began the process to join the military, so parents were trying to get as many children out of Cuba as possible.

The brothers arrived in Miami where they were taken to a camp that included Cuban boys under age 12 and girls of all ages. They spent two weeks at the camp before receiving notice that they were being sent to Green Bay.

"I had no idea where Green Bay was until I found it on the globe," said Oscar. "Sr. Mary Arnold met us at the airport. She is such a caring and giving person. She made us feel welcome and put us at ease."

George Arens, a caseworker for the diocese at the time recalls picking up Cuban children at the airport with his wife, Mary.

"Here were these children who didn't speak English in a strange place," he said. "It was scary. Oscar's stories have brought back a lot of memories."

During his visit, Oscar, accompanied by his wife, Joanne, gathered photos and newspaper clippings from his stay in Green Bay. He quickly matched names with faces and recalled the routine of the day at St. Joseph's, which included daily Mass, school and English lessons for the Cuban children.

"I can remember being angry that the other kids got to play in the afternoon, while we had to go back to the classroom for English, but it was a positive experience," he said. "I have very pleasant memories of Green Bay. The people were so kind and the community was welcoming."

Oscar was reunited with his parents in 1962. The family lived in Massachusetts before making their way to California. Unfortunately, his brother, Jesus, was murdered by a car jacker in 1981.

"I can't be bitter about what happened," said Oscar. "I can't live my life that way."

Oscar hopes to organize a reunion of the St. Joseph's Cuban alumni next year in Green Bay.

"I will be there," said Fernando Diaz, who arrived in Green Bay as an eight-year-old in October of 1961. "The experience had a great effect on my life. I believe that I matured very quickly from it. It was a time of a lot of soul searching. I look at my kids and thank God that they will never have to go through that. It makes you be thankful for what you have."

Diaz, who now operates his own accounting consulting business in North Carolina also points to Sr. Mary Arnold as a guiding force during his stay in Green Bay.

"I understand that she recently celebrated 60 years," he said. "I'm so happy for her. I am sure God has blessed her with many years because of what she did for so many children. She was strict when she had to be and gentle at other times."

"It's amazing to think that as children we were sent to a different country," he added. "My parents could only call every couple of months. It was a different time and a different age."

"A lot has changed here, but there are still so many great memories," said Oscar as he toured the grounds outside Bona Hall. "I was anxious to come back. I just wanted to say 'thanks.'"

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