By Mike Viola
With the passing of Francis Cardinal George, OMI, we remember him along with Fr. Larry Rosebaugh, OMI as two Oblate icons in this previously unpublished article.
More than 50 years ago, two young men took their first vows as Missionary Oblates. They pledged the traditional vows of Poverty, Chastity, Obedience, and one more vow that is distinctive to the Missionary Oblates – Perseverance.
Over the next five decades Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I. and Fr. Larry Rosebaugh, O.M.I. would persevere through many challenges on two very different paths in the priesthood. Cardinal George would become a leader of the American and world Catholic Church as Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago. Father Larry spent many years in ministry with the poor in several Latin American countries.
Even in the first grade Francis George’s teachers marveled at his intellect, and shortly after his First Communion the youngster began to consider the idea of becoming a priest. Not surprisingly, he became the head altar boy at St. Pascal Church in Chicago.
At the age of 13 Francis spent five months in the hospital after contracting polio. His legs were temporarily paralyzed. He recovered but was left with a slight limp.
Larry Rosebaugh grew up in a middle class Midwestern family. He struggled academically at the Jesuit high school he attended. “It was unbearable, and my folks, seeing the anguish I was in, allowed me to transfer to the diocesan school where studies were not such a burden,” Larry said.
Larry excelled on the baseball diamond and had a tryout with the St. Louis Cardinals as a catcher. He was the last person cut from the team. He tried college but passed only two classes, one in philosophy and the other in ROTC (Reserve Office Training Corps).
Most boys from Chicago who were interested in the priesthood attended Quigley Preparatory Seminary. But the staff at Quigley was concerned abut the health of Francis George. So he explored other options and found St. Henry’s Preparatory Seminary in Belleville, Illinois which was run by the Missionary Oblates. The Oblates didn’t care that the boy had a limp.
Francis excelled academically and socially at St. Henry’s. He was a fine organist, wrote for the school magazine and was an accomplished artist.
“We considered him to be the dean of the class,” said Fr. David Kalert, O.M.I. a former classmate. “We admired his academic excellence but were also impressed that he got along with everybody so easily.”
While working a construction job at the age of 19, Larry felt called to become a missionary priest. He enrolled at St. Henry’s and took courses for “belated vocations.” Larry credits his instructors, all young Oblate priests, for giving him the personal attention he needed to pass his courses.
During his time at Our Lady of the Snows Seminary in Pass Christian, Mississippi Larry’s eyes were opened to the social justice movements in the Church, led by people like Dorothy Day. He was shocked at how African Americans were being treated in the South.
“I discovered there that I had a heart for those down and out. I learned that social justice must be part of my ministry,” says Fr. Larry.
Both men were ordained to the priesthood in 1963. Their first assignments were in teaching. Cardinal George loved the challenges of academic life, while Fr. Larry longed to leave the classroom and go out into the streets.
Father George first taught at the seminary. In 1969 he began teaching philosophy at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. His students joked that one day he would become pope. Father George’s teaching was not limited to the classroom. He opposed the Vietnam War and was a critic of President Richard Nixon.
After ordination Fr. Larry asked to be assigned to a foreign mission. He was told he was “not mature enough” for the foreign missions and was assigned to traditional parish work and high school teaching. This was completely contrary to all his expectations. But he was still able to respond to his missionary calling, including taking a group of students to Mississippi to register African Americans to vote.
Eventually Fr. Larry’s superiors allowed him to join the Catholic Worker Community in Milwaukee. He lived and worked among the homeless and became an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War. Several of his protests landed him in jail. At one point Fr. Larry spent 20 months in prison, ten of them in solitary confinement.
In 1974 Fr. George was named Vicar General of the Oblates, the second highest position in the congregation. The position required him to spend as much as five months a year visiting Oblate missions around the world. He
came face to face with the poorest of the poor, from the slums of large cities to isolated mining towns high in the Andes Mountains.
“I am extraordinarily grateful for what I received from the Oblates. If I have concern for the poor, it is because the Oblates showed me,” said Cardinal George. “Being the Oblates’ Vicar General gave me a sense of the universality of the Church and of the many different needs of people around the world.”
At the age of 40 Fr. Larry was assigned to the mission of Recife, Brazil. To prepare for life among the poor of Latin America, he hitchhiked from St. Louis to Recife, relying on the generosity of complete strangers for food and shelter. The journey took two months.
In Recife the bishop was looking for someone to minister directly among the homeless. Father Larry seized the opportunity, and for the next five years he lived on the streets.
“I remember one time when Fr. Larry was reciting the Our Father with a group of prostitutes, beggars and street children,” says Fr. Ed Figueroa, O.M.I. who has ministered in Recife for more than 50 years. “A middle-class man came up to me complaining that a priest shouldn’t be praying with such people. I told that man that he might say the Our Father, But Fr. Larry was living it.”
In 1990 Pope John Paul II called on Fr. George to become the Bishop of Yakima, Washington. The diocese had about 70,000 Catholics, more than half of whom were Hispanic migrant workers. Bishop George improved his Spanish so that he could communicate better with his flock, and to speak out in support of basic human rights for the migrant workers. He worked to ensure the safety of these workers and helped to get them fair compensation for their labor.
When Bishop George was named the Archbishop of Portland, Oregon in 1996, he focused attention on the difficulties of Native Americans. He listened to Native Americans about their plight and challenged people both in and out of the Catholic Church to reach out to their brothers and sisters in need.
Father Larry nearly died on the streets of Recife. He contracted hepatitis and when he was well enough to travel he came back to the United States to recover and rest.
In the States Fr. Larry teamed with Fr. Roy Bourgeois to protest the School of the Americas, a controversial training ground for Latin American military personnel. He would end up in jail again for his acts of civil disobedience.
Eventually Fr. Larry made his way back to Latin America. He settled in El Salvador in the midst of a devastating civil war. Father Larry spent five years there, living in the jungle with people trying to survive the violence.
More Recent Acts of Perseverance
In 1997 Pope John Paul II called on Archbishop George to lead the Archdiocese of Chicago. In less than a year Archbishop George had gone from shepherding a diocese of 70,000 Catholics to one with 2.3 million members.
Continuing his efforts to close the divide between people of different ethnic backgrounds, Cardinal George worked diligently to build bridges between the white and African American communities. He called on his brother Oblates for help.
The historic St. Malachy Parish, which had served the African American community for years, was in danger of closing. At the urging of Cardinal George the Oblates took over the parish to keep it as a beacon of hope in a neighborhood devastated by drugs, gangs and violence.
In 2006, a year after taking part in the election of Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal George experienced a personal time of perseverance when he was diagnosed with bladder cancer. Surgery was successful and he eventually made a full recovery. Unfortunately, the cancer that would eventually take his life recurred in 2012.
In addition to heading the Archdiocese of Chicago, Cardinal George was President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. He continued to persevere for justice. He wrote a letter to President Barack Obama urging him to reconsider policies regarding abortion and stem cell research.
In 2005 Father Larry returned to Latin America to minister with the poor in Guatemala. He worked with the Sisters of Charity of Mother Teresa at a home for 500 elderly people who have no family or friends to care for them.
“Many times these older folks are discovered living on the city streets, often close to death, with no type of help in sight,” said Fr. Larry. “I go there two or three times a week to help out in simple ways by cleaning floors, serving meals and celebrating the Eucharist.”
Father Larry also worked at a hospice for AIDS patients, which includes 50 children ranging in age from birth to 16.
“I visit and try to be present in the manner needed, often seeing the tremendous suffering of those with this most cruel sickness, often till death in front of our very eyes,” said Fr. Larry.
Father Larry’s Flame Of Perseverance Is Extinguished
On May 18, Fr. Larry Rosebaugh was shot and killed by two robbers who stopped a car carrying him and four other Oblates. Another Oblate priest was also shot but survived his injuries. The robbers got away with just $125, a cellphone and a few religious ornaments.
The murder of a man dedicated to peace was met with shock around the world. Father Larry’s death received national attention both in Guatemala and the United States.
A special liturgy was celebrated 40 days after the murder in Playa Grande. During the ceremony the participants reaffirmed their commitment to help the poor as a tribute to the unselfish missionary.
One of Fr. Larry’s last correspondences with the United States was an e-mail he sent after reviewing this story. He said the story made him blush because he didn’t feel worthy of such high praise.
He concluded his e-mail with these words: Better quit for now, it’s running overtime. I’m grateful for all your efforts in sharing our missions with so many people. Let’s keep in touch and again thanks for your great concern for our missions. Until later, adios – Lorenzo. (And Francis)