Father Pio Gottin's ministry to Cape Verdean community remembered at Mass

ROXBURY -- As the personal physician for Father Pio Gottin, Dr. Jean Alves cared for the earthly body of a man whose works he considered to be godly.

Father Gottin, better known as Padre Pio, was an Italian-born Franciscan priest who spent over 30 years ministering in Cape Verde before coming to the U.S. as a missionary for the Archdiocese of Boston's Cape Verdean communities. (He is not to be confused with St. Padre Pio of Pietrelcina, the 19th-century Italian Franciscan priest and mystic.) He quickly became a beloved spiritual leader for Cape Verdeans in Roxbury, Brockton, New Bedford, and beyond.

Dr. Alves remembered Padre Pio as an "outstanding man," but a poor patient. He cared far more about his parishioners' health than his own, and ultimately died in 1999 at age 75.

"I learned so much from him about life in general," Dr. Alves told The Pilot, "because he was a man who was centered not in terms of his health, but how to help people. And in doing that, he showed the face of life that very few know. How to see us as people of God, and how he was able to teach us to love each other."

On March 11, what would have been the 100th anniversary of Padre Pio's birth, hundreds of Cape Verdeans, many wearing t-shirts and buttons bearing the priest's likeness, gathered at St. Patrick Parish in Roxbury for a Mass in his honor. The Mass was celebrated by Cardinal Arlindo Gomes Furtado, archbishop of Santiago de Cabo Verde, who was in Boston to celebrate the upcoming 500th anniversary of his archdiocese. He previously celebrated a Cape Verdean Mass at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston on March 10.

"I'm sure up there (Padre Pio) is very happy that Cardinal Gomes Furtado was here tonight," Dr. Alves said.

Father John Currie, pastor of St. Patrick's, concelebrated the Mass.

"We thank God for a good and holy priest, Father Pio," he said in his remarks after Mass.

Father Currie did not know Padre Pio personally, but when he heard all of the stories about him, he thought of "what God can do when a soul is on fire for the Lord."

He said that God could set the souls of the assembly on fire in a similar way, particularly if they answered the call for more Cape Verdean priests, deacons, and religious.

He admitted that he did not understand much of Cardinal Gomes Furtado's homily, which was delivered in Cape Verdean Creole. However, he heard the cardinal describe Padre Pio as "salt and light," a description which the audience applauded.

"Look what God has accomplished through one soul," Father Currie said. "All he has done, a legacy of faith. Lived faith."

Padre Pio was born in Italy in 1924 and was ordained a priest in 1948. He arrived in Cape Verde the next year. In 1951, he was the first to provide support to victims of a devastating volcanic eruption on the island of Fogo. On the island of Brava, he provided healthcare to sick children and founded the Mother School for children with disabilities. In 1959, he founded the Institute of the Franciscans of the Immaculate Conception in Cape Verde. Some sisters from that order attended the March 11 Mass and posed for photos with Cardinal Gomes Furtado.

Padre Pio taught impoverished young men skills like carpentry so that they could make a living. He helped at-risk youth, particularly those at risk of suicide. He continued that ministry when he came to the U.S. in 1979 at the invitation of then-Archbishop Cardinal Humberto Medeiros. He went from giving Cape Verdean children rides to school on his scooter to giving parishioners rides when they were stranded at Logan Airport. At the time of his arrival in Boston, he was the only Cape Verdean priest in the archdiocese. He would celebrate three or four Masses every Sunday, traveling from Boston to Rhode Island. He frequently organized food and clothing drives in Cape Verdean communities.

"Saintly is the word that comes to mind," Crisolita Pontes-Alves, president of Padre Pio Gottin Charities, Inc. and wife of Dr. Jean Alves, told The Pilot. "He was the most unselfish person. His only reason for being was to help other people, and that's all he did."

The charity performs the same acts of service that Padre Pio did, providing financial aid to those in need, fundraising to send medicine to Cape Verde, and helping Cape Verdean immigrants integrate into society.

"Whoever gives to the poor lends to God," Padre Pio used to say.

John Barros was baptized at St. Patrick's when Padre Pio was a priest in residence there.

"He was a very gentle man," Barros told The Pilot. "He was large in his presence in the community, but he was really sort of quiet all the time."

When Barros was in Sunday school, Padre Pio used to tell him and his classmates: "Silence often speaks volumes."

Barros was 27 years old when Padre Pio died.

"We felt like we lost a big leader in the community," he said, "a big spiritual leader, someone who was really a moral compass for the community."

Barros played the drums during Mass, which concluded with a special hymn dedicated to Padre Pio.

"I feel like I played for a mentor, a coach, a spiritual director," he said, "someone who really taught me a lot in my life. And so it's nice to be able to give back in his memory."