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At Immaculata-La Salle High: 'We want to bring back alumni'

At Mass, breakfast, Pedro Pans highlight ties to Immaculata-La Salle High

By Cristina Ramirez
Special to the Florida Catholic

MIAMI | Everywhere his father went, Jorge Guarch did as well.

“Except to the bathroom,” he joked to an appreciative audience at the Pedro Pan Mass and Breakfast held Sept. 11, 2022, at “La Ermita” — the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity — and neighboring Immaculata-La Salle High School’s Bayshore Ballroom.

The shrine and school’s proximity are physical reminders of the bonds between the high school and many of the Pedro Pans — around 14,000 unaccompanied minors who were brought from Cuba to the U.S. between 1960 and 1962 through the efforts of Miami’s Catholic Church.

In fact, Father Jose Espino, current rector at the shrine and the main celebrant of the Mass that preceded the breakfast, is a Pedro Pan, and Guarch is an ILS graduate.

Virgilio Alvares, a Pedro Pan and member of Immaculata-La Salle High School's class of '64, takes part in the Sept. 11, 2022 Mass at the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity along with his wife, Mayaly.

Photographer: COURTESY

Virgilio Alvares, a Pedro Pan and member of Immaculata-La Salle High School's class of '64, takes part in the Sept. 11, 2022 Mass at the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity along with his wife, Mayaly.

Posing with their tokens of recognition after the Sept. 11, 2022 Mass, along with Immaculata-La Salle High School representatives Cristina Brito, far left, coordinator of Public Relations, and Colette Varese, far right, director of Advancement, are, from left: Ignacio Halley, class of '78 and president of the high school's Board of Trustees; Max Alvarez, class of '65 and Pedro Pan; and Frank Ibarra, class of '75 and ILS Board of Trustees member. Brito is also a Pedro Pan.

Photographer: COURTESY

Posing with their tokens of recognition after the Sept. 11, 2022 Mass, along with Immaculata-La Salle High School representatives Cristina Brito, far left, coordinator of Public Relations, and Colette Varese, far right, director of Advancement, are, from left: Ignacio Halley, class of '78 and president of the high school's Board of Trustees; Max Alvarez, class of '65 and Pedro Pan; and Frank Ibarra, class of '75 and ILS Board of Trustees member. Brito is also a Pedro Pan.

Pedro Pan Cristina Brito, left, who now serves as Immaculata-La Salle's public relations coordinator, poses after the Sept. 11, 2022 Mass with Josephine Novo, a class of 2022 ILS graduate who produced a Pedro Pan documentary for the high school entitled, “Our Story,” and Colette Varese, right, ILS director of Advancement.

Photographer: COURTESY

Pedro Pan Cristina Brito, left, who now serves as Immaculata-La Salle's public relations coordinator, poses after the Sept. 11, 2022 Mass with Josephine Novo, a class of 2022 ILS graduate who produced a Pedro Pan documentary for the high school entitled, “Our Story,” and Colette Varese, right, ILS director of Advancement.

He reminisced with pride at his father’s accomplishments given that the elder Guarch was the first person who welcomed many of those unaccompanied minors when they arrived at the Miami airport.

“I have met so many people thanks to my dad,” he said proudly, adding that it is in his dad’s memory that he serves others today.

Following his brief introduction, Ignacio Halley, ILS graduate and president of the school’s Board of Trustees, celebrated his wife of 40 years before making his most important point regarding his personal mission.

“We want to bring back alumni,” he said emphatically.

Underscoring the significance of the Pedro Pan Operation, he said, “Miami is Miami because of Pedro Pan.”

Halley was referring to the fact that many of the 14,000 young people would go on to become important contributors to the evolution of Miami from a small tourist town to an international hub of commerce and banking.

“There is a history here at La Ermita and ILS. Sister Kim [Keraitis, ILS principal] and her staff are doing a wonderful job. Come back,” Halley said.

In addition to referencing the long waiting list to attend ILS and the cafeteria food — “We have the best lunch in the country!” — Halley also urged alumni to return to help make ILS, already an excellent institution, even better.

“Walk the hallways. See the kids who are happy to be here,” he added.

Before leaving the stage, he reminded the audience, “The Lord asks us to give back.”

Following Halley was Frank Ibarra, who retired from Morgan Stanley. Highlighting the significance of Pedro Pan, which he characterized as an “incredible volunteer effort organized by the Catholic Church,” Ibarra encouraged his fellow alumni to serve ILS.

“Your character is defined by your patience when you have nothing, and your attitude when you have everything,” he said, quoting playwright George Bernard Shaw.

Ibarra passed the mic to alumnus Max Alvarez, also a Pedro Pan, who indicated, “Things do not change. We change and we change things.”

Reminded of his time as a 16-year-old with no money and no English, he quickly learned in real time the significance of inclusion and equity as he was hospitably absorbed into the family of ILS.

“I am an expert in inclusion because I was included,” he said.

Josephine Novo, a 2022 graduate who created a heartwarming documentary about Pedro Pan, also spoke, completely in Spanish to honor her Cuban heritage. She sealed her remarks with a quote from Cuban patriot Jose Marti: “Los grandes derechos no se compran con lagrimas sino con sangre.” (Great rights are not bought with tears but with blood.)

Colette Varese, ILS’ advancement director, offered the closing remarks, reminding everyone that the school’s mission is to produce graduates who are “faith-filled, successful, and inspired” to serve the community. 

Cristina Ramirez is moderator of the Journalism Honor Society at Immaculata-La Salle High School. 

FIND OUT MORE

Those interested in contributing to Immaculata-La Salle High School can do so through various funds, including the Orchid Project which benefits the Pedro Pan Scholarship Fund. For more information, visit https://www.ilsroyals.com/givetoils.

Posing after the Sept. 11, 2022 Mass with Salesian Sister Kim Keraitis, Immaculata-La Salle's principal, from left, are: Frank Ibarra, class of '75 and ILS Board of Trustees member; Max Alvarez, class of '65 and Pedro Pan; Ignacio Halley, class of '78 and president of the ILS Board of Trustees; and Jorge Guarch, class of '77, whose dad, George Guarch, would meet the Pedro Pan children at the airport and take them to the Church-run housing camps or waiting family members.

Photographer: COURTESY

Posing after the Sept. 11, 2022 Mass with Salesian Sister Kim Keraitis, Immaculata-La Salle's principal, from left, are: Frank Ibarra, class of '75 and ILS Board of Trustees member; Max Alvarez, class of '65 and Pedro Pan; Ignacio Halley, class of '78 and president of the ILS Board of Trustees; and Jorge Guarch, class of '77, whose dad, George Guarch, would meet the Pedro Pan children at the airport and take them to the Church-run housing camps or waiting family members.