Monday, January 30, 2023
Ana Rodriguez Soto - Florida Catholic newspaper
MIAMI | No one who knew Alicia Marill considered her a pushover. And though she fought lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and heart-related ailments since young adulthood, her illnesses only seemed to make her stronger.
Olga Villar, who studied under her at Barry University in Miami Shores, used to tell her: “Your song is going to be ‘My Way.’ That’s how you lived your life.”
Marill’s many accomplishments included co-founding the lay missionary group Amor en Acción and doing pioneering work throughout the southeastern U.S. in the early days of SEPI (the Southeast Pastoral Institute). She also taught and directed the Theology Department at Miami's Immaculata-La Salle High School for several years. She died Jan. 23, 2023 at the age of 73.
Villar, now executive director of SEPI, described her teacher-turned-friend as “a woman who was full of life, full of love for the Church,” and whose “tenacity as a missionary led her to overcome the limitations of her body.”
Her longtime friend, Lourdes Rovira, described Marill’s attitude as “I’m going to be, and I’m going to do, in spite of my condition.”
She noted that “Alicita endured 28 surgeries over her lifetime,” some more serious than others. By the age of 20, she had had both renal arteries transplanted.
“In spite of all her medical challenges, Alicita kept on working at Barry and working at Amor en Accion,” said Rovira, a longtime member of the group. Though unable to go on mission trips for the past 12 or 15 years, “she was still totally involved until the week before she died.”
Archbishop Thomas Wenski praised Marill as “a true ‘missionary disciple’ before the phrase was popularized by Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium. Her work with Amor in Accion has helped bridge the distance that separates South Florida from the materially impoverished Caribbean. She promoted a mutually enriching spiritual encounter that helped young people of South Florida to embrace the poor of Haiti and the Dominican Republic as brothers and sisters in Christ.”
Rovira and Marill met as college students in 1970. “We had a friendship of years before any mission idea came up,” Rovira said.
In 1972, they met the late Beatriz Rodriguez, then a member of the Apostolinas, a small religious community. She got them involved in a choir at St. Michael Church in Miami that turned into a “youth” group composed of six to eight university students.
“That’s how we started that youth group, through a choir, playing guitar and singing at Mass,” Rovira said. After a while, “some of us wanted to go on a mission to Bogotá.” It was during that five-week experience in the summer of 1973 that “Alicita got bitten by the bug of service and mission.”
The calling grew stronger after Marill spent the 1975-76 school year teaching at the Colegio Domingo Savio, a public school run by the Apostolinas in a “very, very poor neighborhood” of Santo Domingo officially named Domingo Savio, but better known as “Los Guandules.”
Appalled by the level of poverty, hunger, and illness her students suffered, she came back to Miami in the summer of 1976 determined to build a comedor or cafeteria for the school’s 2,000 children. She began raising funds by selling donuts after Masses at St. Michael. The first weekend, she grossed $76, Rovira said.
Then she met a kindred spirit, Adriano Garcia, who also had just returned from a summer missionary experience in the Dominican Republic. Members of the Cursillo movement at St. Michael and of another lay movement for families, Encuentros Familiares, spread the word to other parishes and began raising funds for the project throughout the archdiocese.
“Money started pouring in,” Rovira recalled. “We thought that building that comedor was going to take us a lifetime and within a year it was done.”
So began Amor en Acción (Love in Action), a lay missionary community grounded on a Franciscan “love of the poor” and a spirituality based on the biblical passage from the Epistle of James (2:14-17): faith without works is dead.
The group “had no name when we started,” Rovira said, just as “the experience of what we lived and what we did [as summer missionaries] didn’t have a name when we did it.”
“Alicita was a trailblazer, perhaps, in bringing to the community of Miami and to young people, which she taught at [Immaculata-] La Salle, the sense that we’re all called to serve and here’s a model that can fit anybody’s life,” Rovira said.
That model consists of a two- or three-week experience of mission that results in a lifelong commitment to missionary work and service.
“In that experience you get totally committed because you can’t forget what you’ve seen and experienced. You can never close your eyes again to what you’ve seen and what you’ve heard. And you come back and you talk about it and you continue to find means of serving,” said Rovira.
The mission model begun by Amor en Accion was later copied by many other groups, she noted, “breaking down the notion that mission is for the priests and the nuns that go abroad and spend years of their life. Mission and service is every Christian’s baptismal call.”
Carlos Cueto, a founding member of Amor en Accion, described Marill as “a role model of missionary dynamism, enfleshing the truism that ‘el que no vive para servir, no sirve para vivir’” — a play on the Spanish word for service, which translates roughly into whoever does not live to serve will also fail at living.
“Her work will continue as her missionary spirit remains, animating our missionary community,” Cueto said.
Alicia del Carmen Marill was born Nov. 14, 1949, in Havana, Cuba, the oldest of four. The family arrived in Miami Sept. 17, 1962. Marill graduated from Miami Senior High and got her bachelor’s degree from Florida Atlantic University.
A year after the 1976 founding of Amor en Accion, the Church in the U.S. held the II Encuentro for Hispanic pastoral ministry, and Marill joined Piarist Father Mario Vizcaino in helping establish SEPI. That pastoral work took Marill across nine states, connecting and nourishing the Catholic Hispanic communities there flourishing.
“Hispanic pastoral ministry owes her a lot, not only here in the Southeast but throughout the country,” Villar said. “She knew how to use her leadership gifts to engender new life in many of us.”
Marill later obtained a master’s in practical theology from Barry University and a doctorate in ministry from the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.
She taught in Barry’s Department of Theology and Philosophy for more than 20 years, most notably as director of its Doctor of Ministry program since 1999. Among many other memberships and appointments, she served on the board of the Academy of Catholic Hispanic Theologians of the United States and was elected U.S. representative to the first Congreso Americano Misionero held in Paraná, Argentina.
In 1984, she received the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice medal, the highest award given to a lay person by the Vatican. In 2012, she received the William Sadlier Dinger Award in recognition of her “outstanding work in nurturing the Word of God within the Latino community.”
Marill is survived by her siblings, Carlos, Carmen (nicknamed Nene), and Teresita as well as a number of nieces and nephews.
A viewing will take place Saturday, Feb. 4, at 10 a.m., followed by a funeral Mass at 11 a.m. at St. Dominic Church, 5909 N.W. Seventh St., Miami. Burial will follow at Our Lady of Mercy Cemetery in Doral.
This story has been amended since it was first published. It now includes a reference to Alicia Marill having taught at Immaculata-La Salle High School in Miami.
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