Tuesday, January 9, 2018
Ana Rodriguez Soto - Florida Catholic newspaper
MIAMI | Ricardo Castro will never forget his first meeting with Father Oscar Sarmiento.
A 20-year-old who attended the Sunday evening Mass at St. Joseph on Miami Beach, Castro had decided that day would be his last at that church. “I remember saying to God … I need to go somewhere where I can be fed.”
The celebrant was new in the parish. But when he started preaching, Castro said, “it was like God speaking directly to me.”
After Mass, another parishioner, seeing that he was a young adult, invited Castro to stay for a group meeting. “That’s Father Oscar,” she told him, “you have to meet him.”
Castro looked down the aisle toward the entrance of the church, where Father Sarmiento was greeting parishioners. Still in his vestments, the priest turned around and started walking toward the sanctuary.
“He has this huge smile on his face. He’s walking from the back of the church with his arms wide open. I’m thinking, who’s he going to greet? And he came right up to me and he embraced me like a father embraces his son. I’ll never forget what he told me,” Castro said, tearing up at the memory. “My son, I’ve been waiting my whole life for you. I want you to stay.”
It was the beginning of a years-long friendship that evolved into kinship. “I’m one of his spiritual children,” Castro said. “Honestly, I felt like I was his son.”
Father Sarmiento, a late vocation with a gift for mentoring young people, died Jan. 6 at age 77, after 35 years of priesthood.
Castro was at his bedside when he died. A few hours earlier, he and other not-so-young adult members of that St. Joseph group —Caminando con Jesus (Walking with Jesus) — had gathered in his hospice room at St. Catherine’s West, in Hialeah Gardens, to pray and sing the songs they used to sing at their retreats.
“He was like our father. Our protector. Our guider. He married us, baptized our children,” said Castro, a teacher at Nativity School in Hollywood.
He would follow Father Sarmiento to St. Edward in Pembroke Pines, where they started another young adult group, through which Castro met and fell in love with his wife. “We have three kids now,” he said.
Ordained for the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Father Sarmiento worked in South Florida from 1992 until his retirement in 2009. An only son, he had obtained permission to work here to look after his mother, who suffered from Alzheimer’s.
“One time when she went to visit him in Tallahassee and she came back she was lost for three days. He decided that he needed to look after her and got permission to come to Miami,” said Hope Sadowski, a parishioner at St. Joseph, where Father Sarmiento served as parochial vicar from 1996 to 2003.
Sadowski, who works as executive assistant in the archdiocesan Office of Schools, described Father Sarmiento as a very dedicated priest who “took care of the young, especially kids that might have been here undocumented. He protected those kids. He was like a shepherd guiding the flock.”
In fact, it was those young adult group members, among them Castro, who moved Father Sarmiento back to Miami from Tallahassee after they realized he, too, had developed Alzheimer’s. “We all stepped in to ensure that Father would be safe,” said Castro.
“It has been amazing how they showed their love and care for him,” said Sadowski, recalling what they told her: “He took care of us when we were young. Now it’s our turn to take care of him.”
Oscar Sarmiento was born Nov. 8, 1940 in Havana, Cuba, and came to the U.S. with his mother in the early 1960s. He obtained a bachelor’s degree in art from Florida State University but basically worked at odd jobs until heeding a call to priesthood in his 30s. Castro said those jobs included working at a chicken-and-egg hatchery in New York and as a guide, snorkeling and water skiing instructor for Club Med in Tahiti.
His path to the priesthood began when he attended a large gathering of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal.
“He got really, really angry and felt that the people were being misled,” recalled Castro, so he walked out, fuming. But as he crossed the street to get to his car, “a power came over him, so much that it drove him to his knees in the middle of the crosswalk. He later came to call it an outpouring of the Spirit. He felt so much love, God’s love, at that moment that he knew he had to change.”
The call to priesthood came later, while he was serving as a volunteer in prison ministry. His job was to collect the food trays from inmates in isolation. The trays would be passed through an opening in the cell. One time he knocked on the door but no tray came out. So he put both of his hands through the opening to reach for the tray. One of the inmates, a young adult, “put his face into Father’s hands and started crying into his hands. And he said it was that very moment that he answered God’s call,” Castro said.
Father Sarmiento was ordained Nov. 27, 1982. While in South Florida, he also served as parochial vicar at San Isidro, Pompano Beach (1992-95), St. John the Apostle, Hialeah (1995-96), and St. Edward (2003-09).
Funeral services will take place Wednesday evening, Jan. 10, at Nativity Church, 5220 Johnson St., Hollywood. The viewing at 7:30 p.m. will be followed by a funeral Mass at 8:30 p.m.