The year was 1959. Cuban parents were terrified of the Communist indoctrination of their children under Fidel Castro's leadership as he began to take sweeping revenge on the recently overthrown Batista regime's soldiers, supporters, and alleged conspirators. Castro began to round up approximately 1,000 Cuban children for deportation to the USSR, tearing families apart.
As a result of the ensuing panic, between 1960-1962, more than 14,000 unaccompanied Cuban minors were sent by desperate, faith-filled parents to freedom in the United States, the vast majority arriving in Miami. This mass exodus of children became known as Operation Pedro Pan.
Miami's Catholic social services quickly became overwhelmed - the “Pedro Pans” arrived at a rate that exceeded more than 100 children daily at its peak. The Diocese of Miami called an emergency meeting of the 97 dioceses in the United States at that time to request assistance, attended by Salesianum's own Monsignor Thomas Reese '39. The urgent plea was for each diocese to find housing and schools for these students as quickly as possible.
Msgr. Reese, along with Salesianum Principal, Father Joseph Lynn, OSFS, and Oblate Provincial, Father John Conmy, OSFS, established Casa de Sales in response. The Casa, purchased by the Diocese of Wilmington, was situated at 1300 North Broom Street, and could house up to 21 students. Father James Byrne, OSFS, a recently ordained Oblate priest, was placed in charge of Casa de Sales and made arrangements for these students to attend Salesianum School.
According to accounts, the young, humble, and committed Fr. Byrne ran Casa de Sales much like a dormitory including using bells for meals, studying, and "lights out." In most instances, there were four residents per room, and students worked as teams to complete daily house chores and maintenance. Fr. Byrne, joined by a handful of Oblates who assisted him in this unique ministry, is credited with providing leadership, spiritual guidance, and regimented routines for the homesick young men in his care. He taught Spanish and religious studies at Salesianum in addition to advising the Pedro Pans.
Most of these young men never saw their families again and remained loyal to Fr. Byrne until his death in March of 2020. If a Pedro Pan refugee was fortunate enough to be reunited with his parents, a new housing slot would open and another student would be brought in. Younger boys were sent to live at Siena Hall, a Catholic orphanage and group home for boys. Casa de Sales provided the foundation for an extremely successful and highly educated group of young men, including four medical doctors, engineers, college professors, teachers, a movie producer/director, a novelist, a psychologist, social workers, a real estate mogul and a nationally renowned philanthropist, to name a few.
Eventually, the day-to-day operations of Casa de Sales were assumed by young diocesan social workers, Kathy and Gary Dolde. The Dolde's were known for creating a warm, loving family environment for the boys while at the Casa.
The story of Casa de Sales is remarkable, inspiring, and timeless. These young men arrived in the United States without families or possessions in a time of geopolitical upheaval and incredible emotional duress. Due to the vision and generosity of the Catholic community in Wilmington, and the gentle optimism and pastoral care of Fr. Byrne and the Oblates, these students thrived during their time at Salesianum. May our brotherhood always reflect the same spirit of inclusion, respect, for every generation of Salesian Gentlemen who builds on their legacy.