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Father Walter Waldron, St. Patrick’s pastor

Brian Wright O’Connor
Father Walter Waldron, St. Patrick’s pastor
Father Walter Waldron COURTESY PHOTO

The Rev. Walter J. Waldron, who headed St. Patrick’s Church in Roxbury for more than 30 years and presided over its transition to Boston’s leading Cape Verdean parish, died on Christmas night at age 81.

When Father Waldron arrived in the parish on the Dorchester-Roxbury line in the mid-1980s, the congregation had dwindled to a handful of families — a far cry from its heyday as an Irish Catholic redoubt that once counted legendary future Mayor James Michael Curley among its parishioners.

Waldron introduced Masses in Cape Verdean creole and opened up the church’s Dudley Street doors to cultural and community groups, including the groundbreaking Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative. With Waldron’s support, the pioneering urban collaborative gained control of numerous vacant and abandoned lots from the city, developed affordable housing and halted decades of steady blight.

Before his assignment to St. Patrick’s, Waldron had served for 17 years at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in the South End, where he was a founder of the Pine Street Inn and known for his work with the youth of the Cathedral housing development. Against great odds, he convinced municipal bureaucrats to open a local public school for Saturday night basketball games. He also helped a generation of Cathedral High students with tutoring and college opportunities.

Sporting a distinctive Fu Manchu moustache, beard and a perpetually lit non-filter cigarette in his hand, Waldron was a familiar presence walking along gritty Washington Street beneath the rumbling trains of the old elevated Orange Line during his years in the South End.

As a seminarian in the Archdiocese of Boston, Waldron was marked for leadership within the Roman Catholic Church, having been chosen as one of two students to complete his studies at the Pontifical North American College in Rome. Once he returned to his home state of Massachusetts, he served briefly in a suburban parish in Beverly before prevailing on then-Cardinal Richard Cushing for a posting in the inner city, where he felt his skills and passion for pastoral duties would be better used.

“He was his own man,” said the Rev. Gerald Osterman, the retired pastor of St. John-St. Hugh’s in Grove Hall. “He did things his own way, but the results were always good. He did a wonderful job, bringing back a dying parish and keeping its school open. He was relentless in his fundraising for the parish and the school —but his appeal letters were actually welcome because they were so well written and funny. Everyone looked forward to them. He even wrote one in Latin.”

An activist priest during an era of enormous social change, Waldron participated in protests, including a sit-in at the John F. Kennedy Federal Building in Government Center over food stamp cutbacks. “But unlike some of the social justice types in the clergy, he never lost sight or interest in pastoral care, like attending senior citizens group meetings and consoling the sick and bereaved,” said Osterman.

John Barros, who grew up in St. Patrick’s Parish and sought Waldron’s help in getting into Boston College High School, fondly recalled the priest’s annual August “Right On” party at his family’s modest waterfront beach cottage in Marshfield. “We always looked forward to that,” said Barros, a former mayoral candidate and city cabinet officer who headed the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative. “A couple of vans would pull in and we would spill out for music, a big cookout and a wonderful day on the beach.”

“Father Waldron, above all, fought hard to make sure that poor people in the neighborhood were given opportunities,” said Barros.

The Rev. Bill Joy, who worked with Waldron at the Cathedral, said his old friend “could have had a brilliant career in another area of the church, but he wanted to be with folks who were poor and needed him. He was enormously gifted — with a great mind and a quick wit. He knew how to see right through a problem and get to the bottom of it.”

Born in Milton in 1940, Waldron grew up in St. Agatha’s Parish in his hometown before entering the seminary. He retired from St. Patrick’s in 2017.

“Father Walter Waldron held ministry to those on the margins and those in need at the heart his priesthood,” said Cardinal Sean O’Malley, who celebrated Waldron’s funeral Mass at St. Patrick’s. “He embraced the life of the church in the city where each day he brought the presence of the Lord to those who experienced great hardship or felt lost or forgotten.”

Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, Rev. Walter Waldron, roxbury, St. Patrick’s Church