The first center for popular classes of Cuban Catholic exiles emerged around the figure of Msgr. Emilio Vallina, to whom Archbishop Coleman Carroll gave the assignment of launching a parish dedicated to St. John Bosco.
Msgr. Vallina incarnated in so many ways Don Bosco’s devotion to education and healthy activities for young boys of humble roots and their families. And one century after the Italian saint founded the religious Salesian Congregation, Father Vallina helped build the foundation of Hispanic Catholic faith in South Florida.
Vallina died Saturday in Miami at age 87 after a long illness, leaving behind a legacy of pastoral works, among them the iconic sanctuary in Little Havana that opened its arms to a needy and stateless people to resolve, or at least lessen, their spiritual and material problems in the 1960s. Soon the St. John Bosco Church would become known by the informal name of the “Exile Cathedral.”
Known among his parishioners as “the man who does not relate to the word ‘No,’ ” Vallina created in St. John Bosco Church a family of Cuban believers, a Eucharistic, dynamic and evangelizing community of traditional religiosity whose core approach has been to serve the disadvantaged. Now, given the demographic changes in Miami and the socioeconomic mobility of the Cuban community, the temple, on West Flagler Street, today serves predominantly Central American immigrants seeking spiritual and material help.
Father Vallina was born to Emilio Vallina and Dolores García in a humble home on April 10, 1926, in the town of Guanajay, in Pinar del Río province, Cuba. When he was 5, his family moved to Havana. A year later, when his mother died, he went to live under the care of his grandmother, Dolores Rojas. They settled in the neighborhood of El Cerro, and it was at the Salvador del Mundo parish where the boy had his first contact with the church, beginning a religious formation under the Marist Brothers.
Msgr. Alfredo Muller, who became his mentor and spiritual guide, encouraged him, after a vocational discernment process, to register — at age 18 in 1944 — at the Saint Carlos and Saint Ambrosio Seminary, where the creators of the Cuban nationality taught. At that time, Vallina was a member of the Catholic Youth, the 76 Union of Catholic Knights and the St. Vincent de Paul Society.
Cardinal Manuel Arteaga ordained Father Vallina as a priest at the Havana Cathedral on April 20, 1952. He officiated his first Mass after a few days at El Salvador del Mundo Parish in El Cerro. As part of his pastoral work on the island — which ended in 1961 after the Communist government launched an attack against the Catholic Church — he founded a parochial school in the city of Catalina de Güines in Havana province. Later he became the priest of the Jesus of Nazareth sanctuary in the town of Arroyo Arenas, where he reorganized the four branches of Catholic Action.
Under the aegis of the Archdiocese of Havana, he was the administrator of the El Buen Pastor Seminary, as well as the foreign vicar of the city of Marianao, where he gave encouragement, with words and deeds, to the parishes under his sacristy.
In 1961 he left Cuba and arrived in Miami, where he became a champion of Cuban exiles and other immigrants.