Miami-Dade County

Episcopal Bishop Leopold Frade will leave behind a legacy of social activism

The Right Rev. Bishop Leo Frade, head of the Episcopal Diocese of Southeast Florida, at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Miami. Bishop Frade will be officially stepping down from his post in January, but on Saturday the transition process started with the consecration of the new bishop at Trinity Cathedral.
The Right Rev. Bishop Leo Frade, head of the Episcopal Diocese of Southeast Florida, at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Miami. Bishop Frade will be officially stepping down from his post in January, but on Saturday the transition process started with the consecration of the new bishop at Trinity Cathedral. Miami Herald Staff

It’s just past 3 p.m. and Bishop Leo Frade is settling into his office next to Trinity Episcopal Cathedral.

He’s handed a cafecito.

“This is my 3:05 coffee,” he says, as he sips the Cuban coffee.

Frade’s office is full of mementos from his 38-year career as an Episcopal priest. Behind his desk, a black and white photo of God’s Mercy, a converted World War II submarine chaser he used to bring 437 Cubans to the United States during the Mariel Boatlift. On a side table, the Order of Francisco Morazan medallion, one of the highest honors granted by the Honduran government, which Frade received for his humanitarian efforts following Hurricane Mitch. Above his desk, a plastic crown, a gag gift from a friend after he was consecrated as bishop.

Soon these memories will be packed away, as Frade — pronounced Friday — turns 72 on Oct. 10, the mandatory retirement age in the Episcopal Church. “And I’ll just ride into the blue yonder,” Frade chuckles.

On Saturday, Dean Peter Eaton, dean of Saint John’s Cathedral in Denver, was consecrated as the next bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Southeast Florida. Eaton will serve as bishop coadjutor, assisting Frade until he retires on Jan.8.

Roughly 1,400 people attended the service, including Marcia Colish who babysat Eaton when he was of pre-school age. She recalls Eaton being a “bright and lively child,” who had a deep love for the church.

“How many people do you know in this world who get their heart’s delight?” said Colish, 77, of Guilford, Ct.

Eaton says he’s looking forward to taking on his new role. “It’s an honor to succeed Bishop Frade, who is the longest-serving active bishop in the Episcopal Church at the moment,” Eaton said in an earlier telephone interview. “It’s a real privilege to be his assistant, and ultimately his successor.”

Our Little Roses

For Frade, retirement means spending more time in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, to work at Our Little Roses, a home and bilingual school for abandoned, abused and orphaned girls that his wife Diana founded more than 25 years ago.

Over the years, Our Little Roses, which has mission teams from Episcopal dioceses across the U.S. travel there and develop relationships with the 70 or so girls, has sent its young women to colleges, vocational schools and in one case, dental school and beyond.

A group photo of the girls sits on one of Frade’s countertops in his office. He picks it up and starts telling stories of each one, whom he calls “my girls.”

Aurora, the program’s first college graduate, is a senior executive with Avon in Honduras. Heather recently graduated with an electrical engineering degree and is applying for a post-graduate fellowship in Taiwan. And Jessica was sworn in as a lawyer six months ago. This in a country that is among the poorest in the Western Hemisphere.

“These are the little girls that I served before becoming bishop here,” said Frade, who was Bishop of Honduras for 17 years before being elected Bishop of Southeast Florida in 2000. “My wife has helped me quite a bit here, she travels back and forth, so now it’s my turn to help her. I’ll miss being the bishop, but at the same token, it’s now time for younger people to lead the diocese.”

Humanitarian work is nothing new for Frade, a passion that may have been sparked during his Havana childhood. “I think growing up as a minority I saw a certain amount of discrimination,” said Frade, who grew up as a Methodist in Cuba. “I knew what it was to be a minority.”

Cuban Journey

While serving as a priest at Grace Episcopal Church in New Orleans, Frade played a pivotal role in bringing Cubans to the United States in 1980.

In the winter and spring of 1980, he would fly from New Orleans to Miami after his Sunday service. On Mondays or Tuesdays, he would take a charter flight arranged by the Episcopal Diocese and fly to Havana. There, he met former political prisoners cleared by the Cuban government to leave the country. He would accompany them back to Miami.

“The planes were always full of ex-political prisoners and their families,” said Frade, who estimates he brought more than 800 Cubans to the United States on the seven flights he made between Havana and Miami.

Around the same time, April 1980, the Castro regime announced that Cubans wishing to leave the country could do so from the port of Mariel. Frade and the Rev. Joe Morris Doss, another priest at Grace Episcopal, got deluged with calls from parishioners who had family there who wanted to leave the country.

The Grace Episcopal congregation, with donations from around the country, raised about $100,000 to buy a World War II submarine chaser, purchased in Lynn, Mass., just outside of Boston. Around the same time, then President Jimmy Carter announced the United States would no longer take in Cubans from Mariel.

Undeterred, Frade, Doss and a New Orleans attorney whose late father had been an Episcopal bishop in Cuba slipped the boat through the U.S. Coast Guard flotilla, docked in Havana and whisked 437 Cubans out of the country. Frade keeps a photo of the boat, christened God’s Mercy, behind his desk.

While in Cuba, Frade and Doss paid for diesel fuel, food and lodging in U.S. dollars — a move that led to a conviction in 1981 in Miami federal court for “trading with the enemy.” In 1983, an appellate court overturned the verdict.

“It was changing people’s lives,” Frade said. “It brought people to a better life, to freedom, to reunite with their families, to practice their religion freely. It’s a right of every human to go to another country, as long as the other country accepts them.”

Ruben Valdes, 68, was a passenger on God’s Mercy. Today he lives in Miami and calls Frade a “great religious man, a great Cuban and an even better human being.”

LGBT rights

After his stint in New Orleans, Frade was consecrated Bishop of Honduras in 1984. While there he fought against discrimination and violence toward the LGBT community. He remembers seeing a preacher on TV telling people that being if they had a gay son, “He is demon processed,” encouraging them to beat the “demon” out of the person.

“I said, ‘Oh my God, this guy is preaching to hundreds of people,’ and they were buying it,” he said. “I thought it was important for the church to speak up.”

He spoke publicly about supporting the LGBT community. “What I was preaching in Honduras was the fact that we cannot kill them or beat them — and it still happens today,” he said. “I was called a devil’s agent.”

When other churches refused to bury members of Honduras’ LGBT community who died of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s, Frade’s church in San Pedro Sula did. “For a whole year we were the only church burying gay people in Honduras — in the whole country,” he said.

Lorenzo Lebrija, the bishop's officer for development for the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, says Frade has been a strong voice for the LGBT community. “He was on the forefront of saying, ‘We have to welcome all of God’s people,’” he said.

At times, such a welcoming attitude sparked controversy. Frade has been a longtime mentor to the Rev. Alberto Cutié, a popular Roman Catholic priest in Miami whose beach photos with his girlfriend were plastered across tabloids in 2009. Cutié eventually left the Catholic church and became an Episcopal priest, ultimately marrying his girlfriend, Ruhama. They have two children.

“He was always open and sincere,’’ Cutié said. “He said, ‘You know, this church is not as big as the Roman Catholic Church, but we have a lot of traditions in common.’ He was very welcoming that way. He said, ‘When you’re ready to come, we’re ready for you.’’’

Path to the church

Frade, who grew up a Methodist, felt the calling to become a priest while attending a Baptist camp as a teenager.

“I remember they were singing up front and I was sitting in the back waiting for them to finish their service and then I heard God’s call,” he said.

By 1960, the Methodist Church sent him to Asbury University, which was then called Asbury College, in Wilmore, Kentucky, to study.

With $5.50 in his pocket, Frade arrived in Miami on a Pan Am flight. Frade became a civil rights activist in college. In his junior year, his activism ended up costing him his scholarship, so he left school and moved to the Bronx, New York, where he worked at a bank, then for the KLM Royal Dutch Airlines as a salesman.

“For me, it was my time of rebellion,” he said. “I didn’t go to church.”

He saw a newspaper ad for an Easter service at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan, which sparked his interest in the Episcopal Church. After experiencing the winter of 1968, Frade moved to Miami. He didn’t become a clergyman immediately, but started attending Episcopal services. Eventually he became a priest, and in 1977 served at his first parish, Holy Cross, in midtown Miami.

Frade is planning to split his time between Miami, a place that he calls his “favorite city in the whole world,” and Honduras. He says he will continue taking his daily dose of 3:05 coffee, but most likely will switch from Cuban to Honduran coffee.

“It’s a very good coffee, strong too. The only difference is they drink from big cups.”

Miami Herald staff writer Steve Rothaus contributed to this report.

The New Bishop

As the son of an Episcopal priest who worked in seminaries, Dean Peter Eaton moved quite a bit as child.

“I spent part of my childhood in Barbados and Puerto Rico,” he said.

He also lived in Paris and London, and speaks Spanish and French.

And while Eaton didn’t grow up in South Florida, moving here has brought him a little closer to places he has called home.

Eaton, 56, will be ordained as the next bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Southeast Florida during a ceremony Saturday at Trinity Cathedral. He will serve as bishop coadjutor, assisting the current bishop, the Right Rev. Leopold Frade, until he retires in January 2016. At that point, Eaton will oversee the diocese, which includes 76 congregations with about 38,000 parishioners from Key West to Jenson Beach in Martin County.

“It’s a huge privilege and it’s a humbling one,” said Eaton, who is coming to South Florida from Saint John’s Cathedral in Denver. “In our tradition we understand a bishop’s position in a historical perspective that takes us back to the apostles.”

The Most Rev. Dr. Katharine Jefferts Schori, the first woman elected as a primate in the Anglican Communion, will preside at the ordination service. In addition, about 50 bishops from around the world will take part.

Among those in the audience – Eaton’s second-grade teacher Miriam Bates, from Charlotte, N.C.

Eaton comes from a family of clergymen – his father, Wade Eaton, was an Episcopal priest and his uncle, Francisco Reus-Froylan was the bishop of Puerto Rico.

He received his undergraduate degree in classics at King’s College London, then went to Cambridge University, where he studied theology. In 1986, Eaton was ordained a deacon by his uncle in San Juan. In 1987, he was ordained by the Archbishop of Canterbury in England.

Eaton has been a parish priest and a college chaplain. While in Denver, Eaton became involved in social causes, including homelessness.

“We had a group of homeless women stay on the church premise,” he said.

Eaton and his wife Kate moved to South Florida with their two cats, and are already enjoying their new community.

“We’re very keen to getting to know the people of the diocese,’’ he said. “We’ve been very welcomed.’’