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City's Portuguese Mourn

December 8, 2006
By DANIEL E. GOREN, Courant Staff Writer

The Rev. Jose da Silva, the spiritual leader of Hartford's Portuguese community for half a century and the man who bound it together by expanding its church, died Thursday in Portugal after a battle with cancer. He was 80.

Silva, who came to Hartford from Portugal in 1957, was also known for having a dry sense of humor, cheering for his favorite Portuguese soccer team, knowing his parishioners by name and giving each a kind wink, warm tug on the ear or fond pat on the cheek.

He presided over the church during a period of tremendous change and growth in the Portuguese community.

Over the nearly 50 years he spent in Hartford, Silva insisted that his church - first located at Babcock and Russ streets before moving in 1988 to its current location on Kane Street - expand as part of a community effort.

And while a steady stream of immigrants came from Portugal through the 1960s and during a bigger boom in the 70s, Silva welcomed each wave with open arms and watched as many started businesses - bakeries, restaurants, law offices, a travel agency - that surrounded his parish in the neighborhood known today as Parkville.

"The church was the hub of the Portuguese community, and he was at the center of the church," said Gabriel Serrano, a parishioner who was baptized by Silva 40 years ago. "I've known him, literally, all my life."

Silva was born in 1926 in the town of Estarreja, in northern Portugal. He came to Connecticut in 1957 and held his first Mass for the Portuguese community in the basement of St. Peter's church on Main Street. Soon after, in 1958, he started Our Lady of Fatima Church, with a capacity of 200 worshippers, at the corner of Russ and Babcock streets.

But as the community grew to more than 1,500 households, Silva saw that it was time to build a bigger church. That mission - a new multimillion-dollar church and eventually a school, day-care center and community center for his people - consumed Silva for the rest of his life, many parishioners said.

To raise the millions needed for the work, a determined Silva became a "one-man fundraiser," said Fernando Rosa, a parishioner and one of the founders of the Portuguese Foundation Inc.

Although some thought Silva pushed too hard at times, Rosa said, the priest was unwavering in his goal and was, by many parishioners' standards, a great salesman. Silva went door to door, asking members of his church for donations, saying the money was not for him but to make sure the Portuguese community remained unified and had a place to pray, socialize and laugh together.

"He was always out in the community, every night," Rosa said. "He would go to everybody's house, whether they were having dinner or lunch, and he would say I'm here and I need some money, and he would not leave until they gave some money for the church. ... And you know, the priest was here, so it was not like you were going to lock the door on him."

As John Serrano, Gabriel's older brother, said of Silva: "He was quiet, unassuming, humble, hardworking and devoted to the community. And he never let criticism or obstacles stop him."

In 1988, the new church opened its doors on Kane Street. It now includes day care and community centers as well as a Portuguese school that is accredited by the Portuguese government, so that the children of any parishioners who return to Portugal do not lose any school credits. The church now has about 5,000 members, parishioners said.

Many of the parishioners have known Silva all their lives, some being baptized and married by the pastor.

To many, Silva isn't remembered only for his single-minded focus, but also as a sensitive, humble and funny man.

Maria "Bina" Marques, who had known the priest for 40 years and was confirmed and married by him, said Silva liked to tease people in a warm way. When Marques would leave her coat hanging over the back of a chair at church, Silva would wait until no one was looking and turn the jacket inside out, only to deny his involvement with the gag.

"He liked to tease," Marques said.

Other parishioners said Silva, even in his later years, would often tap them on the shoulder and pretend he hadn't.

While Silva enjoyed his life - he often was seen in front of a television cheering wildly for his favorite Portuguese soccer team, Lisbon's Benfica - he always thought of his parishioners before himself, Gabriel Serrano said.

"We would be at an event, it would be 20 degrees out, snowing, and he would just have his reverend's jacket on, and no overcoat," Gabriel Serrano said. "If you would ask him if he was cold, he would grab your hand - and you could feel how cold he was - and he would say, `Nope, not too bad.' For him, the goal was not to care about himself, but to care for others. He never had himself in mind first."

Many parishioners Thursday said they knew he had been sick but were shocked to learn he had died of cancer. Silva retired in 2005 and returned to Portugal several months ago to be closer to his family. Some parishioners said the news of his death was too fresh for them to talk about a man they cherished.

"We lost a very good friend. A very good friend," said Manuel Milheiro, president of the church's parish council. "We will all remember him for years to come."

Silva's funeral will be held Saturday in Portugal. A memorial service for him will be held on Dec. 16 at Our Lady of Fatima Church.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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