Bishop Dorsonville remembered as a torch who illuminated people’s path to loving and serving God and those in need – Catholic Standard

(The following article was written by Andrea Acosta, a reporter for El Pregonero, the Spanish language newspaper and website for The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington. Acosta translated her article into English for the Catholic Standard, and this is an edited version of her original story.) 

Recent funeral services in Louisiana and a Memorial Mass in the Washington area honored the life, work and faith of Bishop Mario Dorsonville of Houma-Thibodaux, Louisiana, who died unexpectedly on Jan. 19 at the age of 63 from health complications related to liver disease discovered late last year. Bishop Dorsonville, a native of Colombia, served for more than 25 years in The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington as a parish priest, as director of the Spanish Catholic Center and then as an auxiliary bishop before he was installed in March 2023 as the bishop of Houma-Thibodaux. 

Bishop Dorsonville was remembered as a pastor and leader who was a fervent advocate for social justice and for bringing help and hope to the poorest of the poor, and who with a spirit of joy encouraged people to be better Catholics and to live their lives in imitation of Christ. 

The bishop was also known as a hopeful and encouraging voice in the Catholic Church for Hispanic immigrants like himself at a time when newcomers and people from different cultures in the country have faced challenges of division, social inequity and adversity. 

At Bishop Dorsonville’s Mass of Christian Burial on Feb. 1 at St. Joseph’s Co-Cathedral in Thibodaux, Washington Cardinal Wilton Gregory presided at the final commendation, praying, “Let us say goodbye to our brother and may our farewell express our affection for him, may it ease our sadness and strengthen our hope.

“… Hear our prayers and open the gates of paradise to your servant, Bishop Mario, and help those of us who remain to comfort one another with the assurance of faith until we are all reunited in Christ and are with you and our brother forever.” 

Bishop Mario Dorsonville of the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux, Louisiana, died on Jan. 19. The native of Colombia earlier served as a priest and auxiliary bishop in Washington. His Mass of Christian Burial was held at St. Joseph Co-Cathedral in Thibodaux on Feb. 1, and a Memorial Mass celebrated by Washington Cardinal Wilton Gregory was held the next day at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Bethesda, Maryland. (Photo courtesy of The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington)

In his homily at the funeral Mass, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop emeritus of Washington who ordained Bishop Dorsonville as an auxiliary bishop in the nation’s capital in 2015, remembered him as “an energetic, witty and loving pastor, with a spontaneous laugh, a gentle disposition, attentive to the needs of others and a love for his vocation.” 

In a brief recounting of his life in Washington, Cardinal Wuerl recalled that the late bishop did not forget his Colombian roots and used to give his friends small packets of Colombian coffee that he described as “real coffee.”

“The more I got to know Father Dorsonville, the more I appreciated, as you do, his commitment to the Gospel,” Cardinal Wuerl said at the Funeral Mass that was attended by bishops and archbishops from across the nation.

Cardinal Wuerl, who served as the archbishop of Washington from 2006 to 2018, said that then-Father Dorsonville’s spirit of service to those in need led to his appointment as spiritual director of the Saint John Paul II Seminary in Washington and as a mentor to newly ordained priests. “The hope was that his zeal, joy, commitment and focus would be passed on to others beginning their ministry,” the cardinal said. 

After working closely with the priest and auxiliary bishop for several years, Cardinal Wuerl noted that he shared many conversations with Bishop Dorsonville after his installation in Houma-Thibodaux on March 29, 2023.

He attested that Bishop Dorsonville embraced his new mission in Louisiana with zeal, enthusiasm and tireless energy. “You were a big part of the reason for his pride and delight in serving this Church in Louisiana,” he told the parishioners, clergy and religious gathered at St. Joseph Co-Cathedral in Thibodaux.

Cardinal Wuerl said he believes that Bishop Dorsonville saw in his priesthood and in his episcopal office, the reason for being so committed, and while his ministry was short but intense in Houma-Thibodaux, its effect will remain. The cardinal said Bishop Dorsonville’s bond of love and service to his diocese was visible and reflected the grace of God at work in his life and ministry. 

Bishop Dorsonville was excited and spoke highly of the lay organizations, campus ministry service, spiritual renewal programs, vibrant schools and food banks in the diocese he led, Cardinal Wuerl said.

“At the heart of his joy, of his love for the Church, of his dedication to those under his pastoral care and of his commitment to so many who came to love him, was his abiding faith,” the cardinal said, stressing that this was reflected in the readings that Bishop Dorsonville himself had chosen for his funeral which was held exactly one year from the day of his appointment as bishop of Houma-Thibodaux.

Cardinal Wuerl said a bishop’s accomplishments are primarily spiritual and his successes are only visible in others. “That truth is verified in Bishop Dorsonville. His legacy will live on quietly in the many people his ministry reached – whether Dreamers, young people he confirmed, couples who have reconnected with the Church and enjoy the sacraments, seniors living in a nursing home, parishioners who were thrilled to have him visit their parish or their school,” he said.

Bishop Dorsonville’s effervescent joy was rooted in his conviction, as his ministry demonstrated, that he shared a special bond with Jesus, the Good Shepherd and Eternal High Priest, the cardinal said. “He was convinced that God is good and that God is with us, always,” he said.

Washington’s archbishop emeritus said that the Funeral Mass offered a time “to acknowledge our loss, to celebrate the life and ministry of Bishop Dorsonville.”

“He always had the conviction that, just as his hands were often raised to consecrate, absolve, anoint and bless, he too must bend the knee in imitation of his Lord to respond to the need of others,” the cardinal said.

Father Simon Peter Engurait, vicar general of the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux, was appointed temporary administrator until Pope Francis assigns another bishop to lead that diocese.

“Today is a day that none of us wanted to happen nor expected to happen exactly one year after Pope Francis appointed him as our bishop,” he said at the funeral Mass, confessing that the loss came as a shock and with a sense of disbelief, a widespread reaction among those mourning the bishop’s death.

“Nothing tests our faith as severely as death, but Jesus Christ consoles us with his presence,” he said. 

He thanked everyone for their support and presence at that time of loss and pain, especially the family and friends of Bishop Dorsonville.

The priest, a native of Uganda, read a message of condolence from the Vatican shared by Cardinal Christophe Pierre, the apostolic nuncio to the United States, which read in part, “Pope Francis was saddened to learn of the untimely death of Bishop Mario E. Dorsonville… and sends his heartfelt condolences to you, the clergy, religious and laity of the diocese. He joins you in thanksgiving to almighty God for Bishop Dorsonville’s devoted episcopal service to the Church of Washington and Houma-Thibodaux, characterized by a spirit of joy, zeal for the spread of the Gospel and a dedicated pastoral ministry to marginalized communities.”

The Holy Father sent his blessings and consolation to the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux and to all those who mourn the death of Bishop Dorsonville in a letter signed by Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican Secretary of State.

New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond presided at the late bishop’s installation Mass and at his funeral Mass, which was concelebrated by several archbishops and bishops from around the country, including Washington Auxiliary Bishops Roy Campbell Jr. and Evelio Menjivar, and two bishops who were longtime priests in Washington, Bishop Michael Fisher of Buffalo, New York, and Bishop Mark Brennan of Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia.

Cardinal Wilton Gregory was the main celebrant at a Feb. 2 Memorial Mass for Bishop Dorsonville celebrated at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Bethesda, Maryland, where then-Father Dorsonville served as a parochial vicar from 1997 to 2004 in his first assignment in the Archdiocese of Washington. The concelebrants included Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Cardinal Christophe Pierre, Washington Auxiliary Bishops Roy Campbell Jr., Evelio Menjivar and Juan Esposito, and many area priests.

In his homily at the Memorial Mass, Washington Auxiliary Bishop Evelio Menjivar said, “We are filled with a great sense of sadness, but at the same time, our hearts are filled with gratitude for the many ways God showed his love, mercy and closeness through the life and fruitful ministry of our beloved bishop and friend Mario Dorsonville.”

He described the late bishop as a good and faithful servant, who felt very welcome in the United States and who put a lot of energy into the archdiocese’s Walk with Mary procession and Mass honoring Our Lady of Guadalupe as the patroness of America. Bishop Dorsonville established the annual procession and chose its name. “For him it was a walk of solidarity with the immigrants and an opportunity to evangelize. He was contagious with his enthusiasm,” Bishop Menjivar said.  

Bishop Menjivar recalled Bishop Dorsonville saying, “I was thirsty and I found someone who gave me to drink… I have seen so many thirsty faces that remind me of myself and in them I see Jesus,” and he believes that mindset probably shaped the late bishop’s concern and commitment to caring for those who have been forced to leave their homeland in search of a better and safer life.

He noted how the late bishop was a tireless advocate for Dreamers, immigrants who came to the United States with their families at a young age and who are seeking educational opportunities and a pathway to citizenship. Bishop Dorsonville, he said, saw those young people as the future of the Church and the nation. The late bishop, he added, said that a refugee is a child of God and of the Church and should be seen as God’s smile to the world.

“No wonder he was chosen by the nation’s bishops to be their leading voice on migration issues as chairman of the USCCB (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) Committee on Migration. And what a voice!” said Bishop Menjivar.

Bishop Dorsonville, he said, was not just a candle lit in the darkness but a torch that illuminated the way forward for people.

Bishop Menjivar explained that much of the late bishop’s ministry centered on community outreach, advocacy and pastoral care to the poor and newcomers, especially from 2005-13 in his leadership of the archdiocese’s Spanish Catholic Center.

“He struggled to keep these vital services active for the community. He loved the clients and most of all he loved the employees of Catholic Charities for whom he had tremendous respect, considered them his family and was always grateful,” he said of the man who became that organization’s vice president for mission.

Bishop Dorsonville built a strong network of donors and volunteers to support the Spanish Catholic Center, raising more than one-half million dollars a year for its outreach, and Bishop Menjivar joked that he was like Robin Hood in his fundraising – “He took from the rich to give to the poor.”

Bishop Mario Dorsonville of the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux, Louisiana, who died on Jan. 19, 2024, is shown in a May 2022 photo at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, when as an auxiliary bishop of Washington, he gave the homily for the annual Asian and Pacific Island Catholics’ pilgrimage to the shrine. (Catholic Standard photo by Andrew Biraj)

As an auxiliary bishop of Washington, Bishop Dorsonville directed the archdiocese’s Office of Cultural Diversity and Outreach, leading efforts to recognize and celebrate the gifts, richness and importance of the diversity of the family of faith in the Archdiocese of Washington. He also enthusiastically promoted an initiative that provides financial support to Hispanic families for the education of their children in Catholic schools, said Bishop Menjivar, who has inherited these initiatives and asked people for their support in tribute to the late bishop. 

He remembered his friend, the late bishop, for his warm and radiant face, smiling with the love of Jesus, and as a compassionate and kind listener who made a difference in people’s lives for the better, giving people the experience of being recognized and feeling loved. 

“We now have in heaven a great friend who will continue to enrich our lives with his prayers before God and by seeking Mary’s intercession…” Bishop Menjivar said as he concluded his homily at the well-attended Memorial Mass.

After Bishop Dorsonville’s death, Hispanic lay leaders in the Archdiocese of Washington praised his life and work, noting how his homilies encouraged immigrants not to give up on an uphill road, and how he was a strong advocate for Dreamers and for comprehensive and humane immigration reform.

“Bishop Mario Dorsonville combined his deep intellectuality with his commitment to social justice and pastoral and spiritual care for the parishioners. He was a compassionate advocate for the immigrant community and passionate about strengthening multiculturalism in the Archdiocese of Washington. In many ways, he sought to include rather than exclude,” said Celia Rivas, coordinator of immigration services at the Hispanic Catholic Center in Gaithersburg, Maryland, who worked closely with him for two decades.

She recalled that he was there to encourage and comfort people in the face of tragedies, and his homilies made the faith relevant to real life with anecdotes and personal stories.

“He was a man of deep prayer and faith. Now it is our turn to pray for him to enjoy the gift of eternal life. Mission accomplished Monsignor!  Thank you for bringing Christ to our needy,” Rivas said after the Memorial Mass at Our Lady of Lourdes Church.

 Julieta Machado, vice president of Social Enterprise and Workforce Development Initiatives at Catholic Charities USA, also attended Bishop Dorsonville’s Memorial Mass. She remembers him for his many contributions to immigrants and those most in need. 

They worked together at the Spanish Catholic Center when she was director of programs there, to bring support and services to the community.

She said working alongside him gave her a different perspective and made her more grateful for life. “He was a great comfort to my family during difficult times. I will miss his positive energy and wonderful sense of humor. It is now our responsibility to continue the good work.”

Christian Leanos, director of music for the Hispanic ministry at St. Matthew’s Cathedral and pastoral associate for music and liturgy at St. Camillus Parish in Silver Spring, Maryland, remembered Bishop Dorsonville for his love for immigrants and the Virgin Mary.  

“He always advocated for the inclusion of everyone at all times,” said Leanos, who traveled to Louisiana for the funeral and also attended the Memorial Mass at Our Lady of Lourdes. “His absence is not only felt in Louisiana, but also here in the Archdiocese of Washington. Let us pray that your legacy will continue here seeking inclusion of the entire immigrant community. We miss you.”

Also praising the life and work of Bishop Dorsonville was Enrique Soros, a lay leader at Our Lourdes Parish and a member of the D.C. Schoenstatt Movement, a Catholic Marian movement. He remembered the late bishop for having “left an indelible mark as a pastor, as a friend, as a father, as a faithful brother… You traveled your communities tirelessly, inviting, motivating, opening roads, giving answers, helping. You dedicated yourself to the most needy, without ceasing. You gave everything for them… You were always the Lord’s shepherd, faithful to the Church. Farewell, dear father, brother and pastor.”

Bishop Dorsonville was born and educated in his native Colombia and ordained to the priesthood there in 1985. He came to the United States to study at The Catholic University of America and decided to stay. In 1996, he earned a doctorate in ministry from Catholic University. In the Washington area, he served Catholics in international organizations and was a parochial vicar at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Bethesda from 1997 to 2004 and then at St. Mark the Evangelist Parish in Hyattsville from 2004-05. Then-Father Dorsonville, who was incardinated as a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington in 1999, served as director of the Spanish Catholic Center from 2005-13 and as Catholic Charities’ vice president for mission from 2013-15, when he was ordained as an auxiliary bishop of Washington. In March 2023, he was installed as the fifth bishop of the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux, Louisiana.

Bishop Dorsonville’s wake was held Jan. 31 at St. Francis de Sales Cathedral in Houma, Louisiana, followed by a Memorial Mass there. The homily was given by his friend and brother Bishop Michael Fisher of Buffalo, who shared many years with Bishop Dorsonville in The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington and, like many, was shocked to learn of his death.

“We have our memories of Bishop Mario: that genial smile, his laugh, that reassuring hand on his shoulder…He was always there with wonderful advice…He always tried to look on the bright side of things and was very uplifting… Jesus Christ was really the center of his life,” Bishop Fisher said. 

Bishop Dorsonville was buried on the grounds of St. Joseph Co-Cathedral in Thibodaux, Louisiana. 

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