A savvy administrator and a warm-hearted, caring pastoral leader: That is the picture of retired Bishop Herbert Bevard that emerges from descriptions by people who worked closely with him during his 12-year tenure in the territory.
Sidelined by ill health last summer, the bishop announced his early retirement in a letter to Virgin Islands Catholics last month.
“I have loved serving the people of God; the clergy, religious, laity and the entire Virgin Islands community in the Diocese of St. Thomas and will treasure the fond memories that we share together,” he wrote, adding that it was his concern for them and his recognition of his own current limitations that compelled him to ask Pope Francis to accept his resignation.
In the organizational structure of the Catholic Church, the St. Thomas Diocese falls within the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. The archbishop of Washington, the Most Rev. Wilton D. Gregory, will serve as the “apostolic administrator” of the territory’s diocese until the pope appoints a new bishop.
There is no certainty how quickly that will happen. Bevard’s immediate predecessor, George V. Murry, was transferred from St. Thomas to Youngstown, Ohio, in March 2007. Bevard was not installed on St. Thomas until September 2008.
One thing is clear to Bevard’s close associates: He is leaving big shoes to be filled. His legacy in the territory is marked by major accomplishments in both brick-and-mortar and human resources initiatives, they say.
“Where to begin?” said Monsignor Jerome Feudjio, who now is the liaison between the diocese and Gregory, and who was Bevard’s right-hand man on many projects.
The most prominent of those is the restoration of Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Charlotte Amalie. That effort actually began years before Bevard came to the Virgin Islands, but once the adjacent rectory was repaired, work on the cathedral itself stalled, with little accomplished and with little capital left for the work.
Bevard recognized that the historic structure was crumbling in some places, that it was being undermined by underground seepage and that it needed a major overhaul. He quickly established a local fundraising committee, led by Feudjio and cathedral parishioners, Lillia King and Charlotte Banks, and also tapped into financial resources on the mainland. The local efforts centered on the creation of a Keys and Sword Award (named for the traditional symbols for Sts. Peter and St. Paul) and an annual formal gala to honor award recipients.
“He really made that the No. 1 project of his episcopacy,” Feudjio said. “He is an excellent fund-raiser. … He was very shrewd and smart when it comes to getting the funds and protecting funds.”
The bishop raised money not only for the cathedral, he said, but for Catholic schools, Catholic Charities and various other efforts, such as the ministry to the Haitian community on St. Thomas. He frequently visited stateside parishes, seeking financial assistance for the V.I. diocese.
“The missions appeal in those parishes in the states was very, very helpful,” Feudjio said. It put the diocese on more solid financial footing and allowed it to expand services to the faithful and to the V.I. community at large.
“No bishop did more” for the people of the territory, said Richard Bourne-Vanneck, the longtime chairman of the board for Catholic Charities in the Virgin Islands. “His devotion to the cause of the needy was extraordinary. We had projects languishing for years that came to fruition under his leadership.”
The St. Thomas attorney assisted the bishop not only with CCVI matters but on numerous projects throughout the diocese. While each involved effort from others, the bishop was key in turning them into reality.
Bevard’s legacy, he said, includes an expanded soup kitchen in Charlotte Amalie; the St. Theresa of Calcutta halfway house on St. Croix; special outreach to the Haitian community in Bovoni with a center that includes a chapel, clothing assistance and food bank; and the expansion of CCVI staff and activity on St. John. In the works are plans to establish a chapel in Coral Bay.
The 2017 hurricanes badly damaged St. Croix’s Bethlehem Shelter for the homeless, which was housed in a government building.
“Faced with that reality, Bishop Bevard stepped up” to find an alternative, Bourne-Vanneck said. The diocese is working through the federal block grant program to fund a new homeless shelter in Frederiksted by rehabbing an existing retreat center. It could take another 12 to 18 months before it’s ready, but once it is, the center will be able to house up to 50 people and offer outreach services to many more.
“It will make a huge difference on St. Croix,” he predicted.
Bevard’s focus on social programs was matched by his enthusiasm for Catholic education.
“He was tireless” in marshaling staff and funding for Catholic schools throughout the territory, Bourne-Vanneck said.
“The last few years have been very difficult ones,” he said. After hurricanes Irma and Maria blew through the territory, there was a lot of work to do to restore infrastructure. “God bless him, the bishop was out there beating the bushes” for funding.
“I’m very fond of Bishop Bevard,” he added, “and I miss him terribly.”
Like Bourne-Vanneck and Feudjio, Charlotte Banks found the bishop “an excellent administrator.” Her work with him on fundraising for the cathedral showed he had “an eagle eye for the bottom line.”
She also was struck by his interpersonal skills.
“He was very loving and supportive of his fellow priests,” she said. And he was a good communicator.
“He was quite an orator,” Banks said. His homilies could reach everyone. “He had a way of relating with anyone. … He was just an approachable person. That was a gift he had.”
Bevard spent 36 years as a priest and pastor in parishes in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia before being tapped for the diocese in the Virgin Islands and being elevated to the status of bishop.
Banks noted his last assignment before coming to the territory was in an ethnically diverse parish where he was beloved by parishioners. When he came to the Caribbean “he was able to communicate with our people,” she said. “He respected the culture. He enjoyed it. He made many friends here on all levels.”