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THOMAS FARRAGHER

Long ties bind two Boston leaders to the battered Caribbean

Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Cardinal Sean O'Malley.

By Globe Columnist 

As killer storms crawled across the Caribbean, lighting up TV weather maps with furious buzz-saw clouds painted ominously in deep red, the cardinal and the philanthropist held separate vigils.

Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston, said a prayer for a people he loves, a people he once ministered to, parishioners he stood shoulder to shoulder with when Hurricane Hugo roared ashore in 1989 and devastated the Virgin Islands, destroying homes, denuding trees, and wrecking diocesan rectories and schools he first presided over as the 39-year-old bishop of the Diocese of St. Thomas.

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“I just wish I were there. I wish I could be there again,’’ O’Malley told me by phone this week from Rome, where he has met with Pope Francis and is attending to church business. “I feel that as a priest you want to be with your people when they’re suffering. Having shared that experience with them once, it creates a bond that’s very strong.’’

David Mugar feels that bond, too. He’s the son of an Armenian immigrant who founded the Star Market empire, and his acts of charity are an article of faith in Boston, where for 43 years he was the logistical maestro on the Fourth of July when the skies over the Charles River exploded in color. For more than 25 years, he paid for those pyrotechnics himself.

Mugar built a vacation home on St. John 25 years ago, and two years later he opened a supermarket there, Starfish Market in Cruz Bay, which today is serving as a kind of depot of hope for islanders staggered by storms.

He’s shelling out $17,000 for a desperately needed telecommunication dish that is being shipped in. His marketplace, where satellite phones are in great demand, has become a crucial switchboard as Hurricane Irma, and her meteorological successors, have roared into weather-demon history.

“It’s very tough emotionally to see,’’ Mugar said Thursday afternoon from across a wide table in the conference room of Mugar Enterprises on Berkeley Street. “I know there’s a story behind every piece of sheetrock you see laying down. I think we’re providing a real service. It’s a struggle to keep Starfish open. Our sales are going to be cut in half.

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“But honestly, if people like me don’t do it, who’s going to do it?’’

Mugar spent 15 winters on the island. His ties to St. John and its people run deep.

For O’Malley, the emotional connection to the Caribbean has not faded in the 25 years since he bade farewell to St. Thomas to take a posting in Fall River. That connective tissue goes both ways. The memories of his stewardship in the Caribbean remain strong.

When Pope John Paul II appointed him archbishop of Boston in 2003, the Globe sent me to St. Thomas to take a measure of his tenure there.

What I found was a uniform and friendly blend of reverence and respect for a bishop who had little time for the trappings of his office. O’Malley met his small clerical staff at the local Pizza Hut. He was a soft touch for the local panhandlers. He walked the streets in his Capuchin Franciscan robe and sandals and drove a subcompact bucket of bolts.

Chickens roosted in a tree above the chancery in a gritty neighborhood that school kids and laborers share with prostitutes and drug dealers.

In other words, he was one of them — a connection that proved an important touchstone when Hugo screamed through with crippling winds.

“The people of the Caribbean are fantastic people,’’ O’Malley said this week. “We had beautiful liturgies. The Masses there are very long. They love to sing. They get all dressed up to come to church. I was always amazed when tourists from New England would stop me after Mass and they’d say, ‘Oh, bishop, there are beautiful beaches here and great weather, but what I will never forget is coming to Mass at the cathedral.’

“And I thought to myself, ‘Yes, and if your pastor back in New England had a two-hour Mass, you’d be writing to the bishop.’ ’’

O’Malley said that bedrock faith will be heavily leaned on now. Once again, his former diocese looks like a war zone. Devastation is everywhere.

“The people of the Caribbean have great faith,’’ the cardinal told me. “After the hurricane, we had an outdoor Mass — you know there’s no church, there’s no microphone, you’re shouting to make yourself heard – and I told the people: ‘Our churches and our houses are on the ground. We are on our feet.’”

It was a slow process then. The islands were without electricity after Hugo for six months.

Now, there are echoes of those dark days of fear and discouragement.

“This hurricane came right on the tail of Irma,’’ O’Malley said of Hurricane Maria. “This was a direct hit on St. Croix. Just imagine the devastation.’’

I asked O’Malley what he would say to his former parishioners, some of whom are now shaking their fists heavenward and wondering where God is in all of this.

“God is always present,’’ he said. “And even more present when there are moments of suffering like this. I think that a crisis brings out the best and the worst of people. To see the sacrifice, the love, the generosity, the courage of people in the face of something like this shows God’s presence in the midst of darkness.’’

Mugar is working to dispel that darkness in his own way. It’s the latest act for a financial angel who has given away multiple millions over the years and owned Boston’s Channel 7 for 11 years, starting in the 1980s.

Mugar, who amassed a fortune in commercial real estate, has said he gets pleasure from giving back. He’s doing it again.

“I love to do it,’’ said Mugar. “And I live to do it.’’

“I’m not a miracle worker,’’ Mugar added. “I’m sure Cardinal O’Malley will tell you the same thing. You just do the best you can and do for people as best you can. He does it in a very spiritual way. I do it in a more marketing, merchandising way — providing services for the island. He provides the spiritual service. I supply the food and the bread and whatever people need to live.

“We’re in the same business.’’

Two men from Boston, special men with different but special gifts, are doing what they can to shine some light on a land that long ago found a place in their hearts.

They know something that is becoming clear as the sun comes out over the Caribbean: The story of this hurricane season is not an ephemeral event that now approaches its conclusion.

It’s just beginning — a story of courage and renewal that will be written over the coming months and years by the good people still standing.

Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.