A legacy of love: Catholics reflect on Bishop Dorsonville’s impact on the Church
Bishop Mario Eduardo Dorsonville, 1960-2024, officiating at the wedding of Steve and Courteney Simchak in 2019. | Credit: Photo by Jaclyn Lippelmann Photography, courtesy of Steve and Courteney Simchak
After serving the Church for nearly four decades, Bishop Mario Eduardo Dorsonville passed away unexpectedly on Jan. 19, leaving behind a legacy of love, prayer, joy, and passionate service to the poorest of the poor.
An immigrant, priest, and bishop, Dorsonville was known and beloved to people from the halls of Congress to the humblest of street corners. An advocate for migrants, refugees, and the poor, Dorsonville was involved in many ministries for the underprivileged and helped to pioneer the U.S. bishops’ immigration advocacy.
To the many Catholics whose lives he impacted, he was known as a friend, mentor, and, above all, a man of deep prayer and great love.
CNA spoke with a few of Dorsonville’s many friends who expressed that his legacy will continue to impact the Church profoundly for years to come.
Tomorrow we bid farewell to our auxiliary bishop Mario E. Dorsonville, who has been appointed to lead the @htdiocese. Thank you, Bishop Dorsonville, for your service, leadership, and pastoral care during your time here in the #WashArchdiocese! pic.twitter.com/PsjrYHUHzO
— Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, DC (@WashArchdiocese) March 28, 2023
Immigrant and priest
Dorsonville was born in Bogotá, Colombia, in 1960. Inspired by the prayer and devotion of his mother, Dorsonville entered the seminary and was ordained a priest in 1985. He first came to the United States in 1992 to complete his doctorate in ministry at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. Once in the U.S. he wasted no time in getting straight to work, assisting with ministry to the Hispanic community on weekends at Good Shepherd and Christ the Redeemer parishes in Arlington, Virginia, while still a student at Catholic University.
Michèle Burke Bowe, an ambassador to Palestine for the Catholic Sovereign Order of Malta and a decadeslong friend of Dorsonville’s, said that he will always be remembered first and foremost as a “defender of the rights and lives and services for the Spanish-speaking people.”
Though Dorsonville would go on to become a dear friend to her entire family, Bowe first met him through their shared ministry at the Spanish Catholic Center in D.C., a migrant aid group run by the Archdiocese of Washington.
Bowe told CNA that Dorsonville “had a true heart for the poor” and that as soon as he came to the country, he saw a great need in the Spanish-speaking community and was immediately determined “to be a voice for the voiceless.”
As director of the Spanish Catholic Center, a position he held for 10 years, Bowe said Dorsonville dramatically increased the center’s capacity to care for migrants. To this day, the center offers migrants, many newly arrived from Latin America and living in extreme poverty, “holistic services” including food, medical care, and job training, all programs that Bowe said Dorsonville took to the next level.
Bowe explained that Dorsonville “wasn’t the kind of person who just wanted to give somebody a meal or a Christmas gift” but rather “he wanted to be able to help people invest in their own futures.”
“As someone who was born and grew up in Colombia, he really wanted to make sure that the newly arrived Americans had the services that they need,” she explained, calling to mind how he would always say: “They’re not looking for a handout, they’re looking for a hand.”
In his own words, Dorsonville’s ministry was “rooted in the recognition that every person is created in God’s image and must be valued, protected, and respected for the inherent dignity that he or she possesses.”
A bishop for the vulnerable
After being ordained a bishop by Pope Francis in 2015, Dorsonville used his new role and public platform to advocate not just for migrants but also for the homeless and those trapped in human trafficking.
With an eye to helping the young and vulnerable, Dorsonville led the U.S. bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services Committee from 2019 to 2022 during his time as auxiliary bishop of Washington.
Helping young migrants who were brought to the U.S. as children, often referred to as “Dreamers,” was a special priority for Dorsonville, according to Bowe.
“He was so personally offended that a Dreamer, through no action or fault or anything of their own, often would be maybe applying to college and to find out that they weren’t citizens, and they didn’t have that opportunity, and then they reached a dead end.”
So, he became their voice on Capitol Hill, often testifying at congressional hearings. An advocate for “comprehensive immigration reform,” Bowe said that Dorsonville’s political action helped to shape the U.S. bishops’ immigration policy in a very significant way.
In March 2023, the pope appointed Dorsonville head of the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux, Louisiana. But his mission of love was not over. In less than a year, he became known and loved as a shepherd who cared deeply for both those in and outside the pews. In a tribute video to Dorsonville, Maegan Martin, a representative for the diocese, said that he was a shepherd who “loved his people and loved them hard.”
“He was really passionate about letting these young people have a chance of a future and a voice,” Bowe said. “Over the years, he just acquired all of the skills and contacts and ways to be able to be their voice.”
“He just wanted to know that they were heard. It was a type of solidarity. He knew he couldn’t solve every single person’s problem, but he could accompany them.”
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The ‘five finger Gospel’
Dorsonville had a unique ability to make friends wherever he went, even while working to help the poor on the streets. Helping the homeless on the streets is where Rita Sporleder, a Catholic young adult in D.C., met Dorsonville.
“I’ll always remember him,” she told CNA. “He was kind, warm, and full of energy. I’ll never forget how he treated one person we ministered to with such tremendous respect, even giving the man a hug! He was a man of compassion!”
“He showed us an excellent example of loving our neighbors and helping those who are struggling. It was a blessing to serve alongside him,” she added.
The streets are where Steve and Courteney Simchak, a D.C. Catholic couple who, along with the bishop, led the archdiocese’s homeless outreach missions for several years, also met Dorsonville. The Simchacks said that Dorsonville truly loved his homeless friends and saw them “as his brothers and sisters.”
“Many of our homeless brothers and sisters adored Bishop Dorsonville — or, Father Mario, as some of them called him,” Steve Simchak explained. “The way he connected with them was remarkable, and he did it with such radiating joy and compassion.”
“He loved sharing the homeless mission with young people, too. Before each homeless mission, Bishop Dorsonville would gather the volunteers around him and give us a talk, followed by prayer,” Steve explained. “We often spoke about the ‘Five Finger Gospel,’ counting off ‘You. Did. It. To. Me.’ on each finger, quoting Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew.”
“After the mission nights, Courteney and I would debrief with Bishop Dorsonville, and in my head, I will always hear him saying about our time with the homeless, ‘It was so beautiful, no?’ And it really was. Bishop Dorsonville taught us so much about human dignity and love in our Sundays with our homeless friends.”
A legacy of love
Courteney Simchak recalled Dorsonville as someone who was “an absolute joy to be around,” and with whom “there were no barriers.”
“Being with him removed barriers to Jesus,” she said.
“You could have dinner with him and spend one hour talking about spirituality, another hour talking about travel or food or politics, and still another hour laughing uproariously at silly jokes. His laughter and smile were infectious. He loved playing music on the stereo for his friends, too. Being around him was so uplifting.”
While Steve Simchak said that Dorsonville’s “most wide-reaching impact” will likely be his work on immigration reform, he said that locally “he will leave a legacy of helping young people build their lives and their families in a way that helps them stay the course and serve God.”
“There are so many people who today can say they are better spouses, parents, Catholics, and people because of Bishop Dorsonville’s presence in their lives,” he said. “That legacy will impact them, their children, and their communities.”
“Like so many, we are devastated and shocked by his death. It is hard to fully understand it, really. But if there is any silver lining, I personally believe that those on the margins of society and young people will have a powerful new intercessor.”
“For me, Courteney, and our daughter Kate,” Steve continued, “his legacy will be to keep the faith, love each other, and see God in everyone.”