Monsignor John J. Moriarty wasn’t your typical parish priest.
For one thing, his parish stretched for miles across Ecuador. At times, it numbered 80,000 people.
He served more than 40 years in Duran, Ecuador, where he ministered in shantytowns and rainforests, building schools, computer centers and churches. He started clinics where he arranged for U.S. doctors to perform free surgeries for a population largely illiterate and poor.
“He stood out like a sore thumb — he’s this Irish-American Chicago boy, 6 feet, I mean, 250 or 300 pounds, and [the Ecuadoreans he aided] tend to be tiny,” said Monsignor Raul Trevizo, vicar general for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson, Arizona, who worked alongside Monsignor Moriarty in Ecuador in 1979 when Trevizo was considering whether to become a priest.
Trevizo was inspired by Monsignor Moriarty’s zest for life and his love of the Ecuadorean people, who called him “Padre Juan.”
“He had adopted their language. He had adopted their customs. He loved their food,” Trevizo said. “He understood the nuances of their Spanish language, so they let him in.”
He also admired the monsignor’s pragmatism and toughness. Ecuador’s history of military juntas, dictatorship and coups meant that supporters of the poor might be viewed as agitators by those in power. Monsignor Moriarty carried a gun, Trevizo said.
He influenced Catholic churches around the United States. Monsignor Moriarty helped about 200 Ecuadorean seminarians to become priests. Many serve in Spanish-speaking parishes in Chicago, Denver, Houston and Tucson, said the Rev. Abraham Guerrero.
“Father Moriarty brought me to the United States,” said Guerrero, of Tucson. “He supported the seminarians with his money, with spiritual direction. … He worked very hard, building housing, getting food, getting medication for the poor people.”
A product of St. Joachim’s parish and Quigley Preparatory Seminary, Monsignor Moriarty died of a heart attack Jan. 28 in his home in Beverly, which he’d decorated with carvings he brought back from Ecuador. He was 81.
He grew up one of 10 children of immigrant parents from Dingle and Murreagh in County Kerry, Ireland. His father worked on Chicago’s sewer system, “diggin’ ditches,” and worked a side job tending bar to send all 10 kids to Catholic schools, said Mary Pallasch, one of Monsignor Moriarty’s sisters.
Whenever the Moriartys didn’t want their children to know what they were talking about, they switched to Irish. To the end of his days, Monsignor Moriarty punctuated his hearty laughter with the expression “M’anam on diabhal” — or “May the devil take my soul.”
Though young “JohnJoe” always knew he wanted to be a priest, he loved practical jokes. “My oldest brother was dating a young lady he eventually married, and he brought her over to the house and John asked if she’d like a drink. And she said yes, she’d like a 7Up,” recalled Mary Pallasch. “He fixed her an Alka-Seltzer.”
John Moriarty studied at the University of St. Mary of the Lake Seminary in Mundelein. He served two years in the Army in Europe before being ordained in the early 1960s in the Diocese of Joliet, Mary Pallasch said.
After working at St. Mary’s in Downers Grove and Joliet’s Sacred Heart parish, he joined the Boston-based Missionary Society of St. James the Apostle. A few Berlitz Spanish classes later, he was assigned to Ecuador.
The order’s priests usually stay at a posting for about seven years, but he found his work so rewarding, he kept getting extensions. “It’s the simple things that you know wouldn’t happen if you weren’t there, things such as the literacy program, for example, the credit union, the basic medical care,” he once told the Joliet Catholic Explorer newspaper.
“He started a lot of schools in Ecuador,” Mary Pallasch said. “He thought education was the way to bring uneducated people out of their poverty.”
When relatives visited him in Ecuador, they marveled at how warmly he was greeted by the local people. “It seemed like they enjoyed being around him,” said another sister, Sister Kate Moriarty.
In the 1980s, he returned to head the Society of St. James order in Boston. The monsignor earned a master’s degree from the Fletcher School at Tufts University. But he missed being a missionary, and returned to Ecuador.
Monsignor Moriarty came home to Chicago at least once a year, often helping to celebrate family baptisms and weddings. After retiring here a few years ago, Mary Pallasch said, “He pined for the weather in Ecuador.”
He is also survived by two more sisters, Barbara and Irene; a brother, Thomas; and many nieces and nephews and grand-nieces and grand-nephews. Visitation is at 9:30 a.m. Friday until an 11:30 a.m. funeral Mass at St. Barnabas Church, 10134 S. Longwood. Burial is at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery. At the church, his family plans to have orchids, which he loved to grow in Ecuador.