Dozens of Cubans who temporarily called Montana home in the 1960s will gather for a reunion this weekend in Helena.
They are known as the “Pedro Pan” or Peter Pan children, who were part of one of the largest recorded exoduses of unaccompanied minor children in the Western Hemisphere. According to the website pedropan.org, Cuban parents feared Castro was going to indoctrinate their children into his Marxist-Leninist social programs, and they asked the Catholic Welfare Bureau of Miami to intervene.
The U.S. State Department waived visa rights for the children, and eventually more than 14,000 were flown to Florida between 1960 and 1963. After spending about a year housed in makeshift camps, the children were distributed among the 100 cities in 50 states via the Catholic Church network.
About 150 of them came to Montana between 1961 and 1963, said Diane Langefus, who was 11 when two of the Cubans landed in her class. Eventually, she said, Helena was home to at least 66 of the Cuban children. The Catholic Diocese of Helena distributed the rest of the children to foster homes, orphanages or other facilities in Whitefish, Kalispell and Butte.
“They would get to Helena, stay at St. Joseph’s Home until the Catholic Diocese put them through the system,” Langefus said.
The diocese bought the old Toole Mansion — now home to the Jackson, Murdo and Grant law firm — and turned it into Brondel Hall. Some of the boys stayed there and left their signatures on a wall, where they remain today.
In Helena, the Pedro Pan children attended school at Carroll College, St. Helena school, St. Mary’s school and Cathedral High. Most of their parents were allowed to emigrate around 1966, were reunited with their children and moved elsewhere.
Although the Cubans had scattered, their school chums in Helena never forgot about them. In 2012, Enrique Victorero moved back to Helena from California, after retiring from being a teacher and assistant principal. Last year, he attended the all-class reunion for Cathedral High School alumni from 1936 to 1969, and the Independent Record wrote a story about Victorero and the other Pedro Pan children.
“That story went viral,” Langefus said. “The Pedro Pan organization put it on its website. Some of these children hadn’t seen each other for 50 years, and they started contacting myself and Enrique. That was in July. By August of last year we had heard from quite a few of them and by October four of us got together in Helena and started talking about whether we should try to get everyone together and where.”
Because so many spent their time in Helena, they decided to hold the reunion here. While some of the 14,000 Pedro Pan children have linked up through the years via the website, Langefus said they perused Montana documents and came up with the names of about 150 people and tried to contact as many as possible. About 20 people had died, but an estimated 60 of Montana’s Pedro Pan children are expected to return, some with their families.
Langefus said they set up events for the reunion, which includes a private dinner today at the Mediterranean Grill, a Thursday night icebreaker at Bert and Ernie’s, a Friday morning trip to the Gates of the Mountains and a Friday evening play — written by a Pedro Pan alumnus — performed at Carroll College. Helena’s Last Chance Tour Train will take them to familiar haunts on Saturday, and spend that evening at the Montana Club. On Sunday, the 9 a.m. Mass at the Cathedral of St. Helena will be concelebrated by the Rev. Toni Marti, one of the Pedro Pan boys who is now a priest.
“Many of the businesses we’ll visit are run by or owned by their classmates,” Langefus said. “Anybody we work with , who finds out these are the Cuban kids, are adjusting their prices, putting in extras and making sure they’re all welcome. People just want to help again, and it’s phenomenal.”
Reporter Eve Byron: 447-4076 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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