Cuernavaca, Mexico — ``Padre! Padre!'' The children cluster around the Rev. William Wasson. They jostle to get closer to him, their smiles brilliant against their brown skins. The 63-year-old Franciscan priest enfolds as many of them as he can.
These are the children of Nuestros Pequenos Hermanos - ``Our Little Brothers.'' Fr. Wasson's creation, NPH, is an orphanage, a refuge, a school, a home, a family. The NPH community includes boys and girls, toddlers, teen-agers, and in-between; some are truly orphans, others have been abandoned.
``We take in all the children who need to be here, and want to be here,'' Fr. Wasson says. ``And we never separate the children from one family, whether it's two brothers or 12 brothers and sisters. We don't put kids out for adoption or send them to foster homes. They stay here and live and work and learn till they're ready to leave.''
Adalberto Cabral, now an interpreter at the US Embassy in Mexico City, is one of the orphanage's thousands of alumni. He entered NPH as a child of 5, along with three brothers and three sisters. Two of the brothers are now teachers, one is a television technician, and the sisters are all married homemakers. Asked what his own future would have been without NPH, he replies, ``I would have had no future. Or I would have been dead.''
Maria Guadalupe Manzanaris, now a teacher at the orphanage, came to Fr. Wasson as a girl, herding nine of her siblings before her. The children's father had deserted them and their mother had died. Lupe, as she's called, now has a husband and a young son and daughter of her own. She was the first pequeno sponsored by actress Helen Hayes, long a supporter of NPH. Full sponsors pay $108 a month, which takes care of the basic needs of one child; partial sponsors pay $20 per month and up.
Nuestros Pequenos Hermanos has grown from the priest's one-man operation to an institution that employs 167 people and depends on hundreds of supporters. What began as a sanctuary for a solitary thieving boy is today a ``family'' with 860 members (632 in Cuernavaca, most of the rest studying elsewhere in Mexico or in the United States). There is also an alumni association of more than 8,000, most of them are productive Mexican citizens with families of their own.
NPH actively raises funds in the US, Mexico, and in Europe. American donors contributed $500,000 in 1984, the last year for which the National Charities Information Bureau, headquartered in New York, has information.
All this has taken 32 years of dedicated work to establish. But the real start came decades before that. Bill Wasson had wanted to be a priest from the time he was six years old. As a young man, he entered the Benedictine Seminary in Conception, Mo., where he studied for seven years.
``Then,'' he recalls in his soft-spoken way, ``I got sick.'' It was a harrowing setback for one so full of life. He was dismissed from the seminary, but he bears no grudge. He entered San Luis Rey, a Franciscan university at Santa Barbara, Calif.
His master's degree in law and social sciences seemed to foreshadow a career in teaching. But that prospect changed when a friend invited him along on a Mexican vacation. In Mexico City, Wasson fell acutely ill again. A young Mexican doctor, taking a painstaking interest in the North American's case, identified his problem as an overdosage of medication. Once Wasson had recuperated, he revived his dream of being a priest. He was directed to the bishop of Cuernavaca, who ordained him on Pentecost Sunday, May 24, 1953.
The bishop saw in this young North American someone who could fill a difficult dual assignment - pastor to both an English-speaking church and a poor people's church. The American and international colony needed a priest, but the poor Mexicans needed one even more.
``I had the little church of Jesus of Nazareth,'' Fr. Wasson relates. ``One night, Augustin, the sacristan, heard a prowler and ran for the police.'' Twenty-four dollars had been taken - a large sum in a poor parish.
``The next morning, Augustin told me proudly, `Father, we won't have to worry any more about money disappearing. The police have the thief.'
``I went down to the jail to see the thief. It was a frightened 15-year-old boy, thrown together with adult criminals in a single cell. The jailer let me take him over to a corner to talk to him. Sobbing, Hans, a boy of German extraction, told me of his broken family and his hard life on the streets.
``I said, `Would you go with me and go to school?' Hans said, `You mean you'd take me, Father, after what I've done?' I replied, `The only thing I ask is that you treat me just the way you would have treated your father if he hadn't died.' He agreed.''
Early the next morning, the priest answered a knock on the door. There stood the smiling jailer. ``Father, I've brought you eight more,'' he said proudly. ``And I'll bring you all we can find.''
Adopting nine street urchins seemed an absurd undertaking. The boys and the pastor overflowed his small apartment. But then some friends in his English-speaking church gave him access to an abandoned brewery.
With his first boys settled in at the dilapidated building, Fr. Wasson foraged constantly for their food.
``One night,'' he recalls, ``I came home empty-handed. We had no supper and nothing for breakfast. I was in despair. I called the boys together. `We have no food,' I told them. `We may have to break up. I want you all to pray and ask God what we are to do.'
In the chapel, the boys fell to their knees. While we were praying, the chauffeur of a wealthy woman appeared at the door. He brought a large check - enough to feed us for several months - and said his employer would send more later.
`Boys,' I said, `God has answered us.'''
After several moves, the community put down its roots in 1970 at the Hacienda San Salvador. Once a sugar mill, the hacienda embraces about 200 acres. It's 12 miles from Cuernavaca, a pleasant resort city about 70 miles southwest of Mexico City.
At NPH, learning ranks equally with religion, health care, and developing opportunities to work. The children combine work, school, and play. Some of the boys and girls work in the community kitchen and elsewhere in the residential complex, but most are out of doors helping to raise crops and animals for use at NPH and for outside sale.
``Each child learns at his or her ability level,'' Fr. Wasson explains. Some have gone on to become physicians, lawyers, accountants, and teachers. Others learn trades - like Hans, the orphanage's first boy, who became a skilled carpenter. Still others become secretaries and office workers.
Whether doctor or truck driver, each former ``pequeno'' is required to give back a year's service to NPH. The time is spent caring for and training the current children. ``Many give much more than their required year,'' Fr. Wasson says, smiling.
Recently, the international Board of Advisers of NPH met at Cuernavaca. Within 10 minutes, they pledged $160,000 for construction of a home for infant pequenos and for the launch of a companion orphanage in Honduras.
At 63, the six-foot-tall Fr. Wasson is robust and has only a few flecks of gray in his blond hair. Will the effort here continue once he's gone? ``My assistants are dedicated and trained to carry on,'' he replies. A pause. A smile. ``There'll be no problem. This work will continue.''