An interview with John Kennedy


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An interview with John Kennedy
Physical Description:
45 minutes
John Kennedy
Samuel Proctor Oral History Program
Publication Date:


Subjects / Keywords:
Panama Canal


General Note:
Interviewed by Paul Ortiz

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Source Institution:
University of Florida
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All applicable rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
Resource Identifier:
PCM 024 John Kennedy 7-2-2010
PCM 024
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The Foundation for The Gator Nation An Equal Opportunity Institution Samuel Proctor Oral History Program College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Program Director : Dr. Paul Ortiz Office Manager : Tamarra Jenkins Technology Coordinator : Deborah Hendrix 241 Pugh Hall PO Box 115215 Gainesville, FL 32611 352 392 7168 Phone 352 846 1983 Fax The Samuel Proctor Oral History Program (SPOHP) was founded by Dr. Samuel Proctor at the University of Florida in 1967. Its original projects were collections centered around Florida history with the purpose of preserving eyewitness accounts of economic, social, political, religious and intellectual life in Florida and the South In the 45 years since its inception, SPOHP has collected over 5,000 interviews in its archives. Transcribed interviews are available through SPOHP for use by research scholars, students, journalists, and other interested groups. Material is frequently used for theses, dissertations, articles, books, documentaries, museum displays, and a variety of other public uses. As standard oral history practice dictates, SPOHP recommends that researchers refer to both the transcript and audio of an interview when c onducting their work. A selection of interviews are available online here through the UF Digital Collections and the UF Smathers Library system. Oral history interview transcripts available on the UF Digital Collections may be in draft or final format. SP OHP transcribers create interview transcripts by listen ing to the original oral history interview recording and typing a verbatim document of it. The transcript is written with careful attention to reflect original grammar and word choice of each interview ee; subjective or editorial changes are not made to their speech. The draft trans cript can also later undergo a later final edit to ensure accuracy in spelling and format I nterviewees can also provide their own spelling corrections SPOHP transcribers ref er to the Merriam program specific transcribing style guide, accessible For more information about SPOHP, visit or call the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program office at 352 392 7168. October 2013


PCM 024 Interviewee: John Kennedy Interviewer: Paul Ortiz Date: July 2, 2010 K: speaking Zonians. Paraiso was a congregation of mostly Panamanian people and a lot of islanders, the native the blacks from the island, they make such a bulk of the Panama population around the capital city. They come over to build the canal their grandparents and then the U.S. wanted to repatriate them all, offering them free passes back to their island Jamaica or Barbados, all them places, you know? [Laughter] Most of them decided to stay there. So they root and raise their kids. All the kids were born Panama nian speaking English and Spanish. We always had a lot of fun ourselves. They called them the people from Barbados are B ajan s, and we called their language B ajan. And also, they themselves called us whitey whitey. So you speak and we had all kinds of jokes: Spanish jokes, English jokes, half and half jokes. Some of them, you have to have the right audience or ti t ter out of anybody. O: [Laughter] Right. K: All my work down there was half and half, mostly Panamanians really, because out of Balboa I worke d at Chiriqu in West Hernando, Panama, right on the Costa Rican border both sides, the Atlantic side and the Pacific side. The real


PCM 024; Kennedy; Page 2 side. In fact, Shorty and Slim are these records; they are selling them downstairs. O: Oh, yeah. I saw that. [Laughter] K: And their title is The Shorty and Slim culture: the mixture of English and B ajan from the islands. Jamaican, Spanish, and English. One of their albums they call it The Next Side because down there The Next Side. [ i naudible 2:47] So, my career down there in Panama has been mixed half and O: Father Kennedy, when did you first go to Panama? K: 1949, right after ordination. I was an ordained priest in 1949 up in Philadelphia. O: Okay. Did your family have a tradition of serving in the priesthood? K: Only priest was me, but my parents were both Irish immigrants from Ireland, Tipperary my father, and County Mayo my mother. They never heard of Panama, and I never heard of it, either, until I met a Vincentian priest, who enco uraged me to go to the seminary. Then I went to that seminary run by Vincentian fathers. Of I wanted to be a foreign missionary. I was aiming for China the whole time, and


PCM 024; Kennedy; Page 3 the year I was ordained, 1949, Mao Zedong moved in and kicked all the Christian enough and young enough. O: [Laughter] What is distinctive about the Vincentian order? Does it have a particular K: Paris in France. Basically, they called it one of the French religious orders of the Catholic Church, because our being cultures, our spiritual exercises, our prayer books and all given these French books. First of all, learn French, then read these books in French. So, we have a French taste to our customs and our Vincentian fathers order. And it fits right in with the Latin taste, too, with the Latinos who are very of course, the Panamanian s have Spanish they speak good Spanish, very good. [Inaudible 5:09] in Colombia, because Panama was a c olony, was a part of Colombia until 1903. So, I went down when I was ordained, right away they told We went first to Costa Rica to learn Spanish, each one of us to live with a Co sta real people, not schoolteachers. Just mix and study on the side. They made my parish house and go over grammar with me. Then from mixing with her, in three


PCM 024; Kennedy; Page 4 months I was able to preach in Spanish. After six months they said, okay, back down to Panama v O: No, sir. K: right next to Panama b ea utiful little country. We called them the ticos, they were very good to me. The priest I lived with, a real holy man but at the same time a lot of fun, good jokes. He became a bishop, in fact. Then he died five years ago. Father Coto was the name, C o t o, Alfon s o Coto. But from him and commercials on T.V ., I get mad, r years. Buy a textbook and try to only way is to mix with the people. O: K: Now these days, young people traveling so much, a lot of kids are learning as gn languages, these summer programs, and their parents let them travel now by themselves So they go to Indonesia and India and South Sea Islands, any country, Latin America. So after that Costa Rice experience, I went right into Panama and worked with the Panamanian people, not in the Canal Zone. I worked three hundred miles west, the part of


PCM 024; Kennedy; Page 5 Panama that abuts on Costa Rica. We have missions both Atlantic and Pacific side, our side and the next side. O: What were social conditions like, Father Kennedy, wh en you first went to Panama? K: It was poverty, but no real indigence. The Canal Zone, of course, that was just like a little slice of the state of Delaware or New Jersey or Texas a lot of southerners. You hear it around here. The Canal Zone people, a lot of them speak real s outhern like. [Laughter] But our life in the Canal Zone was like living Americans ended up marrying Panamanian girls, and I was happy to see that. all of them, they get together and have a drink or two, a few beers, all they want to talk about is Panama, not the C anal Zone. They remember Panama, the Republic. Most of them still own summer houses up on the beaches in Panama, and they spend all their vacation time. Of course, they all go back to the States. But after a while as ody back in the States, they grow up as Panamanians. All the kids speak perfect Spanish. All the American kids who come here with their parents to the reunion, I think the Panaman ian people as a whole, they all, caramba, gos. [Laughter] Maybe


PCM 024; Kennedy; Page 6 g flying over part of their soil. So naturally, [inaudible 9:38] but when the Americans left, the Panamanians, they miss us. people back in the States, all they want to talk about like at this reunion, they full of in tone. The bulk of my work down there was with Panamanian people, which was n culture in being with them. They always asked me, [Laughter] O: What were some of the challenges being a priest in Panama in 1949? K: There was no some of the Latin countrie s like Mexico had a revolution and a lot of anti clericalism. In fact, in Mexico they shot and killed a lot of priests and nuns during the teen years, 1910 to 1920 and during the [19]20s. O: Oh yeah. The revolution. K: The revolution time. But I never fel t any of that. In fact, when the big riots in 1964 of course, the Panamanians kept rioting. We had nine priests there in St. episcopal committee. In fact, he appointed me episcopal vicar for the churches of the Canal Zone. In that way, they did the


PCM 024; Kennedy; Page 7 military it was military, all those bases. And the Catholic and non Catholic chaplains of the U.S. Army and Navy were down there. They were not obliged to They services bases around the country and overseas. But in Panama, they made an agreement right at the very beginning that the chaplains Catholic or Protestant, whate ver they were, Jewish one of our great Jewish pastors down there was Rabbi Nate Witkin. He lived right across the street from us in Balboa. He was a wonderful man. He had a little house right where the Y.M.C.A used to be in Balboa. An American fighter pilo t ran out of gas while he was attempting a motor died. He was crossing about where the bridge is now built yet but he fell two hundred a nice lady, I knew her well, she was killed. Poor Rabbi Witkin, oh, he was heartbroken. She was killed instantly, and the pilot. All those chaplai ns, the Catholics especially, were not obliged to get permission for mixed marriages, Catholic and non Catholic. You have to go to the bishop to get the written under the Bi shop of Panama now officially. They cleared it through Rome that all the American priests in Panama would be obligated to the Bishops of Panama. So, my job was to be sort of


PCM 024; Kennedy; Page 8 bishop in the Zone. If any of tho se priests wanted to get a dispensation for a So, I got to know a lot of good guys and chaplains who were down there. And t quite intimately united. Since I was episcopal vicar, I was on the bishops committee eight of them all told: Panam, Coln, Chitr, David, [inaudible 14:30] I was ar the purple like they did. I had the episcopal faculties that they all had. We got real close, and I was very close to the Panamanian church, which is good because then that way, the bishops of Panama where so to the Canal Zone, but then the bishops themselves made the effort to learn them to preside at weddings or anniversaries or any special parish function. out, the first real good look any of them ever had in the Zone. They had never gone out to a military base; was like. Great relations sprang up then, even despite the riot in [19]64. I was at a meeting of bishops in Panama. It was a weekday evening, and I was dressed sometimes we adopted down there, we had guayabera, the shirt, the little cross. I it on your collar. That was our whole preaching in signia My first years, we wore the sotana, you know? The long, with the


PCM 024; Kennedy; Page 9 O: Yeah. K: following the custom of the Spanish priest. But around 1954, Bishop Clavel, Panamanian Auxil iary Bishop of Panama, said Father Kennedy, our priests, guayabera, and wear that cross, and show the priests how you dress in the Canal Zone. [Laughter] So I was a model. I modelled, and the priests, Yeah We want it From that day on, they all started dressing like we do. Little cross on the collar, sometimes a cross on a chain, but some identification. That was a great breakthrough. We got to know the Panamanian priests; they got to know us. The same with our people: our congregation got to as I mentioned, so many marriages. I remember coming back from, maybe it was that same meeting, one of those meetin g s was an American born, Costa Rican mother and an American father, raised and born right there in Panama. He became Archbishop of Panama. Mark McGrath, about six foot six, big, real gringo. The peo ple loved him because he was born he was one of those American kids who spoke better Spanish than English. But I the white collar k through Cinco


PCM 024; Kennedy; Page 10 to Balboa, and I got to the crossroads, Fourth of July Avenue. And suddenly my car was surrounded by teenagers, Panamanians. Gringo, gringo, gringo! [Laughter] A nd there was this gringo driving, so I yelled a few short cuss words in [Laughter] When I said, carajo they knew I was a Panamanian, so they let me he way it went. O: both in Panama but also in the Zone. What were some of the differences between the two areas in your experience? K: Of course, I had Canal Zone privileges. I could bu y in the Canal Zone commissaries, and when people Padre! Will you buy me this, buy me that? [Laughter] I mean, I was breaking the law but I bought things in the big old commissary right there in Balboa, in Stevens Circle, and in different places. Just litt le things, you know? A nice new razor sure a lot of the laypeople were doing the same thing. [Laughter] A lot of them had in laws in Pana ma. I had some beautiful families, marriages come out of those. There are some of them down here. I saw a lady and a guy in here at lunchtime what was his name? Johnson? they all come up to me. They know know that I recognize them. [Laughter] So they all want to say hello and


PCM 024; Kennedy; Page 11 remember those days fifty, sixty years ago with their Panamanian wife and their half Panamanian kids and all that. That aspect, the family level, they g ot along great. The political level was something else. The Panamanian politicians simply money But otherwise, the relationship people to people was very pleasant. And oftentimes, people somebody in the paper yesterday said such and such about the Americans. of the Panamanian people are very happy with the A was. I worked full time in Chiriqu and Bocas del Toro. When I was living there in Balboa, as episcopal vicar I was over in Panama City more than I was in the Zone. My contacts with the Zone chaplains was real and it was very helpful. Helpful for them and helpful for me, because they had me as a contact with the b ishop in Panama because some of them never learned Spanish and they relied on me a lot. So, both sides got along real good, real good. O: Okay. What were some of the spiritual challenges for people in the Canal Zone? K: Recall the church regulations about holy day mass and things like that. A nd the y day to day functioned in Panama just like in the States, th ough the Panamanian people as a whole, there was a lower percentage of assistants at the religious services. In the Canal Zone, the Americans like the


PCM 024; Kennedy; Page 12 people that are here at this reunion. I fo the Sunday mass the day before the eve people at mass. My good friend Bill Wilbur the Gamboa Union Church, he had a very small group. After we finished in the ballroom, Bill took over with his group and it was much smaller, not even half of what they had. The Panamanian Catholics were sort of in a way challenged to prove that we are Ca good example. Show our Panamanian brothers and sisters that we love them know what good you can do by just good example. I remember one couple I married, father and mother and five kids. They were from Arkansas, and they had never seen a Catholic in their life. But this man of the family, the breadwinner, he of the sections there outside Panama City but part of the Zone for a birthday party or something. I was invited, too, and he came up to me. Father Kennedy, can I call you Father? Everybody they believe in? The Catholics have always been a mystery to me. Maybe it is to rectory and he started comi ng for a weekly session, then his wife joined him, then the kids. Six months later the whole family was baptized into the Catholic Church. I said, well, what got you


PCM 024; Kennedy; Page 13 interested in the Catholics? My neighbors, the people whose party you came to. I never sa w them miss mass on Sunday. I remember back in Arkansas, we had It impressed me, so wanted to know more about the Catholics. You can myself try to use the word Christian, not just Catholic, because sometimes people who are non Catholic say, the Catholics are not Christians. They are not carry his name. I often in speeches and talks and service use Christian Catholics. We are Christian Catholics. Or Catholic Christians. Whatever way you like, but I like to sneak the word Christian in there because all the Protestants and what we call the main body under the Pop long as we worship the God that we believe in, if we practice what we preach n the hotel now. You I hate to see people come to church in shorts on Sunday [Laughter] but these people, ladies coming in


PCM 024; Kennedy; Page 14 O: Oh, yeah. I noticed. K: With big hats. O: Hats, yeah. K: example for us. [Laughter] O: Yeah, wow. Father Kennedy, what types of changes did you see in the church or in t he country from 1949 through the [19]50s and [19]60s? Were there any significant changes that occurred in life? K: it vocations, young boys who want to go to the seminary seventeen of us in our year. This year, we had two men ordained in our principal house and the other is Mexican. No gringos, and we have not one single gringo in our seminary now. When I was in seminary, we had more or less sixty five, seventy guys in our major semin years after college, what call graduate school, specializing in theology. But now, ch all around. Thank the Lord, the Latino


PCM 024; Kennedy; Page 15 Catholics are a little more fervent in their religious practice than we Americans. and fifteen or twenty on their way up through college towards their o rdination and priesthood got the heartbreak both sides, Americans and Latino boys, ordained priests, who will fall in love with somebody and take their collar off and go get married. It hurts to see that because we believe we give guidanc e, enough o we urge the men to keep vows, telling them be faithful to your vow New York Times this past week, an article that lists people getting religious marriages now all over the O: Oh, really? K: The number of people who get married in church anymore. Everybo dy goes to and that certainly affects us sometimes. Surprising, for my part, I always thought [Laughter ] I found out that the guys are more fervent in their religion than the girls. Seems the is it real love, or they want to have a family but a lot of times, the girl wants t o get married but by the justice of the peace.


PCM 024; Kennedy; Page 16 O: Oh, not in the church. K: O: Another thing, it seems more Protestant denominati ons are making in roads into Latin America. Is that something that K: Oh, yes. O: And why is that? K: are ten Protestant missionaries preaching the word in their little churches. There bunch of college kids Catholics are doing that, too warming up college kids come down and spend a month or two or all summer vacation teaching kids, preaching religion, all for the last thirty years. They sent me up 1980. They sent back twenty five years to the States to do that, knocking on doors around the s tates in the Spanish sectors of the ci good people are anxious to take part in especially, ntion so many marriages, American men and Panamanian wife, the wives want to be


PCM 024; Kennedy; Page 17 believe, the one true God and end up becoming Muslims or some of those other O: Okay. What are some of your fondest memories of those early years in Panama as a young priest? K: Mostly they all involved the people b ecause I was living we used to get a month w b n y, Awbny. [Laughter] My little story [Laughter] But there have been a lot of good people, a share their lives with us There used to be more Catholic traditions, getting married in church and sen ding their kids to catechism classes not just Sunday morning, but during the week, too. And then we have our Catholic schools. We teachers. It used to be the Sisters of Mercy from Brooklyn, and they were all with the Brooklyn accen t and the kids were learning English with a Brooklyn accent. [Laughter] O:


PCM 024; Kennedy; Page 18 K: when I was still there twenty years ago or thirty school. There were kids coming in and one of the nuns, the principal of the school, she called me your zippe r. [Laughter] First time a nun ever told me that my fly was open. O: [Laughter] Whoops. K: But they were great, working as teachers in Long Island and Brooklyn. New Yawk, you know? O: New York, ye ah. K: Experiences with the it says here, how did you interface with the military? Well, with the military, it was the chaplains. And the chaplains would often invite one of us to go and speak to their English often had three day retreats a weekend Friday night till Sunday night all the assistance of t he military chaplain. And the same thing for the Panamanians: they had for years what they called a C ursillo M ovement, a little course in my cursillo was a four day retreat from a Thursday evening until Sunday


PCM 024; Kennedy; Page 19 recreation times also, and exchanging ideas. That was a real good touch with the Panamanian people. And, how imp ortant was Panama nian culture in your life? I wear my Panama flag where is it? My Panama flag and my American flag. A nd I was happiest when I came in the bus from the airport and I saw way up in the top floor of the hotel Panama and the American flag hangi ng outside. O: Together, yeah. K: I think our love you can call it love, respect for Panamanian people, and them for us also, has grown since the separation of the governments. It seems to me rse, what did they do? They had to be more and less forced. The canal was American built on American land and American jobs, and then they continued on and it grew and grew and grew. Now, the workers on the Panama Canal, the people who actually run that ca the University of Panama has courses geared towards the mechanics that are involved in operating the canal and constructing s Panamanians. There are some bosses because I think one of the big firms are anese. [Laughter] For me, I really liked the Panamanian people very much. All my friends, my Christmas card list, is ninety percent Panamanian. Just walking


PCM 024; Kennedy; Page 20 O: Father Kennedy, it just occurred to me to ask you this question. What kind of impact did the Second Vatican Council have on the church in Panama in the [19]60s? K: I think the church awakened. It awakened. The church was just a typical, Spanish easily. They have their tradition, their devotion to the saints which we approve, why we pray to them, they died to defend the faith they believe in. They died and for their deaths, they say this what is it? The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians. Wherever there have been people killed for the faith not so much in Panama but there have been priests murdered in Panama. Father oh, what his name? O: Oh, right. Starts with a G, I think? K: Up there in El Valle. Oh, I know. Hctor Garcia [Gallego] Padre Hctor, Colombia n He was shot not because well, because he was a priest. His parish was Santiago in Veraguas, and some guy shot him because he was trying to get the barkeepers not to sell booze to the teenagers. He was defending the young


PCM 024; Kennedy; Page 21 people, and they called him defens o r de la juventud There have been martyrs in Panama, but other countries where there have martyrs Mexico several hundred Mexican priests and nuns were martyred th ere in the 1920s. And lately in Colombia also: the priest who dared preach against the narco traffico. Oh, boy. We have a bishop working with us in the s tates now, and he was bishop of the eastern part of Colombia on the border with Venezuela. But he was trying to clear out the drug business, the narco traffico, and they came to him. Padre working with us in around the New York area, and mainly with the Hispanics on Long Island. All with Hispanic people, a lot of Colombian. They love him because priests and bishops have been ki lled by the but aside from that, it really does seem that the blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians. These deaths have O: Did you know Archbishop Romero? K: Romero? Yeah. He was kill ed. Yeah, I knew him. He was Bishop of El Salvador. I knew him well In fact, I was at meeting that he was at, and Bishop McGrath, the one I mentioned before, was there also. He was killed saying mass. He was at the altar. One of the military guys, he said he was doing what his superiors told him to do. He came to the church, went and stood in the middle aisle in the back


PCM 024; Kennedy; Page 22 door of the church, and with a rifle killed the bishop right through the heart while he was saying mass. In a place like El Salvador, bec ause all you could say is, muy catlico [Laughter] We love our Catholics who are going to make more saints. Something like that. O: Well, Father Kennedy, I know you have a busy schedule at the reunion and a lot of people want to talk to you. Is there any thing you wanted to talk about that we K: The thing that comes to my mind in occasions like this is to let people know that the Panamanian people, just because they drove us out, they love us. Some politicians are a little bit [inaudible 43:32] but the Panamanian people love the Americans. Look at all the marriages. Happy, happy marriages mixed between Panamanian and usually the other way around, Panamanian girl some very good Panamanian men who married American women and working out better because they just seem to get along well. My main message would be, I love Panama and I spent most of my life there. If they want me to go bac the bulk love for Panama and willingness to help s tates, all the border


PCM 024; Kennedy; Page 2 3 have nothing. But thank God, Panama has been blessed by God with an O: Yeah. I remember when I was there in the [19]80s, there was such a difference betwe en Panama and say, Honduras. Night and day, night and day. Well, thank you so much, Father Kennedy. I really appreciate you taking the time. [END OF INTERVIEW] Transcribed by: Jessica Taylor, December 1, 2013 Audit edited by Matt Simmons January 7, 2014