By Jessica Easthope
Puerto Ricans of all faiths gathered Jan. 18 at the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark, New Jersey, to celebrate the life and legacy of baseball player Roberto Clemente.
Clemente rose to fame as a sports star who has been credited with breaking down racial barriers within Major League Baseball.
When he died in a tragic plane crash in 1972, he was revered as one of the world’s greatest humanitarians.
Dozens braved the icy and snowy conditions to attend the Saturday Mass.
For the last 15 years, Newark Councilman Luis Quintana has been organizing the Mass, bringing Clemente memorabilia from his personal collection to set up on the altar.
In the wake of the devastating 5.2 magnitude earthquake that hit the island last week, Uintana spoke of the sad irony and connection Puerto Ricans have to Clemente’s death this year more than ever.
“He heard about the earthquake in Nicaragua and he said, ‘I have to go there and help the people of Nicaragua.’ And he loaded a plane,” Uintana explained. “And it was a touching day, because I heard the news that the plane had crashed in the sea after five minutes in flight.”
“Roberto Clemente was a great soul,” added Linda Cruz, who attended the Mass. “He was one of our great baseball players, and we have to remember all the good he did, and him as a person. He did a lot for all of the disasters, and if he were here today, he’d be doing the same thing.”
Puerto Rican’s in attendance expressed how Clemente’s legacy represents the importance of humanitarian efforts and, commemorative Masses represent the importance of faith, especially during the most difficult of times. This sentiment was also echoed by Newark Auxiliary Bishop Manuel Cruz, who celebrated the Mass.
“We’re family and we’re not alone and we’re grateful for our faith, knowing that our faith will never disappoint us,” he said.
As Puerto Ricans continue to recover from the earthquake, organizers of the annual Mass have pushed to have Clemente’s number, 21, retired from Major League Baseball.