NEW YORK – According to an official of the U.S. bishops’ conference, so much of the life of Bishop Mario Dorsonville of Houma–Thibodaux in Louisiana was devoted to the welfare of migrants, especially “Dreamers” who came to the U.S. as children, that the best tribute after his death would be to continue his work.
Dorsonville, a native of Bogota, Colombia, died Jan. 19 at the age of 63 following complications from a liver illness.
The future bishop spent the early part of his career ministering to Dreamers in the Archdiocese of Washington. And when he became chair of the U.S. Bishops’ Conference Migration Committee, he made their plight a focal point of his advocacy.
“Probably his greatest disappointment was that we had not found a solution for Dreamers,” said William Canny, who worked closely with Dorsonville at the USCCB, told Crux.
“These are young people that [Dorsonville] ministered to and baptized and listened to confessions and confirmed, and so this group was a special concern to him, and I would say that with many victories and positive things he did this was a disappointment to him and he would want us to stay focused on regularizing the situation of dreamers in this country,” he said.
Dreamers are undocumented migrants who came to the United States as children, lived and grew up here, and are able to work here, but remain in a sort of legal limbo as they do not have legal status.
Canny, the executive director of the USCCB Department of Migration and Refugee Services, worked with Dorsonville when he led the Migration Committee from 2019-2022. In the years Dorsonville was at the helm, there were two presidential administrations with different approaches to immigration, a divided Congress, and a burgeoning immigration crisis that persists today.
In that time, Canny said he saw a leader in Dorsonville who was unafraid to approach federal lawmakers, a leader who knew he didn’t have all of the answers and leaned on those around him – both bishops and laity – a leader who “conveyed a gentleness that was a psalm to people [migrants] who were in turmoil.”
“He was not afraid to attack tough issues, but always with that beautiful smile,’ Canny said.
Dorsonville also, Canny added, never lost hope.
“He always did his business with hope, and despite the dire situations of immigrants during his tenure and the attitude people were beginning to develop for them, he brought hope, he kept the committee focused on the needs and he helped us and the bishops on the committee also understand the many contributions that migrants make in our country,” Canny explained.
An immigrant himself, Dorsonville was born October 31, 1960, in Bogotá, Colombia. He was ordained to the priesthood on November 23, 1985 in Bogotá, and first came to America in 1992 to finish his studies. After a brief return to Colombia, Dorsonville was appointed parochial vicar of a Maryland parish, part of the Archdiocese of Washington in 1997. He held the role through 2004.
From 2005-2015, Dorsonville served as vice president of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington and as director of the archdiocese’s Spanish Catholic Center.
Dorsonville was named Auxiliary Bishop for the Archdiocese of Washington by Pope Francis on March 20, 2015, and ordained to the episcopate on April 20, 2015. As an auxiliary bishop, Dorsonville was the vicar general for the archdiocese.
At the national level, in addition to his role leading the USCCB Migration Committee, at different times he was also a member of the Committees on Domestic Justice and Human Development and Religious Liberty, and the Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism.
Pope Francis named Dorsonville bishop of the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux on Feb. 1, 2023.
The diocese announced on Jan. 20 that Dorsonville died Jan. 19 at the hospital, surrounded by those closest to him. He died from ongoing health complications related to liver disease, which was discovered late last year, according to the diocese.
“It is with great sadness and deep shock that I announce to you that our beloved Shepherd, Bishop Mario Dorsonville, passed away at 6:50 pm this evening after he gave in to complications arising from recent health problems,” Father Simon Peter Engurait, Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux Vicar General, said in a Jan. 19 statement to the faithful.
“My heart is broken as I make this news to you as this is not the kind of message any one of us would expect to receive,” he added. “I am aware that you will have a lot of questions on your mind. I ask that you be patient with us as we begin to navigate through these uncertain moments. In the meantime, I ask that you keep him in your prayers.”
According to a separate news release from the diocese, diocesan leaders were set to meet Jan. 22 to discuss funeral arrangements and select a diocesan administrator to lead the diocese until a new bishop is appointed. The diocese did not respond to a Crux request for comment on the result of those discussions.
As news of Dorsonville’s death became public, Catholic leaders nationwide offered their condolences, with many touching on his pastoral nature and kindness. Auxiliary Bishop Juan Esposito of Washington, described Dorsonville as “our former auxiliary, and admired and good friend to all who knew him.”
“Those who were touched by Bishop Dorsonville came to know what a special soul he is. His friendliness, cordial smile and gracious kindness warmed the hearts of everyone who encountered him,” Esposito said in a Jan. 20 statement. “A priest forever by virtue of his ordination, he was a good and faithful servant of the Lord he loved so well and served with such fervent dedication.”
Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles asked on Jan. 20 for people to pray for his friend, who was a “good bishop,” and “a good priest” who “had a great love for the people he served.”
Along those same lines, Canny remembered Dorsonville as a unique kind of leader.
“He was a kind leader, a servant leader, one willing to work,” Canny said. “He also was a friend to us.”
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