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William B. Wasson, 82; Priest Founded Homes for Children

September 22, 2006|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

William B. Wasson, a Catholic priest from Phoenix who spent more than 50 years caring for orphaned children in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, died Aug. 16 in Cottonwood, Ariz., of complications from a hip injury. He was 82.

Wasson founded homes for orphaned and abandoned children called Nuestros Pequenos Hermanos, or Our Little Brothers and Sisters, in 1954.

The homes have since raised and supported more than 15,000 children and currently care for 3,000 boys and girls in the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Peru, Bolivia and Nicaragua.

Wasson said in a 1997 interview with the Arizona Republic that there weren't too many children in the world, "just too many for the amount of people who are willing to care for them."

He tried to keep siblings together, accepting all of the children in a family into the homes, and not allowing children to be adopted individually. Once accepted, children could not leave before age 18 unless a relative agreed to accept the entire family, not just one of them.

"It was just part of who he was, to always open his heart and open the door to improve the life of others," said James Hoyt, executive director of Friends of the Orphans, a nonprofit agency that supports the orphanages Wasson founded. "That was his call very early on. He really believed that it was going to be through a quality education that would help his children break the cycle of poverty."

The children live in dormitories, attend school and are assigned chores, some in the kitchens and others working in the farm fields or raising chickens.

Wasson was born in Phoenix in 1923 and ordained a priest in 1953 in Mexico. He was assigned to the chapel in the Tepetates market district of Cuernavaca, a town 50 miles south of Mexico City. There he instituted a day-care center for poor children and the next year rescued a boy from prison who had stolen from the church poor box because he was hungry.

After he was awarded custody of the boy and eight others in his cell, Wasson began Nuestros Pequenos Hermanos in an abandoned brewery. Later, he was able to move the community to a 200-acre hacienda that had once been the site of a sugar mill.

Among other honors, Wasson received the Mexican National Prize in 1977, the National Catholic Development Conference Good Samaritan Award in 1979 and the National Caring Award in 1997 from the Caring Institute in Washington, D.C.

Survivors include a brother, Barnabas Wasson, of Yarnell, Ariz.

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