Jerry Ryan (1937–2020), Boston Irish and Lithuanian, died on January 23. He was eighty-two. The son of a policeman, he began writing for Commonweal in 1973. His first byline was Anonymous, as he was reporting firsthand on the overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile. At the time, he was a member of the Little Brothers of Jesus (followers of Charles de Foucauld’s hidden life of prayer among the poor). And while stationed in Chile, Jerry had been active in creating workers’ cooperatives. Now a hunted man, he had to flee for his life. Jerry escaped to Argentina using a pseudonym, then flew to Washington D.C., where he reported firsthand information about the coup. He soon returned to Argentina, then moved to Bolivia, where he worked for seven years.
Jerry was first drawn to living in South America in 1960. At that time, he was working in the engine room of a Norwegian freighter. When it docked in torrid Guayaquil, Ecuador, Jerry encountered a human landscape of “screaming misery” (his words). That reality, he said, turned his life “upside down.” He knew immediately where he wanted to spend his life. “I’d never really suspected that such misery existed,” he recounted, “but once I had seen it, I had to be part of it.”
Jerry once described the Little Brothers as “a geographically scattered group of self-starters.” In keeping with their vocation of sharing the daily labor, life, and burdens of the poor, Jerry worked as a lumberjack, gravedigger, brick maker, grape picker, hospital hand, foundry worker, and later, after he left the Little Brothers and returned to Boston, for over thirty years as custodian and shop steward at the New England Aquarium. He had left the Brothers and married Nayda Madrid in Bolivia in 1978. When a series of coups rocked that country two years later, Jerry, his wife, and their young son, Steven, were forced to emigrate to the United States following the abduction and brutal murder of Steven’s godfather, Fr. Luis Espinal, SJ (see “Artist, Activist, Martyr,” Commonweal, August 14, 2015).