Murdered in Havana

After the Catholic Church banished him, Cuba welcomed him. But the vibrant new life George Zirwas created for himself soon ended in tragic death.

"I think the diocese had the goods on him," asserts Ann Rodgers-Melnick, religion writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, who was first to reveal Zirwas' disciplinary history after his death. "His friends were pedophiles. And at the very least he did nothing to intervene at Seven Springs in a circumstance that would look suspicious to anybody with any sense. I think somebody came forward and either the statute of limitations had expired and they weren't able to prosecute, or the person may not have wanted to press charges because of the publicity. Whatever the reason, there had to have been some kind of trigger. Administrative leave is a serious, permanent punishment for wrongdoing; it's not the kind of leave you take if you're sick or need a rest."

Rev. Ronald Lengwin, spokesman for the Pittsburgh diocese, would not reveal the reasons behind Zirwas' administrative leave, citing the confidentiality of personnel records. Lengwin did acknowledge that Zirwas had sought extensive medical care after being placed on leave. Some of his friends continue to insist the neurological malady Guillain-Barré syndrome (with which Zirwas was reportedly diagnosed at some point but which improved) was responsible for his relocation to South Florida and subsequent travels to Costa Rica and Cuba. But it's doubtful Zirwas migrated south solely for the weather. "Florida is known as a place for bad priests," observes Rodgers-Melnick. "Every bad priest I've known has gone to Florida."

Zirwas' motives for choosing Fort Lauderdale are unknown, and none of his friends has any idea why he then began traveling to Costa Rica, other than the several gay resorts there. He apparently first heard raves about Cuba as a travel destination from men he met in Costa Rica. In any case, Zirwas could have been planning a move to Florida for at least a year before his administrative leave was official. In January 1995 he bought a house in Fort Lauderdale, then sold it five months later. In December of that year he closed on a condominium on NE Fourteenth Avenue in Fort Lauderdale, which he rented out in the years before his death. Property records place Zirwas in an apartment on West Avenue in Miami Beach in 1997 and 1998.

Polly Becker
Left: Zirwas as the Green Screen's El Juez found Cuba wanting, but fascinating. Right: An atypical Cuban family: Ulises, Zirwas, Taco, and Tico
Left: Zirwas as the Green Screen's El Juez found Cuba wanting, but fascinating. Right: An atypical Cuban family: Ulises, Zirwas, Taco, and Tico

After he began spending time in Cuba, Zirwas frequently criticized what he saw as Cuban exiles' political hypocrisy, and he tried to get his point across with letters to the editors of two U.S. newspapers, both during the Elián Gonzalez controversy of 1999-2000.

After the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Zirwas' hometown paper, published a series of Cuba-related stories, he wrote arguing for an end to the U.S. embargo. "It is a sad commentary on the members of our government," Zirwas concluded his December 6, 1999, letter, "that in order to secure contributions from the Cuban exiles in Miami... the embargo continues. The tragedy, however, is that the victims of the embargo are not the Castro regime but the suffering Cuban people. This involves more than politics; it is about human justice."

On February 6, 2000, a letter from "Rev. George Zirwas, Fort Lauderdale" appeared in the Miami Herald. This was after Elián's grandmothers had flown from Cuba to meet with him in the home of Barry University president Sister Jeanne O'Laughlin, who afterward declared her opposition to reuniting Elián with his father. "As a priest, I was taught the supremacy of the family," Zirwas wrote. "Obviously, Sister Jeanne takes a dim view of family values. There are happy families and happy children in Cuba. I've seen them. A child should be united with a father who loves him, in whatever country that may be." It's a sign of Zirwas' passionate feelings on the subject that, in violation of the terms of his administrative leave, he identified himself as a priest.

On his tropical island, planted amid Havana's ornate gray ruins, Zirwas re-created something like a kitschy, pop-culture version of his former pastoral existence. He was a Calle Mazón fixture, ensconced with a laptop computer on the sofa just inside his front door, greeting passersby and eagerly sending long, literate, and catty messages into cyberspace. Under the name El Juez (the judge), he presided over the entertaining Green Screen, a much-visited chat site set up to assist travelers to Cuba.

Ulises met George on the former priest's first visit to the island, in late 1997, in a high-rise apartment overlooking the Malecón, Havana's storied seawall. Ulises says they both were considering renting the place, and for a while George did live there. After they were shown around, George, who then spoke almost no Spanish, asked the landlord to invite Ulises to lunch with him. "I said, 'Me?'" Ulises recounts. "And that was how it started. It was love at first sight. George told me that up until then, he didn't think there was such a thing as a gay couple."

Several months later, Zirwas found the apartment on Calle Mazón. The place was in good repair and clean, with a small private courtyard where he and Ulises hung plants and birdcages. In the front room, which Zirwas decorated with Byzantine-style iconography, sat a comfortable couch, easy chairs, and a glass-topped coffee table.

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