BUENA PARK — He had no home, living in an alley just north of St. Mary of the Lake Catholic Church in Buena Park. He had no known family, moving to Chicago from Miami more than a decade ago. He had a few eclectic possessions, all carried in a cart that he kept by his side. No one knew how old he was.
But he had many names — different appellations for the hundreds of people whose lives he touched. Some called him Tito. Others “homeless Harry.” The police called him “Cuba,” referencing the country from which he emigrated as a refugee during the revolution.
His given name was Theodore (Teodoro) Quintana, which comes from the Greek word for “God” and “gift from.”
“He was a gift from God that we received, here, in the neighborhood,” pastor Manuel Dorantes said during a funeral service to honor Quintana Saturday at St. Mary of the Lake, 4220 N. Sheridan Road.
“Every human life is sacred, regardless of how successful we are, or what we do, our professions. Today is a testament to that.”
Quintana died in May in the alley where he lived. His exact cause of death is unknown, but the Cook County Medical Examiner ruled it was from natural causes. Neighbors estimated his age between 60 and 70. There are no known photographs of him.
In the months after his death, Dorantes worked with the Archdiocese of Chicago, the Police Department and the medical examiner’s office to take the unusual step of claiming Quintana’s body, hoping to give him a dignified funeral service and burial.
Dorantes knew little about Quintana’s family or past life. But he spoke often with Quintana about his faith, asking him if he needed help on particularly frigid winter days. Quintana always would reject the offer, saying in Spanish that Our Lady of Charity, the patroness of Cuba, would take care of him.
“Padre, don’t you worry about me,” Dorantes recalled him saying. “So I knew he was Catholic, and as such, we are offering him this Catholic funeral today.”
On Saturday, four Catholic priests and close to 100 other Buena Park community members from all walks of life, ranging from police to parishioners, gathered at the historic St. Mary of the Lake church to pay tribute to their neighbor, praying for him and offering their remembrance in the traditional Catholic funeral wake and mass.
They said Hail Marys and sang “Ave Maria” in English and Spanish. They read from the Book of Wisdom. They sprinkled holy water on his casket.
Vincent Robles, who worked closely with Dorantes when he served in the Brighton Park neighborhood, donated the casket and funeral services for Quintana. The archdiocese donated a plot at Maryhill Cemetery in Niles. Parishioners and neighbors brought flowers and bouquets, making small but faithful efforts to take care of his death just as they had often unknowingly come together to take care of him during life.
They remembered his smile and his sense of humor. Parishioner Katie Arnold said he always played a lighthearted trick on her when she walked past him, getting her to stop by saying she’d dropped money. Chicago police officer John Olen, who works closely with the homeless, said he saw Quintana almost every single morning, and noted how a homeless man had given hundreds of people who otherwise might not know each other a similar sense of purpose and shared connection.
“I’m glad I’m here,” Olen said. “Because we need to take care of one another.”
Community members talked about how Quintana’s presence was a stabilizing force in a neighborhood that has undergone significant change over the past decades. He would salute military veterans, who promptly put him at ease. Once, when he disappeared, flowers started to appear next to the tree he slept under, until he returned two weeks later. He weathered dangerously cold temperatures in the doorway of 4350 North Broadway, neighbors said. He received a Thanksgiving meal from those who lived inside.
“He was a great guy,” said neighbor Christopher Pries, who would also save takeout utensils for Quintana. “He definitely made an impression on this neighborhood, and I’m really grateful to everybody that helped him. I had no idea there were so many people who were looking out for him.”
But Quintana also struggled with alcoholism and post-traumatic stress disorder, issues that stemmed from his experience fleeing Cuba as a refugee. Neighbors and Dorantes said Quintana was deeply impacted by what he saw during the revolution, and after he emigrated to Miami, he became homeless, unable to handle the trauma. It was unclear what brought him to Chicago, but neighbors said they often heard him yelling in the alley throughout the night. Despite significant efforts from clergy, law enforcement and community services, Quintana always refused to be re-housed or moved to a shelter, preferring to live on the streets.
He would tell Dorantes, “Father, I’ve been in the streets for such a long time, the air doesn’t hit you the same way when you’re in a room.”
“He wanted to stay outside,” Dorantes said.
In his eulogy, Dorantes said that Quintana was one of the first people he met when he was assigned to St. Mary of the Lake. Quintana welcomed the pastor, excited that he was a native Spanish speaker. Quintana told him the steps of the church school were his home. The pastor was skeptical.
But as they grew to know each other, the pastor defended Quintana’s presence to neighbors and city officials who were bothered by it, saying he meant no harm. And Dorantes noted in his sermon on Saturday that Jesus himself came into the world as a homeless person, reminding parishioners that even those without homes are made in the image of God.
The pastor would often drive by Quintana to check on him in the winter, he said. One time, Dorantes asked Quintana if he needed anything. Quintana initially said no, but then he had an idea.
“As I was taking off, he was like, ‘Hey, Padre, Padre, do me a favor. Would you please lower your windows and play ‘Guantanamera’ for me?” Dorantes said, referencing the famous Cuban song. “I was like, ok, I am the priest. I am dressed in a Roman collar in the alley, right here with my neighbors. And I am about to turn up the volume. So I did. And he was just moving, and shaking, with ‘Guantanamera.’ Joy — all of a sudden, all of the problems I was dealing with, became so minute, seeing him dance in the alley in the snow to his beloved Cuban music.”
After the prayer service Saturday, volunteer pallbearers, including Pastor Dorantes, Officer Olen and other members of the church community, carried Quintana’s casket to the hearse waiting outside. But before they loaded it into the car, they paused. As the community gathered on the church’s old stone steps, a flutist, herself a refugee from Venezuela, played “Guantanamera” for Quintana one last time. Everybody snapped and danced along, tears and joy filling the air in the place Quintana called home.
“I’m so grateful for this community effort,” Pastor Dorantes said. “This highlights the best of what a community can be. Everyone being a neighbor to one another.”
Listen to the Block Club Chicago podcast: