Thirty miles northeast of Mexico City, almost in the shadows of the great pyramids of Teotihuacan, stands the 16th-century Hacienda San Antonio de Acolman. Once the estate of a Spanish grandee, it now is surrounded by what appears to be a large truck garden. The old mansion echoes with the laughter and chatter of many children, and when Father William Bryce Wasson, 51, came to visit there recently, hundreds of them rushed out and swarmed around him as though he were some kind of brown-cassocked, gringo Pied Piper. Father Wasson patted a hunchback and made her smile when he told her, "All our brothers and sisters are beautiful."

The hacienda is part of the unique "family" that Father Wasson started in Cuernavaca 21 years ago this month, when he took custody of a street urchin who would otherwise have gone to jail for robbing the poor box in Wasson's little church. A few days later he received a call from the police. They had eight other homeless boys in jail: did the padre want them? With that, the organization, Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos—Our Little Brothers and Sisters—was under way. Today there are 1,200 Pequeños—in four schools at the orphanage in Cuernavaca and at the hacienda, and two farms where food is grown for the kids.

Wasson has always been interested in helping the waifs and castaways of the world. As a boy in Phoenix, he adopted stray dogs and persuaded a juvenile court judge to let him bring young delinquents home for weekends. His plans to become a priest were shelved on the eve of his ordination when he became ill with progressive thyroid deficiency. Later, after an operation, he was pronounced physically fit and received his holy orders from Cuernavaca's bishop, Sergio Méndez Arceo, who gave him the specific assignment of "getting boys out of jail."

With no help from church or state, Father Wasson turned to Cuernavaca's wealthy Mexicans and to the large Anglo-American colony for support of his growing "family." At first it wasn't easy, and the cupboard was often bare, but as his flock grew and word of his "Mexican Boys Town" spread, Wasson attracted such patrons as Erich Fromm, John Wayne and Helen Hayes. Fund raising is still a struggle that keeps Wasson, who last year became a Franciscan, traveling much of his time. But a book that he has written, and a two-hour TV show, to be shown on CBS in the fall, should help.

The Pequeños work one hour a day, doing chores and tending the vegetable gardens. While most of the children are Roman Catholics, the NPH is non-sectarian and nondiscriminatory; a black boy from Acapulco and eight Jewish children whose parents were killed in a blood feud are among its members.

Many of the 5,000 who have grown up in Father Wasson's "family" have graduated from the Normal School he operates and become teachers. Others have gone to college and into the professions. All of them would have faced nothing but the prospect of grinding poverty, illiteracy, imprisonment or early death, but for the little boy who stole from the poor box. The boy himself later won a scholarship to the U.S. and went into business.