On Sunday for the second Sunday in a row, I was present for the 10:00am Mass at Our Lady of Perpetual Help parish in the Ybor City District of Tampa. The previous week, I formally installed Father Roland LaJoie, S.M. as pastor and this week I surprised the previous pastor by showing up unannounced for this final Mass at the parish. Father Thomas Stokes, S.M., a Marist priest, born in Ireland, has been ordained for fifty-one years, forty-nine of which he has ministered in the United States of America, the last twenty-six as pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Father Tom is simply an amazing priest. The word “no” is not to be found in his vocabulary. When the growing Haitian population needed a place for their new Haitian priest to offer Mass on Sunday, Father Tom said, “Of course, you will be welcome at OLPH.” Mass is also offered in Spanish for a community which is rich in numerous Hispanic ecclesial cultures. In fact, the doors of OLPH have always had a big welcome sign from the early days of the last century when the Cuban population descended on Ybor City in great number, establishing their cigar production facilities and successfully finding security here in west central Florida. When I came to the diocese, soon to be seventeen years ago, I was told that there did not seem to be a great future for Our Lady of Perpetual Help parish and I might have to close it. Those prognostications failed to take into account the energy, zeal and love of Father Stokes. My chair was not warm yet when he came and asked to build a lovely parish social center, which is paid for. Then he came and sought permission to renovate the old parish school and convent building which previously had been used for Cursillos but was in a growing state of disrepair. He did it and paid for it. When the diocese needed a place for its seminarians during the summer they would be doing their clinical pastoral education at Tampa General Hospital, Father Stokes opened up the Rectory to the men who found his Irish hospitality and his priestly zeal captivating.
There were a lot of tears yesterday at all the Masses when Father Thomas Stokes bade his farewell, including my own. Words can never adequately express the love and gratitude of a parish community and sometimes even a bishop for a man who for twenty-six years lived in the middle of weekend chaos in Ybor City and loved it there. The Hispanics, the Filipinos, the Anglos all lined up for pictures with this lovely man and to say farewell. Father Stokes is returning to his native Ireland to help take care of his brother and sisters as they too age and it is doubtful we shall see him again anytime soon. I may have totally surprised him by my presence at Sunday’s Mass but nothing about his ministry ever surprised me. He is one of the great generation, as was Father Sanchez, and as is Monsignor Higgins who have all served central Tampa so well over the years. Now, Tom, as the Irish saying goes, “may the road indeed rise up to meet you, may the wind be ever at your back. . . .until we meet again.”
The seven bishops of Florida met this week as the Board of Trustees of Saint John Vianney College Seminary and the Regional Seminary of St. Vincent de Paul and as the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops. The first meeting was in Miami and I was unable to attend because of the opening celebration of Tampa Catholic’s Fiftieth Anniversary. However, I did join my brothers for the latter two at our theology house in Boynton Beach.
During that occasion, Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski formally installed our own Father David Toups as Rector-President (click here for a few more photos). Father Toups, for two brief but memorable years, was pastor of Christ the King parish in south Tampa. Looking out at the assembled guests during the installation Mass, I would swear that fifty-percent of the several hundred in attendance were Christ the King parishioners who had traveled the 200 plus miles for the installation Mass. It was a happy occasion for the seminary community to be sure, for the bishop owners of the seminary for whom the person serving as Rector holds so much of our trust, and it should be for the Church in Florida as well. Father’s mother, Lynn, was present as were his aunt and uncle. We have two wonderful priests of this diocese now who are devoted to the education of our future priests (both of whom went to St. Vincent de Paul Seminary from being pastors of Christ the King), Monsignor Michael Muhr and Father David Toups. We are a relatively small diocese which might normally not be expected to give this high level of talent to a seminary, but you and I value the formation of priests so highly that how could we not invest in the future by giving the seminary some of our great priestly talent? I think God is already paying up back for our sacrifice with fine newly ordained priests and more on the way. So life has been a series these past two weeks of goings and comings. Praise be Jesus Christ!