Bishops must love their priests. The priests of a diocese are co-workers with the bishop in the vineyard of the Lord and together they sow the seeds of the Gospel. On the human level, of course, not every priest is always easy for the bishop to deal with and the reverse is equally true but the relation of the two is somewhere between that of father and son and brother and brother. In my time here, I have come to cultivate anew my love for my brothers, to appreciate their different gifts and even when there may be disagreements to be patient. But today I learned of the death of a dear priest, a “bishop’s priest,” I might say and his passing will be mourned by many more than just myself. Father Felix Sanchez, pastor emeritus of St. Joseph parish in West Tampa went home to God today on a park bench in a plaza in Salamanca, Spain on a bright, warm and beautiful morning. Once again for me, no time to say a final thanks, no time to say good-bye. I mourn his passing and will long remember his presence.
When I came to the diocese, Father Felix was happily ensconsed as pastor of St. Rita parish in Dade City. I do not think he ever planned or wanted to go anywhere else. He was happy and the people loved him. It was a bilingual and bi-cultural ministry. A year after my arrival, I upset his life and asked him if he would go to St. Joseph’s parish in West Tampa to replace the Redemptorist Fathers who were leaving the diocese. He said, “Bishop, I will do anything you ask me. I love St. Rita but it would be a privilege to also serve St. Joseph. So off he went in 1997 to serve for fourteen years.
His own priestly ministry began in Spain as a member of the Vincentian Fathers, begun by St. Vincent de Paul, and their charism for the poor and marginalized never left him. He had a heart for the poor, a priestly heart.
A major moment occured soon after arriving at St. Joseph when his doctors recommended amputating his leg. I was at his side at St. Joseph Hospital when they took him on the gurney from the pre-op room to the OR. Peaceful, resigned, placing himself in the hands of the the Lord, he gave up his leg but not his dynamic and active priestly ministry. When the prosthesis was in place and hurting like the devil, he returned to full ministry at St. Joe’s and to the school children who he loved. He would never say no to a funeral home who called him because a family wished a service there or at a graveside. Worried about his health, I asked him to cease and he “yes-ed” me to death and continued to serve. I recently found out that all the gifts he received from these services went to help children attend St. Joseph’s school. St. Vincent de Paul would have been proud of him.
As I write this, we are trying to arrange a memorial Mass for Monday, October 1, at 11:30am at St. Joseph’s. He will be buried, as is the custom in Spain, on Saturday morning in Salamanca with his priest brother saying the Mass. How I wish I could be there. Rest in peace, Felix, you were simply “una linda persona.”
*11:00AM Friday, September 21 Update: A Memorial Mass for Father Felix will be celebrated at 11:30am on October 1, 2012 at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Tampa (3012 Cherry St. Tampa, FL 33607). I will be the main celebrant. A rosary will be said at 11:00am and a reception after the Mass will be held in the parish hall.