May the grace and peace of Christ be with you. It is hard to believe that it has been 13 years since I arrived here at Sacred Heart in Tampa. Back in 2007 I was expecting to be assigned to our N.C. Franciscan parish in Raleigh. Tampa and Sacred Heart were not on my radar at all. Although perhaps it should have been! Afterall I was baptized at a Sacred Heart and in Kenya served for several years at Parokia Moyo Mtakatifu (Sacred Heart). They say good things come in threes, so perhaps I should have expected the assignment. What a blessing it turned out to be in my life, my life as a friar, and my life as a priest.
When I arrived, I did not know the friar community serving here; Fr. Andrew Reitz, OFM, the pastor, and Fr. Sean O’Brien, OFM. Even though I grew up in Orlando I really did not know Tampa at all. As kids, Tampa was a placed we passed through on our way to swim meets at St. Petersburg’s Northshore Pool. Sacred Heart was also a downtown parish – suburbs, country, slum parishes – those I knew, so I did not know what to expect. Perhaps it would be a city that came alive at night!
In June 2007, Saturday and Sunday nights downtown were…shall we say… quiet. I think our Sunday night dinner choices (within walking distance) included two sports bars. But that’s OK, we friars are used to cooking for ourselves and Andrew and Sean were good cooks. All part and parcel of discovering the parish, the neighborhood, and the new environs. Part of discovery was celebrating the noon-time Mass during the last week in January and wondering from where came the canon fire. Who knew pirates would invade the city? The following Saturday night was…shall we say…other than quiet. Arrrghhh!
And along the way people slowly got to know me and I slowly got to figure out my place among you. Fr. Andrew lead the parish; Fr. Sean was the go-to friar for Sacred Heart Academy. As the summer of 2007 came to an end, the parishioners returned from summer vacations, and school started. Lots of people probably wondered who the new priest was? In October the school had its annual fund-raising gala and auction. Dinner in the friary with Fr. Andrew cooking was auctioned for several thousand dollars. A game of kickball with Fr. Sean went for $1,200. And then came “bowling with Fr. George.” The opening bid was…. silence. Perhaps they were wondering about bowling or perhaps “Who is Fr. George?” The silence extended until the awkwardness was broken by a single voice bidding $10. More silence, then $25! Slowly the bid rose to $50 or so… and it was only then I realized there was only one person bidding!
But that was 13 years ago. Since then I have come to know lots of folks in the parish in general and through parish programs such as RCIA, Bible Study, wedding preparation, baptisms, chats on the sidewalk, committees, meeting, chance encounters around town, encounters at TGH, and just here-and-there in the ebb and flow of life. This past weekend, I was reminded of working with the young adults of 10+ years ago. The couple noted that they were no longer “young” but reminded me that 12 weddings came from those years. Those were just 12 of the 354 weddings I have celebrated here (with an additional 72 couples prepared for marriage and celebrating elsewhere) along with 500+ baptisms, lots of first communions and reconciliations, confirmations, anointing of the sick, Easter vigils, house blessings, Feast of Francis pet blessings, and more. Did you know that the church even has an official blessing for fishing gear?
In 13 years, we have restored and air conditioned a church, started parish festivals and galas, made the Florida Avenue entrance more welcoming, and installed a masterpiece of sculpture of St. Francis of Assisi. And have become known as a welcoming parish and developed a deep, abiding sense of belonging. October 2015’s celebration of the Mass of Belonging at the Straz Center was but one manifestation of the blessing of the parish for the city and gift of the faithful in this time and place.
One of the wonderful blessings of being here as long as I have is to see the children and teens and young adults, grow mature, fall in love, get married, celebrate baptisms, and see the seeds of faith planted by their parents begin to deepen and mature – and begin to be passed on to the next generation. Even the sad moments of getting to know people of the parish and to have the privilege of celebrating their end of life and funerals. There have been so many folks that were living history and carried that history in stories and tales. Did you know that the history of Tampa can be told anchored by stories of what occupied the plot of land once held by The Colonnade? Ybor has its tales, West Tampa, too. And I got to hear most of them.
So many stories and memories along the way. All just part of the memories that marked a wonderful 13 years. And what amazing change has occurred in the ensuing years. The landscape is completely different, exciting things are occurring all throughout the parish area. We have certainly grown as a parish in every way conceivable, by any measure of faith, involvement, service, sacrament, and just coming together as friends and neighbors. We all have grown deeper in faith and the sense of belonging. I have grown as a priest and person. And as we look around, even in this pandemic era, the city and local area continue to grow with people moving into the downtown core and surrounding neighborhoods. The potential and opportunities are amazing…continued next week…