TAMPA, Fla. — Many parishes are welcoming. Sacred Heart Parish in downtown Tampa aims for more — belonging. The community demonstrated that attitude on the feast of St. Francis with an event participants have called “amazing” and “spectacular.”
To commemorate a decade of Franciscan presence at the parish, on Oct. 4 Sacred Heart celebrated a Mass of Belonging, replacing the parish’s standard six weekend Masses with a liturgy at a venue that could accommodate many more people than the church can.
Close to 1,500 people gathered at the David A. Straz Center for the Performing Arts to mark the 10th anniversary of the friars’ arrival at Sacred Heart and to celebrate each other.
By gathering parishioners in a large space, the friars and parish leaders aimed for a powerful liturgy, accompanied by music and dance, and a spirit of togetherness. The plan worked.
Excited and curious people arrived at the arts center on the Hillsborough River just a few blocks from the church. They were greeted by hospitality ministers wearing nametags and smiles, who lined the paths leading to the venue’s doors.
“It was a day in which we as a parish truly came together as one community in one place, under one roof,” said George Corrigan, OFM, pastor, who chatted with people as they entered.
“The day was very special,” according to Pam Ferron, Sacred Heart’s director of parish life and communications, who has heard many positive comments from people since that Sunday morning.
The Mass was “spectacular,” said Joseph Hertel, OFM, who traveled to the celebration with a busload of friars from St. Anthony Friary in nearby St. Petersburg, where he is guardian.
“It was way beyond anything I ever imagined,” Joseph said. “We were asked several months before to lend the large San Damiano Cross from the friary chapel. When we arrived and saw the space, we were overwhelmed. It was probably one of the most spectacular Masses I have ever seen.”
“I think the friars were so amazed and taken aback by the beauty of the whole Mass,” he added.
“It was way beyond my expectations,’ said Sean Fitzsimmons-Brown, Sacred Heart’s director of liturgical ministries. “The setting worked well. Though it was a logistical challenge to set up, I noticed that there was such ease with the entire liturgy. Everyone seemed to participate.”
Joy and Community
In addition to its unusual venue, the Mass captured the joy of the occasion with music by varied performers and notes of congratulations printed in the worship aid. It also included a blessing of food donations that were collected that morning for the St. Vincent de Paul Society.
“Long before the election of our beloved Pope Francis, the Order of Friars Minor and the people of Sacred Heart Parish have shown us what love for the poor and outcast means to a people on a journey from here to eternity,” said Bishop Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg. “May all of us faithfully continue our pilgrimage to eternal life guided by the spirit of St. Francis and by the example of those who today minister in his name.”
“It is with great joy that I send you my heartfelt best wishes on this very significant day when you gather together as a united parish family to affirm your oneness in the Lord and to celebrate a special Mass of Belonging,” said Provincial Minister Kevin Mullen, OFM, in a letter. “On this birthday of St. Francis of Assisi, I also wish to thank the community of Sacred Heart for your warm welcome and embrace of the Franciscans of Holy Name Province during these last 10 years of service in your parish. With our friars, you have been outstanding partners-in-ministry in Tampa.”
After a prelude of music by the Dave Dingham Quintet and the Tampa Bay Youth Choir, the 11 a.m. liturgy began with a welcome by Daniel Kenna, OFM, who said more than once, “Lord, how good it is that we are here.”
George celebrated the Mass with Zachary Elliott, OFM, of Sacred Heart and two visiting priests — Joseph Hertel and Provincial Councilor David Convertino, OFM, of New York City. George spoke in his homily about what it means to be yoked to Christ and to each other.
“We people from different walks of life come together for a common mission,” he said. “This is a community that’s always willing to include those who have not felt the peace of Jesus Christ.”
A video about the parish was shown before the close of Mass. It began with a history of the parish, founded in 1853, and featured comments from friars and laypeople about the parish’s personality. It included photos of friars who served at the parish in the past as well as recollections of parishioners about their reactions to learning 10 years ago that Franciscans were going to receive care of the parish from the Jesuits.
The idea for the Mass came from Daniel who had been involved with a similar liturgy celebration while stationed at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Raleigh, N.C.
“In 1994, we had what we called a Mass of Unity,” said Dan. “It was truly transformational for our community. I recommended something similar for our Sacred Heart Parish some six months ago with the hope that it would have a like effect on our swiftly changing and rapidly growing community.”
“Most parishioners experience themselves as parish from the perspective of the one weekend Mass they typically attend,” he added. “The Mass of Belonging was intended to demonstrate our strength, our incredible diversity and giftedness. It did not disappoint in any way.”
Zachary, who supervised the extensive equipment and decorations needed for the Mass, said the event was a success in several ways.
“Liturgically, we raised the bar,” he said. “We also demonstrated that our choir is exceptional. And, we raised the level of participation. A lot of people came forward to help with this event.”
Among the people who attended the Mass were Franciscan Sisters of Allegany from the Bay area, many from the Franciscan Center in Tampa, who sat in the front row with the visiting friars.
The parish launched the theme of belonging early this year. A prayer card created by George described the meaning of belonging: “It’s more than a word, an idea or a feeling. It’s a sense of knowing that you are part of something greater, part of God’s plan and called to act in the world. Belonging is understanding the value you as an individual bring to the larger community and using the gifts that God has given you to build up the Body of Christ.” Earlier this year, George posted a series of entries on his blog Friar Musings about the theme.
Several parishioners spoke about the impact the friars have had on them and on the parish since the Franciscans of Holy Name Province came to Tampa in 2005. The hospitable style of the friars has been important, almost life-changing. Seeing the friars outside the church — at the corner of Twiggs Street and Florida Avenue — offering smiles and handshakes after Masses makes a difference, many say.
“I came across Sacred Heart when I saw the friars outside talking to people, which I’d never seen at other churches, and I found it so beautiful,” said Angie Ducker who now heads up several ministries. “This is very satisfying spiritually and emotionally.”
Bob Baston, a parishioner for nine years, said he converted to Catholicism when the friars arrived. “Making the decision to become Catholic was the best decision I ever made,” he added.
Friendliness of Friars
“Seeing the friars on the steps of the church makes such a difference,” said Jim Rossman, the parish’s director of stewardship and a member of Sacred Heart’s finance council. “The friars’ energy, spirituality and personal warmth have been transformative.”
Scott Gargasz, who attended the Mass of Belonging with his wife and two young daughters, said, “The parish has changed tremendously in the last 10 years. We are blessed to have good friars here.” He and his wife were married at Sacred Heart.
In the last 10 years, the parish has grown. When the friars arrived in 2005, the parish had roughly 300 active households, said George, who has been at the parish since 2007 and pastor since 2011. That number has grown to approximately 2,500.
The feeling of belonging is important to the friars and to the community. To many, the genuine interest of the friars and of the parishioners is significant.
“It truly feels like home here, and the Mass of Belonging took that feeling and amplified it tenfold,” said parishioner Lynda Marsh, who for more than four years has donated editorial and digital media skills to the parish. “We really are in this together, and there’s no other parish family I’d rather journey with in life. The parishioners of Sacred Heart truly are an extension of my family.”
Close to 300 parishioners, divided into 17 roles, volunteered their time to organize and set up the Oct. 4 event, according to Ferron. “We had ushers and even festive pole bearers,” she said. “People worked for weeks, some for months, preparing for this Mass.” The lead volunteers were thanked that evening with a dinner at the parish building.
— Jocelyn Thomas is director of communications for Holy Name Province.
- “Sacred Heart Catholic Church Celebrates Inclusion with ‘Mass of Belonging” — Oct. 5, 2015, Tampa Tribune
- “Parish as Home” essay by Sacred Heart parishioner Gail Lewis — Nov. 20, 2013, HNP Today
- “Friars Mark Three Years at Tampa Parish” – July 23, 2008, HNP Today
- “Tampa Friars Present Francis Medal to Dedicated Parishioner” – Aug. 5, 2015, HNP Today