Missionary priests at three Miami parishes say their goodbyes this month
Originally published on the Florida Catholic by Tom Tracy
MIAMI | They were instrumental in staffing new parishes, developing multicultural faith communities, administering Catholic schools and encouraging Catholic families locally — not to mention witnessing devastating hurricanes, race riots and the historic visit of Mother Teresa during the establishment of her Miami community.
With their close ties to the black Catholic and other multicultural communities, the clergy of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate played important roles in the Church in South Florida during the past 47 years.
When they first arrived in what is now the Archdiocese of Miami they staffed St. George in Fort Lauderdale, a predominantly black parish that closed in 2009; and St. Timothy in Miami, which they “exchanged” for St. Monica in Opa Locka in 1981.
“They have been very close to our family; they have come to our holiday dinners, they have always been very kind to us, very supportive and close to my own children,” said Mary Raynor, one of four children whose parents lived a stone’s throw from St. Stephen Parish and who now works at the church part time.
When she was hospitalized twice earlier this year following a surgery, members of the Oblate community paid Raynor a surprise visit.
“I have kept in touch with many of the Oblates that have left the area, and have gone to visit them in other places including some that were here back in 1968,” said Raynor. “The Oblates are known for their friendliness, for being very religious, spiritual, down to earth.
“It is very sad for me that the Oblates have decided to leave the state of Florida,” she added.
The U.S. Province of the Rome-based Oblates, which has clergy in places throughout the country, had conducted studies on its staffing and priorities for the coming years in light of limited new vocations. The leadership decided to bolster new commitments, including four “missionary centers” being developed in Texas, Massachusetts, New York and Louisiana.
“It was a very difficult decision to make,” said Oblate Missionary Father James Taggart, who is making the rounds to the affected parishes in June to help say farewell to the parish communities on behalf of the Oblates. “We were at a crossroads and if it was up to me I would have kept Miami but we have to make decisions based on our resources, and our top priorities are these new mission centers.”
Father Taggart was himself once assigned to two parishes in Miami and briefly served as archdiocesan director of respect life. From 1985 to 1990, he served in St. Monica Parish in Opa Locka. In 1992, he returned to Florida at St. Stephen Parish, where he was a pastor until the end of September 1998.
Since July of 2011, Father Taggart has served as the fulltime area councilor for the Oblate Northeast and Southeast areas. He currently resides in Lowell, Mass.
“I loved the time I spent in Miami, and all the Oblates felt the archdiocese has always been a wonderful place to work. I used to love going into the Pastoral Center where the people knew who you were. It was real teamwork.”
The nature of the assignments that the Oblates held in Miami “was so cosmopolitan in terms of languages and cultures and it makes you think of the Church universal. If we can really come together and work as one body in Christ there, it is a sign of what we are called to do as a Church,” Father Taggart added.
Oblate Missionary Father Alejandro Roque, outgoing pastor at St. Stephen in Miramar, grew up in South Florida after coming from Cuba as a Pedro Pan child. He has served at two Miami parishes including St. Monica, his home parish. He hopes the Oblates will be remembered locally for their commitment to social justice.
Father Roque, who plans to take a sabbatical before going on to serve as a “formator” for Oblate clergy, was involved in at least two community organizations that aimed to bolster local community relations in Miami: PACT in Miami-Dade County and BOLD Justice in Broward.
“St. Stephen’s started in an Italian-American community and was the first to provide full Hispanic ministries. We formed the Hispanic laity and now there are people who went through here over the years to become leaders elsewhere in the archdiocese,” Father Roque said. “St. Monica and St. Stephen parishes are microcosms of the whole world — the missions came to us. It is not just about speaking a language, but the intricacies of all the different cultures and languages and of working in harmony.”
The people of South Florida will never been forgotten by the Oblates, he added, saying “In a lot of ways our (Oblate) spirituality is in the people. South Florida is my home and I have family here; my heart is here.”
Oblate Missionary Father William Mason has been pastor at Christ the King since 2008. He also served from 1979 to 1987 as pastor of the now closed St. Francis Xavier Parish in Overtown. He recalled the 1980 race riots in the Overtown area, and taking African American studies in New Orleans during the summers in order to better serve the community at St. Francis, where Mother Teresa also once paid a visit during that time.
Father Mason has been assigned to serve at an Oblate retreat house in Connecticut.
He leaves Christ the King knowing the community is on its way toward building a new church building and has a well-developed lay leadership. “The new pastor can find great capabilities in the people to get things done as a cooperator. Things will just flourish.”
“It’s just a change of pastor, one person, a pivotal role but the backbone of the parish will still be there and that is where we can see the spirit of God working, and that gives us confidence and hope,” Father Mason said. “We have a missionary understanding that our purpose is to leave: We do our work and go but that doesn’t make it any less easy in terms of the human emotions and relationships built up over the years.”
Oblate Missionary Father John Cox, pastor of Holy Redeemer Parish — who for a while did double duty as pastor of St. Francis Xavier — is leaving to work in Native American ministry in northern Minnesota.
Speaking for his community at a farewell luncheon hosted by archdiocesan priests June 7, Father Cox said, “We did our best to be faces of the Church in Miami’s poorest neighborhoods, including Overtown and Liberty City, and in others that were prosperous, but experienced devastation, as in Pinecrest following Hurricane Andrew… We hope that the burning love of Jesus for humanity was apparent in all that we did and will do.”
Archbishop Wenski will be hosting a dinner for the Oblates later this month. Each of the parishes also is planning its own series of farewell events for the Oblate priests.