JAMAICA — You can’t spell “theology,” the study of God, without T-H-E-O, as in Father Theo, the beloved and scholarly retired priest in residence at Immaculate Conception, Jamaica, who celebrated his 45th year at the parish with a Mass of thanksgiving on Sept. 15.
Father Theophane Cooney, C.P., 91, who’s originally from Dublin, speaks five languages and has taught philosophy and Latin. But perhaps he’s best known as a kind and caring priest.
Rose Marie Dubowski, 73, a parishioner at Immaculate Conception, who attended the Mass of thanksgiving, said Father Theo makes the extra effort.
Twenty years ago, on the night her father died, a neighbor called for a priest while Rose Marie was tending to her father. Before Father Theo arrived, the ambulance came and took her and her father to the hospital. Father Theo figured out which hospital and went there. Rose Marie’s father had already passed, but Father Theo stayed and talked to her.
“He didn’t have to do that,” she said. “I could have called the church the next day to let them know, but he goes that extra mile. Not only for me, but for everybody.”
The Mass of thanksgiving for Father Theo was the 11:30 a.m. Sunday Mass, which is usually in Spanish. But it was bilingual for Father Theo so that more people would come to show their appreciation. Hundreds of parishioners from the past half-century attended.
Among those in attendance were a dozen or so of Father Theo’s brother Passionists from the Eastern Province, which includes the Eastern United States and Canada, including current Provincial Superior Father James O’Shea, C.P., and Auxiliary Bishop Neil Tiedemann, C.P.
Father Theo said a few words after Mass, both in English and in Spanish. He told the Spanish community, “They are the salt of the Earth. There are no better people.”
After Mass, he spoke of fond memories of the parish as a whole, too.
“These are great people who have been wonderful to me,” he said. “They’re really superb people and I’ve very, very grateful to them.”
Father Theo joined the Passionists in 1945 at the age of 17, and was ordained a priest in 1952. During his first 30 years of ministry, he was a world traveler. The native of Ireland taught philosophy and Latin in Ireland and Scotland, served as a missionary in Paraguay, spent six years in Queens and was a parish priest at the congregation’s parish in Paris.
During those first three decades, Father Theo became fluent in French, Spanish, Latin and Italian, all of which have come in handy since he returned to Queens for good in 1982. (He had served at the parish before that.)
During his time, Father Theo has been the go-to priest. He celebrated many baptisms, weddings and funerals in French for Haitian parishioners and Spanish for Hispanic parishioners. For a long time, he celebrated a Mass in Italian three or four times a year, and worked with a monthly Italian devotional group from Ozone Park.
Bishop Tiedemann called Father Theo and former Immaculate Conception pastor Thomas Joyce, C.P., “responsible for a whole generation of priests learning what it means to be a priest.” Bishop Tiedeman remembered Father Theo making sure then-Deacon Neil Tiedemann learned Spanish, so that the people of the parish were taken care of.
Bridget and Jimmy Allim, parishioners at Immaculate Conception, also came to the Mass of thanksgiving. They moved to Jamaica in 1984 with their daughters, Karen, then 13, and Jennifer, then 5, and began attending Immaculate Conception nearby.
Bridget Allim grew up in Guyana where the church was family. When she had her daughters, Karen and Jennifer, she prayed they would have a similar experience. They did.
Jennifer, now 40, remembered growing up and going to a teen club with Father Theo and Father O’Shea, who was at the parish at the time. It brought kids together, both from the parish and from the larger community.
“As a teenager, there are so many things going on,” Jennifer said. “You’re being pulled left and right. It’s great to have someone there to keep you on the straight path and to guide you in your faith.”