SUNSET PARK — Is there something in the water in St. Agatha Parish?
The Sunset Park parish has the unusual status as a breeding ground for five bishops currently serving in the Diocese of Brooklyn and three nearby dioceses. It’s a claim that few, if any, churches can make.
“I don’t know of any other parish in the Diocese of Brooklyn that has produced so many bishops,” said Auxiliary Bishop Raymond Chappetto, one of the five St. Agatha alumni.
Four of the bishops — Auxiliary Bishops Chappetto and Paul Sanchez of the Diocese of Brooklyn, Bishop Kevin Sweeney of the Diocese of Paterson, and Bishop Frank Caggiano of the Diocese of Bridgeport — all served as priests at St. Agatha during the 1980s and 1990s.
The fifth, Auxiliary Bishop Elias Lorenzo of the Archdiocese of Newark, grew up in Sunset Park and was a parishioner of St. Agatha, where he served as an altar boy.
“Family life revolved around the parish,” Bishop Lorenzo recalled. “We were a very tight-knit family, and also the parish was very tight-knit. Everybody knew each other.”
The bishops, who are rarely in the same place at the same time these days due to their busy schedules, did manage to gather for a “St. Agatha Alumni” photo when, to their delight, they all found themselves in the same conference room at the General Assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore last month. Bishop Lorenzo posted the picture on Twitter.
Here’s how each bishop came to experience St. Agatha:
It was then-Father Paul Sanchez’s first assignment as a pastor. He served there for 10 years, 1991-2001. During his time there, he was named a monsignor.
Bishop Caggiano was a newly ordained priest when he arrived at St. Agatha in 1987. Years later, in 2013, he came back to St. Agatha to serve at the Mass marking the parish’s 100th anniversary.
Bishop Chappetto resided in the parish as vicar for the Brooklyn West vicariate from 1995-1999. He had moved into the parish on Feb. 5, the feast day of St. Agatha.
Bishop Sweeney wasn’t even a priest when he first came to St. Agatha. He attended the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception and spent his pastoral year in the parish from 1994-1995, learning about the priesthood from Msgr. Sanchez.
None of the bishops could say for sure why so many bishops came out of St. Agatha. But Bishop Sanchez has a theory. “I think it was the Holy Spirit,” he said.
“There was a spirit of warmth and hospitality. Even though I was only a resident, I felt welcome,” Bishop Chappetto said, looking back 26 years.
“It’s just an example of what a wonderful, vibrant Catholic parish is about,” Bishop Sweeney said. “I think, in some ways, [the cluster of episcopal alumni] would happen in any Catholic parish that’s filled with people of faith and priests who are striving to serve. But there must be something special about St. Agatha, I guess.”
There is a sixth bishop with ties to St. Agatha — the late Auxiliary Bishop Rene Valero (1930-2019) of the Diocese of Brooklyn. He served there as a priest in the late 1950s.
Not only do the current bishops have a connection to St. Agatha; they have a connection to each other through St. Agatha.
Bishop Lorenzo recalled that, when his father, William, became gravely ill, it was a seminarian named Kevin Sweeney who visited him regularly to deliver holy Communion.
“And Paul Sanchez was pastor when my mom and my dad died,” he said. “He couldn’t have been more helpful to our family.”