A standing-room-only crowd filled St. Thomas Aquinas Church as the Flatlands faithful honored two beloved pastors on the feast of the parish patron.
Auxiliary Bishop Raymond Chappetto, vicar general, joined the faith community to rededicate the newly renovated sanctuary in memory of late pastor, Msgr. John J. Brown, who died last year, and install parish administrator, Father Dwayne D. Davis, as pastor.
Both pastors’ families and friends were present to share in this historic moment with parishioners and clergy at a Mass, which was followed by an international food festival in the parish hall.
“He was absolutely in love with this parish – and when I say the parish, I mean the people,” Joe Tessitore said of his cousin, Msgr. Brown, who served as a priest of the Brooklyn Diocese for more than 33 years.
“I can’t tell you how delighted I was – the whole family was – to hear the news of the rededication. It is a wonderful honor.”
Bishop Chappetto offered the prayer of rededication at the start of Mass, sprinkling a mix of holy water and salt on the altar and then on the richly hued red and blue sanctuary walls, before blessing the priests and congregation.
Fathers Clifford C. Ekwueme and Kieran Udeze, parochial vicars, were among nearly a dozen concelebrants, including Fathers Joseph Fonti and Edward Kachurka, former parochial vicars.
Seats were reserved in the front pews for Father Davis’ parents, Donna Myrie and Dwight Davis; parish council members and parish trustees – Christopher Spinelli, who sketched and oversaw the sanctuary renovation, and Ronald G. Russo.
“We’re delighted that he’s here,” Russo said of Father Davis. “The Bishop (Nicholas DiMarzio) made a good choice. The parish loves him.”
Amid the congregation were also members of Midwood Catholic Academy, the Vicariate of Black Catholic Concerns, for which Father Davis coordinates youth activities, and parishioners from St. Francis de Sales in Belle Harbor, where Msgr. Brown led Superstorm Sandy recovery efforts as pastor.
Tessitore and his wife, Donna, sat in reserved seats with Msgr. Brown’s other relatives and friends from Manhattan and Queens.
“It’s a great loss for us, but on the other hand it’s a great delight that Father Dwayne is being honored by being named his successor,” Tessitore said.
He came to know and admire Father Davis during Msgr. Brown’s illness.
“I saw him at the hospital (with Msgr. Brown) every day for 16 days in a row, and then he went back to the parish and did his job. He’s a loving, caring, very talented man.”
In his homily, the bishop said it was a day to give “gratitude to God, for all the graces and blessings that come to the people of God here in this great parish, filled with the long history of being God’s people and serving and worshipping, teaching the message of God.
One in Spirit
Looking around, the bishop told the congregation, “I’m positive Msgr. Brown is very pleased with the work you’ve done, not just here in the sanctuary, but being one in the Spirit.”
He assured the church community of Msgr. Brown’s love for them and knowledge that their late pastor left them in capable hands.
“I think if he had to pick a successor, he would have picked Father Dwayne because he loved Father Dwayne,” Bishop Chappetto said. “Msgr. Brown’s probably smiling down upon us saying, ‘Good job, Father Dwayne. Keep up the good work.’”
Assent to that statement burst forth from the pews in the form of applause.
Father Davis, who turned 31 last December, was ordained to the priesthood on June 29, 2013, and St. Thomas Aquinas was his first priestly assignment. He has been appointed to a six-year term as pastor.
Under his predecessor, Father Davis said he “learned so much” about being a good priest and a good pastor.
“Msgr. Brown was really a father, a guide. He was always sharing his wisdom with me,” Father Davis said. “When I came here to St. Thomas Aquinas, he didn’t necessarily make me take baby steps. He threw me in right from the beginning.
“He always told me that he was preparing me to be a pastor so I feel good sharing in this day with him. It’s kind of bittersweet, but a great joy,” he said.
Msgr. Joseph Grimaldi, territorial vicar for Brooklyn, read the decree announcing Father Davis as pastor, and Bishop Chappetto presented him to the parish clergy, lay staff, parish council and trustees, all of whom received him warmly.
Before the final blessing, the new pastor addressed the congregation, giving thanks first to Jesus for calling him to conversion to the Catholic Church as a child in his native Jamaica, West Indies. Then he thanked God for his priestly vocation.
He recognized his parents as well as clergy and parishioners, and also took a moment to thank the parish youth for being an inspiration to him.
Altar server Gaelle Nicolas, 17, felt blessed to be part of the celebration.
When she came from Haiti three years ago, she said both Msgr. Brown and Father Davis made her feel at home in the parish. She recalled Msgr. Brown as a kind priest, who encouraged her to come to church, not just for Mass, but for activities too.
And in Father Davis, she’s found a kind of big brother, who has “welcomed me to everything in the church,” from the youth group to the altar servers ministry.