By Paula Katinas
SUNSET PARK – The news that Pope Francis has tapped Father Kevin Sweeney, pastor of Saint Michael’s, to be the Bishop of the Diocese of Paterson, New Jersey is still sinking in at the church, where parishioners are overjoyed that their pastor is moving up.
“Oh wow! That’s great!” said Jackie Cardona, who operates a soup kitchen at the parish. “He will make a great bishop.”
“He is understanding. He talks to everybody,” Cardona added. “He gave me the opportunity to do the soup kitchen here. He organized it six years ago. He helps me with anything I need.”
Cardona will miss Bishop-elect Sweeney when the Queens-born cleric leaves Sunset Park and moves to Paterson. “I will be sorry to see him go. But this is a big deal. I’m so happy for him,” she said.
It’s not clear when Father Sweeney, whose appointment was announced by the Vatican on April 15, will be assuming his new post. In a letter to St. Michael’s parishioners posted to the church’s website, he hinted that New York State’s stay-at-home order brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic might keep him in Brooklyn a while longer.
“Because of our circumstances dealing with the coronavirus, the timing or details for my leaving St. Michael’s and going to Paterson are unclear, it may be within the next two months or it could take longer than that,” he wrote. “I will be here with you and especially with our families who are hurting at this time for as long as I can.”
As a pastor, Father Sweeney focused a great deal of his attention on helping young people, according to parishioner Laura Vicente Gomez.
“He is a people person. He cares a great deal. You can tell by his actions,” Vicente Gomez said. “He always opened the door and tried to get young people more involved in the church. I liked that he always made time for you, even if he was busy.”
Now that the news is settling in, some parishioners have mixed emotions. “It’s a joyful time. It’s sad, too, because he will be leaving us. But the joy is greater,” Vicente Gomez said.
Jocelyn Puanta, a youth ministry coordinator and lector at St. Michael’s, said parishioners are proud of their pastor.
“He has been a very good priest for our parish. He cares for everyone, especially the young people,” Puanta said. “When I heard the news, it was bittersweet for me. I am happy for him but I will miss him.”
Bishop-elect Sweeney, who has been pastor of St. Michael’s for 10 years, has built a strong relationship with Sunset Park’s Hispanic community over the years, according to parishioners and immigration rights advocates.
“He’s a great guy to work with, a very humble person,” said Elimelec Soriano, coordinator of the Mexican Apostolate, who organizes services and events all over the Diocese of Brooklyn, including St. Michael’s Church.
Soriano predicted a bright future for the pastor: “He will do very well in Paterson. It is a lot like Sunset Park. It has a big Hispanic community and he speaks Spanish very well.”
Father Sweeney is also looked at as a steady, calming force in turbulent times.
“He is a wonderful person,” said community advocate Mary Quinones. “I had dealings with him years ago when the city started placing individuals who were experiencing homelessness in hotels in Sunset Park.
Bishop-elect Sweeney even offered to allow the rectory to be used as a meeting space for officials from the New York City Department of Homeless Services and Sunset Park community leaders so that the two sides could reach an understanding, Quinones added.
“Father Sweeney was a balm for nervous, anxious, and some angry community members,” Quinones said.