A Loving Legacy
Father John’s Lasting Impact
Several years ago, a local journalist took note of the nurturing, welcoming community the new pastor had developed at St. Anthony of Padua Church, founded in 1927 by the Franciscan Friars as an ethnic Polish-American parish, and saw this as a good news story worth sharing.
The priest, Reverend John Baran, considered the writer’s idea and, with some reluctance, agreed, albeit with one stipulation. “It can’t be about me,” he said. “The focus has to be on the parish and on our team.”
Father John, whose death at age 59 on March 24 shook the parish community, had many gifts. He was always approachable, a wonderful listener, and he ministered with empathy and compassion. But he was a private person and self-effacing.
Never mind that it was he, as administrator and then as pastor, who provided the progressive leadership that revitalized a parish the Diocese of Bridgeport had considered closing. “That first year, maybe 25 people were here for the Easter vigil,” he once recalled. No, the story’s emphasis had to be on the “team.”
“There was no youth group and there were 28 kids in religious ed when we got here,” says Eleanor Sauers, Ph.D., a dear friend who was appointed director of religious education just months after Father John’s arrival in February 2002. “Now, we have an active youth group and there are 275 children in religious ed.”
Beth Paris, a St. Anthony parishioner since 1991, joined the “team” as pastoral minister nearly a decade ago. Her daughter’s confirmation class, she remembered, “had just eight kids. Now we have 44 children and two teachers.”
St. Anthony has seen its membership of households more than double across the past 16 years, to 750. Much of the credit for that growth goes to Father John—from his one-person-at-a-time approach to community-building, the soup suppers, Sunday music series, and growing number of outreach programs, to his succinct, well-crafted homilies about present-day American life.
“He was the consummate preacher, speaking in ways that touched hearts and moved people into gospel action,” Sauers said in her tribute at Father John’s funeral mass. “In sprinkling his words with references to art, music, poetry, literature, and the news, he sparked the religious imagination of his listeners and changed their perceptions of the church and of life itself.”
Sauers met Father John across town at Our Lady of the Assumption, where he served as parochial vicar from 1994 to 2002. Two others from Assumption also took note of the spirited young priest and joined his “team” at St. Anthony—Frank Macari, director of music, and Deacon Donald Ross.
Together, often literally working hand-in-hand with the growing number of parishioners, they helped to rejuvenate St. Anthony, which had seen its weekend Mass attendance dip to the low hundreds. “He believed in inclusive leadership,” notes parishioner Donna Spigarolo. “He saw what your gifts were and he wanted you to share them with the parish. He really wanted lay people to take leadership roles.”
So, who will fill the enormous void? With the selection of a new pastor still many months away, the team and many parishioners have already voiced their support for the Rev. Michael Boccaccio, who had been assisting his long-time friend on a part-time basis since February 2017, following his retirement as pastor of St. Philip in Norwalk.
“John asked me if I’d be able to help him here after his muscular dystrophy became more pronounced,” explains Father Mike, who was appointed St. Anthony’s administrator just days prior to Father John’s death from cancer.
Boccaccio, a cancer survivor himself, shares many of Father John’s qualities, including a sense of humor and the ability to deliver homilies that touch people’s hearts and minds. “We were on the same page for liturgy and administration,” Father Mike says. “John was an incredible person, a gem of a man. He was a truly spirited priest who took the words of Jesus most seriously. He came to serve, not to be served.”
St. Anthony, he promises, “is going to go forward. I pledge this to you and I pledge it to my friend John. The bishop knows he’s dealing with a special parish. The dynamic spirit that flows here is sensational.”
“It is our intent,” Sauers states, “to maintain Father John’s legacy.”