TAMPA — Parishioners often asked the Rev. Thomas Stokes how he slept through weekend nights in the heart of Ybor City. The humble rectory of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church, where he lived for 26 years, stands a block and a half from Club Skye, Club Prana and the start of the Ybor strip, in which no one enters or leaves quietly.
In his lilting Irish brogue, the Rev. Stokes replied that he had tuned out the noise. But if the phone rang at any hour of the night, he was out of bed, dressed and out the door to help.
Often the calls came from St. Joseph's Hospital or Tampa General, which already have priests on hand. The people or families making the requests often were unaffiliated with a local parish. Sometimes they spoke only Spanish or French. Either way, someone was dying and wanted to see Father Tom.
The calls kept him up all night. In the morning for a time, he led separate Masses in Spanish, French and English. It was the perfect kind of position for a man who had taken a vow of poverty, who used his fluency in several languages to hold together a historic Catholic church, the second oldest in Tampa, through financial problems that nearly closed it.
The Rev. Stokes, a beloved figure credited with saving Our Lady of Perpetual Help, died April 22 in his native Dublin, Ireland, of an apparent heart attack, friends in the church said. He was 75.
The Rev. Stokes arrived at the church in 1986, after the diocese invited the Society of Mary to take over the parish. The church was founded in 1890 under the name Our Lady of Mercy to accommodate cigar workers who wanted a Spanish-speaking venue and found Sacred Heart Catholic Church too far away.
Different orders, including Jesuits and Salesians, ran the church and its parochial school over the years. In 1937, Redemptorists razed the original wooden building and changed the name to Our Lady of Perpetual Help.
The Rev. Stokes represented the start of new leadership under the Society of Mary. By his arrival at Our Lady of Perpetual Help, membership had fallen from a peak of more than 5,000 in the mid 1960s, but was as diverse as ever. The Rev. Stokes settled in with clusters of parishioners of Haitian, Italian, Cuban and Filipino descent, and could converse with all of them in their languages.
Thomas Anthony Stokes was born in Dublin in 1937. He became a Marist priest in Dublin and went on to study theology in Lyon, France.
The Marists sent him to the United States. He ran a church in Wheeling, W.Va., studied Spanish in Washington, D.C., and spent five years working with the poor in Mexico City and Lima, Peru.
He came to an Ybor City split by redevelopment and Interstate-4. In the early 1990s, he razed the old school, shuttered since 1975, and would eventually build a new social hall in its place.
As the area grew over the years, the Rev. Stokes became well known for his Christmas Eve Midnight Mass, in which he led the singing of Silent Night in several languages — Spanish for local Cubans, French for Haitians and even Polish on one Christmas for visiting sailors.
He retired from the church in September. He left the church in much better shape than when he arrived. It now attracts people from all over Tampa Bay.
The Rev. Stokes moved to Ireland to help care for his siblings.
"When I came to the diocese … I was told that there did not seem to be a great future for Our Lady of Perpetual Help parish and I might have to close it," Bishop Robert Lynch said upon the Rev. Stokes' retirement. "Those prognostications failed to take into account the energy, zeal and love of Father Stokes."
The Rev. Richard Colbert, a retired chaplain of Tampa Catholic High School and who lived at the Our Lady of Perpetual Help rectory, said he considered the Rev. Stokes "in some ways, really a workaholic."
"It was in a sense not of work, but mainly oriented to helping people," said Colbert, 75.
He took painting classes for a while, painting hillsides and seascapes from Ireland. He also enjoyed music and golf. But except for vacations in Ireland, he rarely took an entire day off work, colleagues said.
"He didn't own anything," said John Ellington, 80, a longtime lay minister who worked with the Rev. Stokes for 26 years. "He didn't have a nickel to his name. But everything he had, he gave."
Bishop Lynch will preach at the Rev. Stokes' funeral Mass on Friday.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.