VALRICO — Monsignor John Scully was a pioneer priest. In six decades of service, he launched several Catholic schools and started parishes across the Tampa Bay area.
Monsignor Scully died Friday morning while celebrating Mass at St. Stephen Catholic Church in Valrico. The 86-year-old collapsed while consecrating the bread and wine.
Longtime friends and parishioners were saddened by his passing, but awed by the way it happened.
He "died with his boots on," said St. Stephen's Father Bill Swengros.
"There's something, as a priest, very beautiful in the way he passed," Father Len Plazewski said.
"It was precisely how he wished to go," Bishop Robert Lynch wrote on his blog.
Monsignor Scully's 62 years in the priesthood began in Boston where he was born and raised, and where he went to a seminary. In the '50s, he heard that Florida was calling for priests, so he moved south, said Plazewski, the director of vocations for the Diocese of St. Petersburg.
He was the first president at Tampa Catholic High School and at Bishop Barry, an all-boys school that became part of St. Petersburg Catholic High.
"He's just from that generation of pioneer priests," Plazewski said. "He came here when he was young and had a huge impact in the area and really internationally, as well."
Starting in 1972, Monsignor Scully took annual mission trips to Africa. He was the founder of the Holy Family Parish in Nairobi, Kenya. He learned Swahili and Kikuyu, which he used to baptize and say Mass.
He loved being a priest, and though he retired about a decade ago, leaving St. Theresa Catholic Church in Spring Hill, he still worked. He was a priest in residence at St. Stephen, where he offered Mass and took confession.
In a 1998 interview with the St. Petersburg Times, he explained that the calling to be a priest was supernatural: "To me, it was a way of helping people in their lives on earth, caring for the sick, teaching Christ's words, baptizing and giving the sacraments."
His friend Thomas Murray said that even during his last weeks, the monsignor was looking for more ways to help. About two weeks ago, he attended Tampa Catholic's first football hall of fame induction ceremony and shook former players' hands.
When he first got to Tampa Catholic in 1962, there was just one building, Murray said. In 1964, he recruited Murray to be the football coach, although the school didn't even have a field.
"He turned it around and built the gym, the football field, the track," said Murray, 72. "Everybody loved him. He was just unbelievable."
He was one of about half a dozen in the diocese to hold the honorary title of monsignor. In addition to helping start two major schools in the area, he also was the founding pastor at Catholic churches and other schools in Tampa, Pinellas Park, Largo, Clearwater, Seminole and Spring Hill.
"Monsignor Scully is just one of those legendary priests," Plazewski said.
He had been in failing health and the cause of death was not immediately known Friday. He had moved to St. Stephen in Valrico five years ago, and volunteers cared for and chauffeured him.
Still, none of his ailments dimmed his enthusiasm for his faith. He talked about starting a door-to-door ministry — even though he used a walker, Father Swengros said.
St. Stephen is a fairly young parish with 14,500 members. People looked to the monsignor for wisdom and treated him as a grandfather of the church.
"He was really big on the Ten Commandments and he didn't mind calling people out (in the confessional)," Swengros said. "He was a little tough. … He didn't compromise."
And the parish loved it.
"People would come for confession, and I would say I could take them," Swengros said, "and they would say, 'No, we're going to wait for the Monsignor.' "
Friday afternoon, the church offered an additional Mass service so parishioners could come together. Jeanne Gleason was among them. "We're sad because we miss him," she said. "But we're happy because he died the way he lived."
Times news researcher John Martin and staff writer Waveney Ann Moore contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3433.