YBOR CITY — If you stumbled across the program to the Rev. Thomas Stokes' memorial Mass and saw the picture of the elderly Irishman with a thin tuft of white hair, glasses, and a slight grin, you would probably not think, "I bet a mariachi band played at that service."
But there the band was Friday night, the men in brown suits with gold trim and cream cowboy boots, playing Mexican folk music as hundreds of people filed into Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church to pay their respects to the Rev. Stokes, the former pastor who saved the church from financial hard times.
They filled the church before the 7:30 p.m. service, and an overflow crowd sat in chairs under a large white tent on E 11th Avenue, closed for the service. The sun was still dropping, marking the start of another busy night at nearby Ybor clubs, when the mariachi music gave way to the more traditional organs and the service began.
Bishop Robert Lynch led the Mass, while Rev. Ted Keating — down from his parish in Middletown, Pa. — spoke to the crowd about the man he considered a friend and mentor. The Rev. Stokes died suddenly of an apparent heart attack April 22 in his native Dublin, Ireland, where he moved after retiring from the church in September. He was 75.
Keating met the Rev. Stokes in 1982 in Washington, D.C. The Rev. Stokes was a fiery missionary with a restless heart, Keating recalled, and was struggling to learn Spanish when they met. He mastered the new language, though, and worked with the poor in Mexico City and Lima, Peru.
The Rev. Stokes arrived in Ybor City in 1986 and helped save a church that had hit rough times financially. The second-oldest church in Tampa, Our Lady of Perpetual Help originally dates to 1890, when it was founded under a different name as a Spanish-speaking church for cigar workers.
The multilingual Rev. Stokes could speak to his diverse congregants in their native tongues, and he helped build the church community back up. Friday's service, not surprisingly, was said in Spanish and English.
The Rev. Stokes didn't much like rules or regulations, Keating told the crowd Friday, and basically did anything he could to get more people involved with the church.
"We all have to be this way," Keating said. "We all have to have more open hearts, reaching out, finding new ways to connect."
There was an envelope tucked inside each program for Friday's service, so people could donate to the "Fr. Thomas Stokes Memorial Fund."
The money is not going back to Ireland, where the Rev. Stokes is buried, nor is it headed to Rome or some other far-flung church locale. It will stay in Our Lady of Perpetual Help where, the envelope says, it will be used for termite fumigation and repairs to the roof, pews, rectory and stained-glass windows.
Even in death, the Rev. Stokes will help hold the old church together.
Will Hobson can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3400.