Since his first day as pastor of the newly-created Parish of St. Monica on July 1, Father Jon Thomas has hit the ground running.
“I have met with members from all four churches of the parish, St. Monica’s, St. Michael’s, St. Nicholas of Tolentine and Our Lady Star of the Sea,” he said. “I have met with donors of Our Lady Star of the Sea School; Mass has been celebrated at all four churches; and planning has begun for August’s Wedding of the Sea.”
With four parishes becoming one, and bringing their own cultures, languages and worship traditions to the new parish, Father Thomas admits that “there are challenges,” but he believes in “greater opportunities.”
A little over a month ago, on June 5, Bishop Dennis Sullivan announced the formation of the new parish, “looking to the past with deep appreciation of the tradition and bringing it into the future.”
The news was the culmination of a two-year study of the parishes in Atlantic City. “in most instances,” the study concluded, the individual parishes were in significant and growing debt and were operating with great difficulty, unable to support the necessary staff.”
Bishop Sullivan announced that the church of Our Lady Star of the Sea will be the principal church of the new parish, and St. Nicholas of Tolentine Church will also be used. St. Michael and St. Monica churches are property of the new parish, and their future use is to be determined.
“Four individual parishes can no longer be sustained,” the diocese said. The new Parish of St. Monica “marks an entirely new beginning and effort for the Catholic Church in Atlantic City. One unique parish for one unique city.”
Joining Father Thomas in Atlantic City are parochial vicars Father Thanh Pham and Father Fernando Carmona. The three share something in common besides their new assignment: youth. Father Thomas, Father Pham and Father Carmona are 33, 34, and 42 respectively, and Bishop Sullivan expects the young priests will bring energy and creativity to the city.
“I am giving Atlantic City some of the best of our clergy as a sign of our commitment to the city,” he said at the June 5 press conference announcing the new parish.
For some of the faithful in Atlantic City, Bishop Sullivan’s words were bittersweet, as it meant the reassignment of longtime leaders in the community.
Msgr. William A. Hodge, longtime pastor at St. Nicholas of Tolentine, is now pastor at the historic St. Mary Parish in Gloucester. Father Joseph Pham (no relation to Father Thanh), previously pastor at Our Lady Star of the Sea Parish is now Director of Catholic Identity at Camden Catholic High School in Cherry Hill.
Father Jeffrey T. Cesarone, administrator at St. Michael, is now chaplain at St. Mary’s Catholic Home/The Manor at St. Mary’s in Cherry Hill. Father Yvans Jazon, administrator at St. Monica, has been assigned to Notre Dame de la Mer in Wildwood as parochial vicar.
At noon on Sunday, June 28, Msgr. Hodge celebrated his final Mass at St. Nicholas, where he was pastor for 18 years. At the Mass, Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian declared June 28, 2015 as Msgr. William A. Hodge Day in recognition of the shepherd’s contributions to the city and church, which included the start-up of a food bank which feeds 35,000 annually; and over $8 million raised for the restoration of the church, rectory and convent buildings.
Mayor Guardian presented keys to the city to both Msgr. Hodge and to Atlantic City’s new leader, Father Thomas, symbolizing the close of one chapter and beginning of another.
Tom and Clara Depko, parishioners of Our Lady Star of the Sea, were sad to hear of the departure of Father Joseph Pham, “a true man of faith … who exemplifies the best of the priesthood.”
“We are truly grateful for all he has given to his church and his school. He will be missed but not forgotten, and he will remain in our prayers, always,” they said.
Factoring into the Atlantic City decision were the different cultures and ethnicities of the community. Mass and the sacraments at the Parish of St. Monica will be celebrated in English, Spanish and Vietnamese, as they are most spoken as first languages by the Catholic population.
At St. Monica Church, there had been a Sunday Mass in Creole, with the Haitian Catholic Apostolate, but the study determined that most of the Haitian Catholic population who attend this Mass do not live within Atlantic City itself. Rather, they travel into Atlantic City to attend the Mass. “Because of this, a regularly scheduled Mass in Creole and the work of the Haitian Catholic Apostolate will be transferred outside of Atlantic City to a location that can better accommodate Haitian Catholics closer to where they in fact live.”
Father Thanh Pham will minister to the Vietnamese, while Father Fernando Carmona will be a shepherd to Hispanics.
The new parish “adds freshness to the faith in Atlantic City,” said Father Thanh Pham, who added that he has long been familiar with the Vietnamese community in the city, attending the annual Vietnamese New Year and Vietnamese Martyrs celebrations. He said he is currently discerning the work and family lives of his parishioners to best determine a Sunday Vietnamese liturgy.
Looking ahead, Father Thomas sees August’s Wedding of the Sea celebration as the “first great event” for the newly-united parish.
“The Catholic Church of Atlantic City is not merging, but uniting,” he emphasized. “I am extremely confident about the future. There are great things to be done here.”