ROCHESTER — More than 200 people bade farewell to Father Tony Mugavero during a party in his honor June 8 at St. Francis Xavier/Holy Redeemer Church’s school hall.
Following several months participating in a Spanish-immersion program in Bolivia and additional time spent in Puerto Rico to understand more about that culture, Father Mugavero will become pastor of Holy Apostles Church at the end of the year, he said.
“The west side doesn’t know how good it’s got,” Father Vincent Panepinto, pastor of Our Lady of the Americas Parish, said during the farewell celebration. Father Mugavero is parochial vicar for Our Lady of the Americas, which comprises Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, Holy Redeemer/St. Francis Xavier and Corpus Christi churches.
During a phone interview June 30, Bishop Matthew H. Clark said that the diocese is fortunate to have the commitment of Father Mugavero to parishioners in the city.
“He has a strong commitment to all people,” he added. “But his success and interest in ministering in the city is a very wonderful gift to us.”
His desire to improve his Spanish skills also is of value to the diocese, Bishop Clark noted.
“He has an interest in developing his ability to speak Spanish and know the Spanish culture as best he can,” Bishop Clark added. “We are always interested in encouraging that any way we can.”
During the farewell celebration, Father Mugavero thanked parishioners, especially those from the Hispanic community who honored him with their patience as he learned a new language upon his assignment to the parish in 2005.
“I didn’t know Spanish,” he said. “I didn’t know the culture. You passed by all that and welcomed me ‚Ä¶ and helped me feel really loved.”
Elizabeth Aviles of Irondequoit said that a group of Hispanic parishioners got to know Father Mugavero personally through his celebration of a weekly Spanish Mass that former pastor Father Dennis Shaw had begun with some of them.
She often translated for him when he started out. The parishioners grew to admire the example of spirituality that Father Mugavero offered to them, Aviles said.
“His spirituality is exemplary,” she added. “He taught me a lot.”
The love of family he showed during his mother’s final months gave her strength when her father became ill and later died, Aviles said. Father Mugavero, 58, said that one of the reasons he has asked to stay in the city in the past was to care for his aging parents, whom he refused to put in a nursing home. His father died in 2002, and his mother, who had suffered with Alzheimer’s, died in 2006.
“When I feel weak, I think of Father Tony,” Aviles added. “He is a person who has been very blessed by the Lord. His efforts with the community have been extraordinary.”
Rita Hammer of Greece is not surprised that parishioners of Our Lady of the Americas feel a great loss now that Father Mugavero is moving on to a new assignment.
“He’s a wonderful priest. … Your needs always come before his. That man would not have a penny in his pocket if you needed the money,” Hammer said.
Hammer said that she knew Father Mugavero when he was assigned to St. Mary of the Lake Church in Ontario and she lived in that area. Her family later moved to Rochester and she attended the churches where he served, including St. Theodore in Gates and St. Bridget in the city, where he was pastor for 13 years.
Father Mugavero married Hammer and her husband, Arthur, and baptized her grandson and also was there for his first Communion, she added.
He even sat at her bedside during a recent surgery, Hammer noted.
“I’m feeling much, much better, and I give Father Tony and God all the credit,” she added. “He has a heart bigger than himself.”
Father Mugavero also is a great spiritual leader, said Hammer and Betsy MacKinnon, a parishioner of St. Bridget.
“Father Tony is one of the best homilists that I have ever heard,” MacKinnon said. “Because he is so present to people, he knows what life is about, its joys and struggles. Because he is a man of prayer, he knows what God’s love is about, full of mercy and hope, healing and filled with joy. It is a great combination for preaching — knowing God and knowing people.”
Father Mugavero said that his call to become a priest was sparked during a church program for teenagers. He recalled feeling that he should enter religious life but decided to put those thoughts aside. He attended the University of Rochester following graduation from Greece Arcadia High School.
Following his first semester in college, Father Mugavero said that one day, when his father was cutting his hair, he experienced a flashback to that moment during the church program. Soon after, he contacted the vocations director at the diocese and changed his major from engineering to psychology.
His family was not yet ready to accept his decision, Father Mugavero added. So, while he made sure to take the requisite philosophy courses for his future seminary plans, he waited three more years to enter priestly formation, he added. At the age of 26, he started studies at St. Bernard’s Seminary.
After being ordained a transitional deacon, he was assigned to St. Michael Church in Newark in 1979. Parishioners there helped him prepare for his ordination and took part in the ceremony that followed in 1981, he added.
When he reflects on that time, Father Mugavero said that he recalls becoming close to some of the Hispanic parishioners at the Newark church.
“I didn’t know any Spanish then, but I had a nice relationship with the people,” he added.
Following his ordination, Father Mugavero served three years at Immaculate Conception Church in Ithaca, a year and a half at St. Mary of the Lake and six years at St. Theodore.
When he became pastor of St. Bridget in 1992, Father Mugavero recalls walking into the church and seeing drips of water all over the building. The parish community there came together and decided to move to the former St. Theresa Church building on Mark Street.
“It was hard because St. Bridget’s had a very special history,” Father Mugavero said.
Another St. Bridget parishioner, Tanishia Johnson, said that Father Mugavero was a great help to parishioners during those difficult days. His leadership stems from his love for God and for his parishioners, added Johnson, who got to know the priest well when she and her husband, Cory, attended premarital counseling sessions with him.
“He was a pastor that always listened to the needs of our parishioners and put the needs of St. Bridget’s first,” Johnson said. “He was passionate in all he did within our parish, and this was reflected in his homilies, the many ministries he stayed connected with and his interactions with our church family. … When Father Tony had to move on, the only solace we had was knowing that he would make a tremendous impact on another community truly deserving of his service.”
The experiences at St. Bridget did give him the tools to help the people of Our Lady of the Americas Parish work through the difficult transitions that took place after he became parochial vicar, Father Mugavero said. During the past three years, the parish’s three churches consolidated into one parish.
“One of the things I certainly learned at St. Bridget’s is that it’s absolutely true that the church building is not the church,” Father Mugavero said. “We are the church, the people.”
Parishioners chose to name the new parish Our Lady of the Americas during the time he was participating in a Spanish-immersion program in Mexico, Father Mugavero said. When he returned, he approached Father Panepinto about presenting the parish with a gift of a life-size portrait of Our Lady of Guadalupe in memory of his parents, he added.
While parishioners may have chosen the name for different reasons, part of it had to be in order to bring together three parishes into one, Father Mugavero observed. Our Lady of Guadalupe is trying to show us something, he added.
“There’s a reason this parish chose this name that’s beyond itself,” said Father Mugavero. “I think God chose it for us. And I think that these spiritual themes are important for us. In that image, while she does appear and speak to the indigenous people very strongly, the Spaniards also could relate to her. And so it was in a real sense lifting both and bringing both together in a unity that hadn’t existed before.”
And the sense of unity he brings to every parish he has worked with also is a blessing, Hammer noted.
“If we could clone Father Tony, what a blessing for the world,” she remarked.