TAMPA For 26 years, the Rev. Thomas Stokes was the heart of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Ybor City, feeding the hungry and preaching salvation to people of diverse cultures.
Not known to be tech-savvy, Stokes learned to send text and Skype messages to keep in touch with friends at the parish after he retired and moved to his native Ireland to be near family last year.
On April 22, parish members received word Stokes had died of an apparent heart attack in his sleep in Dublin. He was 75.
Back in Ybor City, parishioners, who were shocked by the news, began making plans to recognize the Marist priest for his contributions to Our Lady of Perpetual Help at 1711 E. 11th Ave.
They arranged a memorial mass for 7:30 p.m. Friday, said the Rev. Roland Lajoie, who replaced Stokes when he retired in September. Bishop Robert Lynch of the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg will officiate the service, and the Rev. Ted Keating, who serves as the provincial superior of Marist priests, is scheduled to attend.
Church officials also plan to rename the parish hall the Thomas Stokes Hall in recognition of the priest who was instrumental in getting it built.
“He was truly a shepherd,” longtime parishioner Barbara Burris said.
She and others plan to pay tribute to Stokes for transforming a fledging parish on the verge of extinction when he arrived in 1986 into a sanctuary for more than 1,000 Catholics.
Burris spoke to Stokes via Skype the day before he died and he said “He felt fine,” she said.
“We just loved this man,” Burris said. “When he died, I said, ‘It can’t be. It was so sudden.’”
The sentiment was shared by several parishioners, who described Stokes as a humble and gentle man who spoke kindly to and about everyone. He spearheaded food drives and capital improvement projects to help increase outreach and help those in need.
Stokes was instrumental in pulling together a cross-section of diverse people to take an active role in the parish, where many members are senior citizens who live on fixed incomes, parishioner Cynthia Spano said.
“We have English and Spanish speakers, as well as a Filipino, Italian and Haitian presence,” Spano said. “He had a genuine love of all people. That was the most important thing for him was to reach out to people who needed him.”
Stokes was often seen walking his dog on the streets of Ybor City, the heart of Tampa’s entertainment district.
Stokes was born June 2, 1937, in Dublin, Ireland. He became a Marist seminarian at 20 and studied theology in Ireland and France before he was ordained a priest in 1963.
He served at parishes in West Virginia, Louisiana, Atlanta, Mexico City and Peru before he was assigned to lead the Ybor City parish in 1986.
Stokes is survived by two sisters, Cynthia and Evelyn; and a brother, Kevin; all of Dublin, and numerous nephews and nieces and his Marist brothers in the Society of Mary. A funeral mass and burial were held in Ireland on April 27.
Memorial donations may be made to the Fr. Thomas Stokes Memorial Fund at Our Lady of Perpetual Help, 1711 E. 11th Ave., Tampa, 33605. Proceeds will support major repair projects at the church and rectory.