By Kenneth J. Souza, Anchor Staff
SEEKONK, Mass. — Although he’s just shy of 70, the typical retirement age for diocesan priests, Father Thomas L. Rita has been given Bishop George W. Coleman’s blessing to retire from his pastoral duties at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Parish in Seekonk.
“I am looking forward to it — it’s time,” Father Rita recently told The Anchor. “Some years ago I thought I would just go on and on, but I guess Mother Nature tells us otherwise and this is God’s will. I’ve had two back surgeries within a year, and that really slowed me up.”
Effective June 25, Father Rita will be moving into the Cardinal Medeiros Residence for retired priests, located on the campus of Bishop Connolly High School in Fall River.
“I’m not going to give up the priesthood as I retire,” Father Rita said, noting that most of his retired brother priests living there remain active. “I’ll continue to do Sacramental ministry and help with Masses — but the administrative angle of being a pastor will be lifted.”
Taking over for Father Rita at the Seekonk parish will be Father Daniel W. Lacroix, who has been reassigned from his previous pastoral duties at St. Francis Xavier Parish in Hyannis.
“He’s looking forward to coming here after the plethora of responsibilities he’s had in Barnstable and Hyannis,” Father Rita said. “He’s looking forward to coming to a smaller parish.”
Father Rita said it’s bittersweet having to leave Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Parish, which he helped found in 2010.
“I was here before to prepare for the merger of the former St. Stephen’s with the former St. Mary’s parishes,” Father Rita said. “I was also pastor here back in 1987 through 1993 — it was my first parish. Bishop Daniel A. Cronin had appointed me pastor then. In between I had a bunch of years on Cape Cod and over at St. Mark’s in Attleboro Falls.”
A native of New Bedford, Father Rita was ordained a priest on May 1, 1970. He served as parochial vicar at St. Mary’s Parish in Mansfield, St. Anthony’s Parish in East Falmouth, St. Mary’s Parish in South Dartmouth, and St. Mary’s Parish in Taunton.
He was first named pastor of the former St. Mary’s Parish in Seekonk in 1987, and later served as pastor for Our Lady of the Assumption Parish in Osterville, Holy Trinity Parish in West Harwich, and St. Mark’s Parish in Attleboro Falls before coming back to Seekonk in 2008.
Father Rita served as director of St. Vincent’s Home in Fall River, and from 1982 to 1986 he also directed the former St. Mary’s Home in New Bedford.
“I closed St. Mary’s Home and merged it with St. Vincent’s,” Father Rita said. “I was there for eight-and-a-half years. Then Bishop Cronin felt I needed some more pastoral experience before I became a pastor, so I went back to parish work.”
For many years Father Rita was diocesan director of Pro-Life programs, was assistant director of the Diocesan Office of Social Services, directed the Attleboro area CYO, was chaplain to the Knights of Columbus, and served as a judge in the Diocesan Tribunal.
“Two weeks before he gave me permission to retire, the bishop reappointed me to the Diocesan Tribunal as a judge,” Father Rita said. “I’ve been doing Tribunal work for 40 years. Most of those years I’ve been a judge for matrimonial cases. I love and I’m going to continue to do that work. I might even go into the (Tribunal) office. Normally I would just do the work from wherever I’ve been stationed.”
Despite having donned many hats during his 44 years of diocesan ministry, Father Rita said the highlight of his priesthood has been serving as a pastor.
“Pastoral work has always been my favorite,” he said. “Preparing people to receive the Sacraments has been a joy and celebrating Holy Mass is the greatest privilege any man could ever want. To know that people are being fed by the Lord in what I’m doing — and in spite of who I am — is very consoling. I just hope I live up to the expectations that people have placed upon me as a priest.”
Among his proudest accomplishments, Father Rita ranked the building of a perpetual adoration chapel while he was pastor at Holy Trinity Parish in West Harwich high on the list.
“I was asked by former Bishop Sean P. O’Malley to go to Harwich to build a permanent chapel for perpetual adoration at Holy Trinity Parish,” he said. “It’s still going strong with adorers 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week. It’s quite lovely. That would be something visible that I’m most proud of.”
A 1962 graduate of the former Holy Family High School in New Bedford, Father Rita said he always knew he wanted to become a priest.
“It was always in the back of my mind as a young boy,” he said. “My parents — whether they took me seriously or not — they certainly encouraged (my vocation). My grandparents on my father’s side lived next door to us and they were very religious. They were daily communicants. Often times I’d go to church with them and then as time went on I started going to morning Mass even when I was in seventh and eighth grade. I was pretty much sure during high school that that’s what I wanted and I followed up right after high school and went to seminary college.”
One of four boys, Father Rita said two of his brothers have since passed away, but now that he’s retiring he plans on spending more time with his older brother, John.
“I’m going to hang out with my family on Long Pond near Cathedral Camp (in East Freetown),” he said. “We have a couple of houses out there — my brother has one and I have a smaller one that we originally owned. I’ll avail myself of that. We spent so many years out there and his kids were raised there and it’s wonderful. We’re a close-knit family and always have been. We were four boys and my mother always told us to stick together, no matter what happens.”
Adding that he also enjoys “the camaraderie of being with my brother priests,” Father Rita is equally looking forward to spending time with his fellow retirees at the Cardinal Medeiros Residence.
“I wouldn’t say I was a social butterfly, but I enjoy being with (priests) and joking with them,” he said. “Until my recent back surgery, I would often invite priests over to the rectory on Sundays to have lunch because a lot of the rectories don’t have cooks anymore. I think it’s important for priests to get together.”
Father Rita said having a facility like the Cardinal Medeiros Residence is a great blessing and benefit to retiring priests and the diocese.
“In the diocese we’re fortunate that we have a retirement facility and we encourage the guys to go there, and they, in turn, supply parishes and pastors with priests who can celebrate Mass and assist,” he said. “We’re not farmed out to some country residence where you can’t get into town. It’s much more accommodating for our diocese.”
Bishop Coleman also accepted the request to retire of Father Horace J. Travassos, pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish in Westport, effective June 25, and Father James Ferry, pastor of Espirito Santo Parish in Fall River, effective July 1.
Father Ferry grew up in Swansea and graduated from Bristol County Agricultural High School. He studied for the priesthood at St. John’s Seminary in Brighton and was ordained a priest on June 16, 1984 by Bishop Daniel A. Cronin. He began his priestly ministry as a parochial vicar at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in New Bedford. While there, he participated in a culture and humanities study program at the Catholic University of Portugal in Lisbon. He was next assigned as a parochial vicar at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Taunton and also served for a few months as its temporary administrator.
In 1995 he became parochial vicar at Espirito Santo Parish in Fall River and one year later was named pastor there. He has served that parish community for the past 18 years. While pastor there he was also named parochial administrator for the neighboring parish of Our Lady of Health and guided the joining of that parish with Espirito Santo in 2006.
Father Travassos, a Fall River native, is a graduate of Msgr. James Coyle High School in Taunton and Providence College. He taught for a short time at Bishop Stang High School in North Dartmouth before entering St. John’s Seminary in Brighton to prepare for the priesthood. He was ordained a priest on May 12, 1973 by Bishop Daniel A. Cronin and was assigned as parochial vicar at St. James Parish in New Bedford. From 1976 to 1983 he served as assistant chancellor for the diocese and then returned to parish ministry as a parochial vicar, first at Corpus Christi Parish in East Sandwich, and later at St. Patrick’s Parish in Somerset.
He was appointed rector of St. Mary’s Cathedral in Fall River in 1988 and director of the Diocesan Office of Family Ministry and Family Life Center. In 1997 he was named pastor of St. William Parish in Fall River and in 2000 was appointed to Our Lady of Grace Parish in Westport.
In addition to Father Lacroix being appointed pastor of Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Parish in Seekonk, Bishop George W. Coleman also recently announced the appointments of:
— Msgr. Stephen J. Avila as pastor of St. Anthony’s Parish in East Falmouth;
— Father Gerard A. Hebert as pastor of St. Jude the Apostle Parish in Taunton;
— Father Mark R. Hession as pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in Seekonk;
— Father John P. Kelleher as pastor of St. Joan of Arc Parish in Orleans;
— Father Michael K. McManus as pastor of St. Mary Parish in Mansfield, while remaining Moderator of the Curia;
— Father John J. Perry as pastor of Our Lady of Victory Parish in Centerville and pastor of Our Lady of the Assumption Parish in Osterville;
— Father Michael Fitzpatrick as administrator of St. Francis Xavier Parish in Hyannis;
— Father Darius Kalinowski as administrator of Our Lady of Grace Parish in Westport;
— Father Maurice O. Gauvin as pastor of Espirito Santo Parish in Fall River;
— Father Stephen B. Salvador as pastor of St. George Parish in Westport; and
— Father Christopher Stanibula as administrator of St. Anne Parish in Fall River.