The Rev. Don Henry returned from the gym last week to find a shocking surprise. He pulled into his driveway and saw that his parishioners had painted his house a vibrant shade of purple in honor of Lent.
“The group I bike with was lined up on my lawn waiting to see my reaction,” says Henry. “I just laughed. They said they will paint it back, but knowing them they will probably paint it yellow for Easter.”
The parishioners at St. Thomas More Catholic Church recently showed their appreciation for their pastor in a more conventional way, when 200 volunteers from the church organized a “40-10” anniversary celebration Sunday, March 27. Red shirts were worn by parishioners in honor of Henry’s ruby anniversary. The congregation filled the church at a standing-room-only Mass followed by a celebration attended by 1,400 people.
“It was incredible,” says Henry. “The togetherness of this parish is amazing, ”
The parish hasn’t always been so community-oriented, however. When Henry first came to St. Thomas More in 2001, he said the church was nearly bankrupt and that its membership and volunteer programs were dwindling. At the time, Henry was associate pastor at St. John the Evangelist Church, in Naples, where he had been since 1994. He moved there after deciding he had had enough of the cold weather in his home state of Pennsylvania.
Henry was reluctant to leave Naples, but when he received a phone call from then-Bishop of the Diocese of Venice, John Joseph Nevins, asking him to come to Sarasota, he decided to take on the challenge.
Henry started expanding the church’s volunteer programs, updating the liturgy and spearheading three fundraising campaigns that raised almost $7 million. In 10 years, St. Thomas More’s membership nearly quadrupled from 600 families to 2,200 families.
“He is a community-builder; that’s his gift,” says Sister Judith Baldino, who came in 2001 to St. Thomas More shortly after Henry.
One of Henry’s fondest memories of St. Thomas More happened after a Sunday Mass, when he requested that a few parishioners stay after to help move chairs out of the church so the floors could be varnished.
“I was expecting a few people to stay, but when Mass ended 1,000 people were still there; we got the job done in 15 minutes,” says Henry.
It is that sense of community that Henry says he loves most about St. Thomas More, where he plans to remain until he retires. He may have come to Florida for the weather, but he stayed for the people.
“Coming here was the best move I ever made,” Henry says. “We have a saying here: ‘JADIP.’ It stands for ‘Just another day in paradise.’”
Contact Maria Amodio at [email protected]