COVENTRY TWP.  St. Francis De Sales Catholic church in the Portage Lakes received a special visit the last weekend of January when the acting head of the Cleveland Catholic Diocese, Bishop Daniel Thomas, helped the parish celebrate the weekly Saturday/Sunday night Mass.

Thomas is the temporary head of the Diocese after the retirement of Bishop Richard Lennon due to health issues. Lennon was diagnosed with vascular dementia several months ago and asked for permission to retire based on this health issue. Thomas was head of the Toledo Diocese until this appointment. The 169-year-old Cleveland Diocese encompasses eight counties with nearly 800,000 members in 185 parishes.

Several weeks earlier, Pastor David Bline announced the upcoming visit and the parish moved ahead to welcome Thomas. On Saturday, night the church was filled to overflow with excited parishioners in anticipation of the bishop's arrival.

A large group of lay ministers and church officials, including Bishop Thomas, Father Bline, Assistant Pastor Father Louis Thomas (no relation to the bishop) and deacons Raymond Butz and Raymond Herrick took part in the opening ceremonies as the bishop was escorted down the main aisle to the altar. The choir sang as the procession proceeded through the standing members of the church, all trying to catch a glimpse of Bishop Thomas in his Miter head cover, and carrying his Crosier staff.

Thomas opened the mass by addressing the parish about how "it was a gift to celebrate Sunday Mass, especially so close to your patron saint's feast day, St. Francis de Sales." 

His visit also coincided with the start of Catholic Schools Week and he was given a present from some students in recognition of his helping to kick off the drive.

During the Gospel, Thomas gave the Homily. His talk focused on how Catholics should boast the good traits of their religion to encourage others to lead a more pious life.

"God looks for boasting in the Lord," he said, with particular emphasis on the eight beatitudes. "You should live Jesus by though, word, and action. St. Paul said whoever boasts should boast in the Lord. And your patron, St. Francis, said that  you should live Jesus". 

The reaction to his visit was positive throughout the church. Lead canter Rachel Caster was "really excited and honored to sing for the bishop."

"I was just so glad to be part of this special event," she said.

Lynn Fahey, a teacher at the school and a choir member "was excited to sing and play her trumpet for the bishop."

"It really sounded like the entire church came together as one in song to pray during the Mass," Fahey said.

Parishioner Dr. Steven Stone believes "it was delightful and wonderful to have the bishop at the church."

"I was stunned when I heard he was coming," Stone aid. "I believe we are the first parish he has visited to say Mass at in the diocese. I think he also came to meet Father Bline, who has done so much for the parish."

Eucharistic Minister Michelle DeVitis believes "that it was a beautiful Mass that the bishop took part in. It was such a wonderful experience to have him here at St. Francis."

"I received a phone call two weeks ago that Bishop Thomas would like to begin his time as our diocesan Apostolic Administrator by coming to visit a few parishes that might help him understand who we are as the Diocese of Cleveland," Bline said. "So his first stop was St. Francis as we celebrated the feast day of our patron saint. It was a privilege to have Bishop Thomas lead us in prayer and Sacrament. He said to me following Mass, 'the way the congregation sang and participated in the Liturgy is the way we hope a vibrant parish life can be.' He shared a gift of humanity and joy with us, reminding us that we are called to boast only in Jesus Christ. How blessed we were to celebrate the love we have in our saving God, and how this love should fill us to go out and serve those who are most in need."