SMYRNA — It’s always a painful thing when parishioners move away from St. Polycarp, the Roman Catholic church in Smyrna, said its pastor, the Rev. Thomas Flowers.
Now, it’s his turn to say goodbye.
After 13 years at St. Polycarp, Father Flowers will move to St. Jude the Apostle in Lewes by the end of June.
“I will have lived in all three counties, which is kind of a fun thing because I’m a native Delawarean,” said Father Flowers, who grew up outside of Wilmington.
Living below the canal, he said, is a different experience.
Once when he was working at a parish in Middletown, he had an associate pastor from Philadelphia.
As Father Flowers waved to people and said hello, the associate asked him, “Do you know all those people?”
Father Flowers said no.
“Then why are you saying hello to them?” he asked.
“I said, ‘So they don’t think I’m from Philadelphia,’” Father Flowers remembered Wednesday.
“We have something really special here. We really do. It’s a real joy,” he said.
The Smyrna parish includes more than 600 households, up from about 500 when he first arrived.
“The people here are just so incredibly generous,” Father Flowers said. “Not just with their money, but with all kinds of things.”The Rev. Tom Flowers stands inside the chapel at St. Polycarp Catholic Church Thursday morning. “We have something special here,” he said of the Smyrna parish.[/caption]
The Sunday school program, with 270 kids, repeatedly receives recognition for the money they raise, he said.
Together, parishioners also raised money to bring an 1883 bell to the church. Later, they paid to move a marble crucifix and a marble altar from St. Stanislaus Kostka Church when it closed in Wilmington.
Father Flowers said he will miss the people when he moves.
When he first came to Smyrna, a stranger helped pay for his groceries when he forgot his wallet, saying that his mother attended Mass at St. Polycarp.
“I’ve had non-Catholics say ‘Hey Father, would you like to join us for lunch?’”
“It’s like an epidemic of kindness and it never goes away. It really makes it a wonderful place,” he said.
“It means that what we do in church is not always battling everything around us. Sometimes it is … but there’s an awful lot here that we build on. We build in what goes on in the school and what goes on in the community.”
One of the great things about the community is the Smyrna-Clayton Ministerium, he said.
“There are ministeriums probably in most areas but ours has really been a tight group,” he said.
“We share ideas, we share our faith and it’s a great experience.”
The association of clergy has a number of accomplishments, from helping open the Smyrna State Service Center to running a food pantry.
“Another thing that’s really different about Smyrna is the close relationship we have with our school system,” Father Flowers said.
Superintendent Debbie Wicks keeps in contact with religious leaders, he said, so that they know if there are any needs they can help with.
The community embraces five core values: compassion, integrity, perseverance, respect and responsibility. Each January, a new value goes up on the board in all the classrooms for the focus of the year.
Father Flowers said at Sunday school, children get a lesson about the same core value and he talks about it in church.
“It binds the community together with the school,” Father Flowers said.
“... It’s got to be a rarity. It may happen somewhere else, but it’s got to be a rare thing.”
In Lewes, Father Flowers will be switching places with the Rev. James Hreha, who will move to St. Polycarp.
There are some differences — the parish is about three times bigger — but Rev. Flowers said he also expects to see familiar faces of retirees or vacationers.
“One of the really neat things about Delaware, and this is something I’ve appreciated since I was kid. When you’re from Delaware, you always run into somebody with a connection,” he said.
“… some people don’t like that, because I think they feel claustrophobic. I love it because you just make instant contact with people ... it fosters a sense of belonging. That’s what a community is about. That’s what a church is all about. It’s about belonging.”
“Here, the belonging is just something that happens right away,” he said.
“People that visit me will say, I just felt so welcome the minute I walked through the door.”
Along with his collection of Easter eggs and religious icons, Father Flowers also keeps a “patriot room” in his clergy residence.
He’s filled it with treasures collected over the years — a Union Jack from a World War II battleship, Civil War bullets, even a Marine Corps medallion that went into space with John Glenn.
It’s important to promote patriotism, Father Flowers said. Before Mass on any civil holiday, parishioners say the Pledge of Allegiance.
One of the things he started at St. Polycarp was a blue Christmas observance, to mourn those who can’t be there for the holiday.
After hymns and a reflection, Father Flowers reads the names of those missing out loud as people come forward and light candles. “They’re just so grateful because it helps. They’re dreading the coming of Christmas. They’ve got this heartache within them,” he said.
As people age, they often wonder what difference they’ve made.
If you have kids, that’s easy, Father Flowers said. One hundred years after you’re born, your values, faith and sense of humor “will still be padding around this planet.”
As a celibate priest, Father Flowers said he finds comfort “knowing that I’ve helped people cry when they needed to cry helped them to laugh when they needed to laugh, and expressed the feelings within them.”