By Jennifer Neville, Special to The Catholic Virginian

When asked what has been the significant accomplishments of Benedictine Father Mario Fulgenzi during his 17 years as pastor of St. Gregory the Great Parish, Virginia Beach, parishioners didn’t concentrate on new ministries, the creation of a day care center or the expansion of the school. Although they mentioned such achievements – and many more – they all stressed that his biggest gift has been building a sense of community in the parish. That’s quite a feat given that the parish has approximately 12,000 members.

Parishioners said they will miss their shepherd of nearly two decades. Father Mario was slated to return to St. Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, PA, in September to assist the archabbot. St. Gregory the Great’s three Benedictine parochial vicars (Benedictine Fathers Cristiano Brito, Lee Yoakam and John Peck) and Benedictine Brothers Tobias Yott and Mark Evans will remain at the parish. Benedictine Father Eric Vogt, who was most recently pastor at Sacred Heart Parish in St. Marys, PA, will be the new pastor.

He has big shoes to fill.

“He has put his mark here,” said parishioner Josh Tribble. “(Father Mario) has poured life and spirit into people here.”

He fostered a lay ecclesial leadership, strengthened religious education and worked to get youth and young adults more involved, parishioners and staff said as they provided a litany of his accomplishments. They said he has been like a father and grandfather to parishioners and students at the parish school.

Father Mario baptized 1,198 people and presided over 322 marriages. There were 3,526 First Holy Communions and 2,091 confirmations, according to Sister Brenda Query, a Sister of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and director of adult formation, said during a Roast and Toast for Father Mario following his farewell Mass Aug. 22.

“Father, you have been our shepherd since the Great Jubliee Year 2000, and you have given us care, service, understanding, gentleness, wisdom, inspiration and love,” she said.

Under Father Mario’s helm, the parish has become diverse as Filipino, Hispanic, Asian, African and American populations fill the pews. Parish pastoral council chair Patty Kelly said, “By his scheduled periodic meetings with parish pastoral council to review and update the parish mission statement, Father Mario has united all its various ministries and diverse cultures.”

Toni Redifer, office and human resource manager for the parish, said that despite his busy schedule, Father Mario was always approachable and never hurried anyone who spoke with him. Sister Brenda added that at Masses where he was the celebrant, he vested early and sat in the commons, making himself available to talk with parishioners.

“He has time for everyone all the time,” said long-time parishioner Paul Trovato.

Mrs. Redifer said that Father Mario had a knack for recognizing someone’s talents and gifts and how they can benefit the parish.

“You might think he doesn’t know who you are, but he does,” she said. “He observes people, and he asks questions, and he gets to know about a person. He knows when it is the right time to seek that person out because he is aware of some gift he can bring to the table.”

For example, Father Mario has used this knowledge to hire staff members, suggest individuals run for pastoral council and urge parishioners to join particular ministries.

“I think it is very important to educate parishioners to take ownership of the parish and not to be totally dependent on the priests of the parish,” Father Mario said.

“You are a very talented and gifted people, and I want you to hear that from me,” he said in his homily at the farewell Mass. “Share your gifts and talents.”

When parishioners were asked to describe Father Mario, the words gentle, humble and kind were repeated.

“His love for his parishioners is obvious and always apparent,” Mrs. Kelly said.

That was evident at the farewell Mass and reception. Approximately 1,200 people were at the farewell Mass, about half of whom attended the ensuing reception. Hundreds of people lined up to say goodbye. He greeted each person with a smile and addressed many by name. They returned his smile, sometimes with tears, and many thanked him for the difference he had made in their lives.

When asked how he hopes St. Gregory the Great parishioners will remember him, Father Mario said, “They hopefully will remember me as a happy person, a person of prayer, a spiritual father, someone who tried to build a welcoming, unified parish.”