It was a dark and rainy Saturday afternoon in South Florida, but in one Palm Beach County home, spirits were bright, and the conversation was light as Lou and Camille Gilardi of Delray Beach recently welcomed two St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary students back to their home for the first time in nearly a year.
“I’ve been waiting for this for a long time!” exclaimed Deacon Nicholas “Nick” Toledo as the foursome began to enjoy lunch and engage in catch-up conversation on the lanai of the Gilardi home. “You mean waiting to see us, or to have your favorite chicken cutlet sandwich?” Lou Gilardi asked with a grin as the group began to dig into takeout from their favorite local Italian sub shop.
They are young people fully dedicated to God, Christ, and the church. It gives me hope and faith in the future of the church, and that’s one reason why we do this. ~Camille Gilardi
For the Gilardis, the opportunity to develop the unique and supportive relationship with Deacon Nick, Deacon Mackenzie “Mac” Hill, and other St. Vincent de Paul seminarians began more than five years ago, when they first attended the regular Wednesday evening mass at the Roman Catholic seminary in Boynton Beach. As they learned more about the Friends of the Seminary community support group, they were eager to be a part of that important mission.
“Here they are, far away from their homes, and they look just like they could be my grandsons,” Camille Gilardi observed. “They are young people fully dedicated to God, Christ, and the church. It gives me hope and faith in the future of the church, and that’s one reason why we do this,” she said.
The foursome’s last get-together was in early March of last year. As with the rest of the world, the best-made plans to join again in friendship and fellowship with the seminarians and other members of the Friends of the Seminary, were brutishly interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We had to cancel our biggest gathering of the year at the seminary – more than a thousand people who had come to see us, and it was a big disappointment,” explained Deacon Nick, who helps coordinate social events at the seminary and was delighted to be breaking bread with the Gilardi’s once again. “We’ve exchanged messages and have had a couple of Zoom calls to stay in touch with people, but it’s just not the same as being able to be together like this,” Deacon Mac added.
The two seminarians will graduate from St. Vincent de Paul on May 13. Then, each will return to their respective diocese, report to their Bishop, take part in formal ordination ceremonies, and receive assignment to a local parish.
For Deacon Mac, nearing the transition from seminarian to ordained diocesan priest has brought him to a place where “I’ve never been more at peace.” He further explained, “I was a wild child, and I was wrestling with God for a while, trying to run away from it and Him, but now I’m absolutely confident that this is God’s will for my life.”
When we stay close, and when we give these guys places to go and things to do outside of the seminary, we get to see them progress, like these two getting ready to graduate. ~Lou Gilardi
Deacon Nick, meanwhile, credits his Pastoral Year of Formation – a practicum period of placement and work in South Miami – with affirming his decision to answer the call to priesthood. “I entered this place to serve people and to do God’s work. This is the whole point of ministry, and I’m ready to be of service.”
Ongoing public health concerns continue to make larger-scale gatherings and events nearly impossible, and outside visitors remain restricted from visiting the seminary or attending mass there. Because of this, an annual pizza party event sponsored by the Knights of Columbus and held at the seminary are being scaled back this year. While the seminarians will be able to enjoy an evening of good food and fellowship, the many Friends of the Seminary will not be able to attend as they had in the past.
“I’m really sorry we can’t be there. It’s always a great night, and I’m going to miss seeing and catching up with everybody,” said Lou Gilardi, with disappointment clearly evident in his voice. The Deacons quickly provided a novel solution: “We’re going to get one of those giant cardboard cutouts of you so you can be there in spirit! We can’t have the party without you there, Lou!”
After talk of graduation and ordination, the inclement weather, the next-day’s Super Bowl, and some lamenting over the perceived lack of adequate coverage of the NHL in the local newspaper, conversation turned to the upcoming visit of Rev. Connor Penn, who graduated from St. Vincent de Paul last year, and is now stationed as Parochial Vicar at St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Clearwater.
Lou Gilardi texted greetings to Father Connor from the group gathered for lunch, teasing him in the messages about the scrumptious subs he was missing out on at that moment, and assuring him his trip back to Palm Beach County would be a memorable one. “When we stay close, and when we give these guys places to go and things to do outside of the seminary, we get to see them progress, like these two getting ready to graduate,” he said. “It’s really nice that they don’t forget about us, either, and it’s great that Father Connor’s coming back to see us.”
Father Connor did indeed make the journey two days later, presiding over a special outdoor mass of gratitude and thanks at the Boynton Beach home of Bill and Betty Freeman, who have also supported the seminary and its students in various ways over many years. David and Marcia White of Delray Beach and the Gilardis joined in celebrating the Eucharist, and in catching up with the recently-ordained priest.
Prior to then, the Friends of the Seminary had only seen Father Connor via an internet livestream of services from Clearwater, and the couples gave him a very warm welcome back to the county. Following the intimate home mass, he made sure to recognize the couples and other local families for their continued devotion and support.
“It’s been a really tough year for everyone, but their faith and their support stayed strong,” he said of the families. “I came back to show them how much I, and the other seminarians, appreciate everything they’ve done by welcoming us into their homes and into their lives, and we’ll never, ever forget them for that.”
“He makes the whole body fit together perfectly. As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love.” -Ephesians 4:16 (NLT)