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The steeple soars high toward the heavens above Sacred Heart-Sagrado Corazón Church and the East End of Waterbury, as if to spread the Catholic faith far across the Brass City. When the church was erected on Wolcott Street in 1889, the surrounding neighborhood was solid working class, and the church, a Gothic brick-and-granite edifice designed by renowned architect Patrick C. Keely, overflowed on Sundays with recently arrived Irish, Italians and Poles.
In little more than a century, Waterbury has changed dramatically—some might say drastically—and with it Sacred Heart parish. By the late 1990s, as many of the original parish families died off or moved away, jobs shifted elsewhere and the neighboring streets grew harder, stranding the church and its family of buildings—rectory, convent, combined grammar and high school—on an asphalt island.
At about the same time, over on nearby Cherry Street, St. Cecilia’s was staggering under the influx of Spanish-speaking Catholics: Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Dominicans, Ecuadorans, Colombians. The tiny church was bursting with young families. The congregation was bilingual, joyous and united in its love for the pastor, the Rev. Kevin Gray, an Irish-American priest from New Haven who had taught himself Spanish and been transferred from a parish in New Hartford to minister to the Waterbury Latino community.
In 2001, as the English-speaking congregation continued to shrink and the Spanish-speaking one boomed, the Archdiocese of Hartford decided to merge the two, relocating St. Cecilia parishioners to the East End and christening the bicultural union Sacred Heart-Sagrado Corazón. Gray came with them.
To both Anglo and Latino constituencies, Gray was something of an enigma. Charming and brilliant in his homilies, in person he could be remote.
“I served mass with him almost every day,” says Charles Correto Sr., a member of the Sacred Heart-Sagrado Corazón parish and an altar server for the past 11 years, “and I always said there were two Father Grays—one on either side of the altar rail. His homilies were beautiful and meaningful, but on the other side of the rail sometimes he was very curt. We always ignored it, avoided it, but there were two of him.”
One other disconnect eventually became apparent to those who grew close to him—the pastor frequently referenced the time “when I was with the Jesuits,” though he had never been one. The story he told was that he had studied to join the Society of Jesus but left, shortly before ordination, when his mother took sick.
All the same, the conjoined parishes embraced Gray, at least to the extent they could. He encouraged the Spanish music program, and singlehandedly managed the parish’s finances. He also showed a softer side, especially when it came to Latinos.
Once, when a Hispanic couple was called in to work early, leaving their young son home alone, the boy became frightened and called the rectory. Gray went to the family’s apartment and sat with the child until his father returned. When he did and began scolding his son for bothering the padre, Gray reportedly reproved the man, saying the boy should always feel free to call him.
But both Anglos and Latinos worried about their pastor. In 2003, he told them that he’d been diagnosed with colon cancer and that it was terminal. Although he continued to stand throughout services, parishioners would occasionally find him kneeling alone, holding his stomach and crying.
In 2004, in need of income to maintain the aged facilities—the only work done on the church over the years had been some recent construction inside the steeple—Sacred Heart-Sagrado Corazón agreed to lease the bulk of its rectory to Catholic Charities. Accordingly, Gray moved to the rectory at St. Peter and Paul’s Church on Southmayd Avenue while continuing to serve his own parish. He was rarely seen at St. Peter and Paul’s, however, even for meals.