Unbroken

 

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.

 


 

Integrating two distinctly different congregations—different ethnically, generationally, culturally—isn’t easy, and it wasn’t in the case of Sacred Heart-Sagrado Corazón. There were doubts and fears on both sides of the aisle, and the combined parish struggled.

Evelyn Conard, 86, was born in Waterbury, baptized at Sacred Heart, and educated at the grammar school and high school on church grounds. “To tell you the God’s honest truth, I wasn’t too happy about their coming in, the Puerto Ricans, I really wasn’t,” she says. “I don’t know why, I’m not prejudiced, but I just felt that we were going to be losing our church. There were a lot more Puerto Ricans than there were the original people. I just thought they’d take over the place.”

For their part, the immigrant parishioners wondered how they would be received in a church that had been overwhelmingly white for so long. “It was hard,” recalled musician Lino Colón, a lifelong member of St. Cecilia’s. “It was like moving into a new neighborhood—you didn’t know if you were intruding.”

Moreover, little was done to meld the two communities. Although Gray was bilingual, masses were said either in En- glish or in Spanish, not both. It seemed to some Sacred Heart parishioners that he clearly favored his Latino flock.

“He loved the Spanish—I think he gave more attention to them than to the English,” Correto Sr. says. “He was more affectionate with them. At the end of the Spanish mass, he’d come down the aisle smiling.”

Very gradually, though, the two congregations began to come together. The unlikely ambassadors of unity were the Latino children who attended CCD (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine) classes in the nearby school building on Sunday mornings before quietly filing into the church for 10:30 mass. Many of them spoke only English. Old-time Sacred Heart members were surprised to find them not just well-behaved but friendly and open, as were their parents.

“I found them to be lovely, lovely people,” admits Evelyn Conard. “They’re warm, they’re friendly—every time they greet you, they give you a hug. I wasn’t prepared to like them but I just couldn’t help it.”

Meanwhile, if language remained a barrier to some adults, music transcended it. Lino Colón and Catherine Langellotti, the cantor at the original Sacred Heart, merged the two church choirs and created a new one that sang both Spanish and English hymns. Upbeat Latin rhythms infused the standard English hymns with vibrancy and life.

 


 

Then, in late May of 2010, the tune abruptly changed.

What the Archdiocese of Hartford refers to as a routine audit of Sacred Heart-Sagrado Corazón’s finances had turned up a number of discrepancies. For starters, Gray had been paying his personal American Express card bills—for expenses such as hotel stays and meals at pricey New York restaurants—through the church’s Webster Bank account. He had also written more than 225 checks to himself from the church’s account, and sent thousands of dollars worth of MoneyGrams to men who had no known connection to the church.

As word of the investigation spread, some members of the Latino community, in particular, refused to believe the allegations, blaming the archdiocese. As they had prayed for their pastor’s recovery from cancer, they now prayed for his deliverance from the gathering storm. But then the news got worse.

According to the arrest warrant issued June 30, 2010, by the State of Connecticut Superior Court, an investigation by Waterbury detectives discovered that between 2003 and 2008, Kevin Gray had  embezzled $1.4 million from the church. Of that amount, $221,728 had come from a contract he had signed with Wireless Capital Partners LLC, a cell tower leasing firm based in Santa Monica, Calif. Transmitters installed in a communications tower inside the church steeple weren’t broadcasting the good news of the gospel—they’d been winging cell phone messages across the region, and Gray wasn’t sharing the proceeds with his flock. Still, it wasn’t until the full results of the investigation appeared in local newspapers and news stations that parishioners began to  understand the extent and nature of the damage.
 

Sacred Heart-Sagrado Corazón isn’t the only Catholic church in Connecticut that has had to suffer a pastor’s double life in recent years.
Last December, the former Rev. Michael Moynihan of St. Michael the Archangel in Greenwich was found guilty of diverting $500,000 from the church into two secret bank accounts. The stolen money funded a lifestyle that included expensive meals, clothes, luxury cars, equestrian instruction, and an apartment in Manhattan, where he allegedly lived with a man who’d once been the children’s choir director at St. Michael’s. Moynihan, 54, resigned as pastor in 2007 and has pleaded guilty to federal obstruction of justice for lying to investigators about the money. He faces up to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.

In 2006, the Rev. Michael Jude Fay, the pastor of St. John in Darien, was found guilty of having stolen $1.4 million to fund a similar lifestyle, one that included a condo in Fort Lauderdale and a pied-à-terre on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, which he claimed was close to his chemotherapy treatments. (Auditors discovered that the lease had begun nine months before he was diagnosed with cancer.) Fay shared the residences with wedding planner Cliff Fantini. The disgraced pastor died of prostate cancer in 2009 while serving time in prison in North Carolina.

Both fallen priests are said to have believed they were entitled to live as they pleased in compensation for their vocations.

Kevin Gray’s explanation to Waterbury detectives Peter Morgan and Michael Chance was that he resented the archdiocese for his assignment to Waterbury. In particular, he told them, he was bitter about having been transferred while his mother lay dying in New Haven. He had grown to hate being a priest, and he felt that the church owed him whatever he had taken.

Dr. Leslie Lothstein, a West Hartford psychologist, served for 26 years as director of the Institute of Living in Hartford, until his retirement in February of this year. During his tenure, the facility treated some 600 priests. “My experience with clergy who are unhappy with assignments is that they get depressed, they’re stressed out, they drink—but they don’t steal,” Lothstein says. “The type of individual who says, ‘I had a terrible assignment,’ and steals big money, this is an angry, entitled person. It isn’t for the money per se; it’s the anger they feel for the institution from which they’ve stolen.”

Like Fay and Moynihan, Gray spent the church’s money on things of this world—stays at Park Central Hotel and W Hotel Times Square, dinners at Tavern on the Green and L’Absinthe,  Armani suits—as well as on other men: He rented a Manhattan apartment for an Asian student he met in Central Park, and sent checks to several young Latino men, including one from another Waterbury parish and one he had met at a male strip club.

The difference between Gray and his fellow men of the cloth, of course, is that Darien and Greenwich are among the wealthiest parishes in the country. Waterbury is the polar opposite. To steal from a congregation whose members often struggle just to make ends meet seems especially contemptible.

But that wasn’t what disturbed parishioners most. What hurt, and deeply, was that Gray had lied to them: The cancer wasn’t terminal—he didn’t even have cancer. Apparently, he hadn’t loved them after all.

Alex Lopez, a deacon in the church like his father before him, recalls “walking around for a couple of months with my head in a fog. We all believed he was sick—he told us he was sick!”

“Him with the male escorts?—that’s probably the least of it,” says Charles Corrato Jr., 44, a clinical social worker with Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Bridgeport and a lector (reader at masses) at Sacred Heart-Sagrado Corazón. “This is truly an inner-city parish. You have an aging Anglo population—parishioners who had been there their whole lives, and they were going to die there, and they were loyal and they were giving. And you have a Latin population that’s a little poorer but strong and vibrant and proud. He was really stealing from the poor. He knew all of that, and it didn’t matter to him.”

 


 

Five hundred families fill Sacred Heart-Sagrado Corazón these days on weekends, the air jubilant with hymns sung in alternating verses of English and Spanish. But on this cold Monday morning in February, the 8 o’clock mass is sparsely attended.

A dozen Anglo and Latino daily communicants sit close to one another before the altar, where the Rev. Carlos Zapata, assisted by Charlie Correto Sr., presides. A 49-year-old parish priest originally from Colombia, Zapata says the mass mostly in heavily accented English. Bilingual missals (“Celebremos! Let Us Celebrate!”) lie here and there in the pews. A large portrait of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Virgin Mary as venerated by Mexicans and other Hispanics, is prominently displayed.

After mass, Zapata, a small, gracious man, and Charlie Coretto Sr., invite me back to the church office in the former rectory where Kevin Gray once lived. Over coffee and donuts, Zapata gives thanks to God, to Charlie for bringing the goods, and to Dunkin’ Donuts.

“We enrich ourselves with the language and by sharing our faith,” he says of the mix of parishioners and tongues. “We share our parish the most we can.”

Transferred here a few weeks before Gray’s arrest, when the faithful still believed the former pastor was dying, Zapata currently shares the running of the parish with the Rev. Mark Suzlenko, 51, who alternates between Waterbury and his own parish, St. Anthony’s, in nearby Prospect.    

Suzlenko, born in Bristol to Russian and Polish parents, is solidly built and youthful-looking, with a monklike fringe of brown hair. He has a gentle, serene presence that puts visitors at ease. “If you’re content, then I think the rest of your choices are going to be positively laid out,” he says during a talk in his office at St. Anthony’s. “If you bring discontent, then that’s going to color whatever else flows. I feel very content—I don’t think I could do my work down there [in Waterbury] if I weren’t.”

In November 2010, Suzlenko was asked to co-pastor Sacred Heart-Sagrado Corazón and oversee the parish’s finances, as well as “pick up the pieces,” he says—“do some healing.” He commutes several times a week and stays over in Waterbury one weekend a month. In less than a year, he has taught himself enough Spanish to say mass and hear confessions.  

One of the first things he did was to hold a parishwide meeting to let parishioners know what had happened to Gray and to allow them to voice their concerns. The meeting was well attended by both English- and Spanish-speaking members. “There was a lot of pain, a lot of disappointment, disbelief, anger—but also love,” Suzlenko recalls. “Many were able to forgive what had happened, to see it in the context of human weakness—which is amazing, actually. It was quite a humbling experience.”

While parishioners credit the new pastors with restoring faith and hope and bringing harmony to the downtrodden church, the priests themselves seem awed by their congregation’s capacity for forgiveness.

The Institute of Living’s Lothstein, when told of Gray’s behavior, calls him “an angry, narcissistic psychopath—but that’s not a diagnosis, it’s a description.” Until he acknowledges the harm he caused, Lothstein adds, he doesn’t deserve to be forgiven.

And yet forgiveness has been granted. “Even though many people felt terribly hurt, we’ve showed a lot of compassion,” remarks Zapata. “We’ve prayed for many months for his soul, and for his health. Several members of the community have sent him letters of pardon. I think the community has shown a lot of courage and compassion and is trying not to stay in the hurt of the past but to move forward.”

 


 

In April 2010, Kevin Gray was sentenced to three years in Willard-Cybulski Correctional Institution, a medium-security prison in Enfield.

That didn’t stop some parishioners from staying in close contact with their former pastor.

Lino ColÓn, the choir director at Sacred Heart-Sagrado Corazón, visited Gray while he was in Enfield. Colon is thin, almost delicate, his voice soft and gentle, and at 51 wears his white hair in a kind of 1980s punk style. He remains devoted to Gray.

“One of the hardest things was driving back from seeing him,” Colon says, his voice trembling. “Even now, after everything, I love him more because he’s a beautiful person. You know the amount they said he took? He gave us way more than that. I always felt he protected us. Prison was a struggle for him. There were inmates there whose kids he baptized—that was beautiful. He told me that he loved Hispanics. It was a pure love that he had for us. I miss him dearly.”

Regardless of Gray’s legacy, Sacred Heart-Sagrado Corazón appears to be rising from the ashes of his deeds. The parish’s insurance company and the archdiocese have fully covered the amount he stole, though operating costs continue to outrun offertory income. But there is faith, and where faith abides, hope resides.

“Financially, we’re struggling,” Suz-lenko acknowledges, “but spiritually, the parish is alive. We’re moving forward and talking, communicating. Many have not just cast him [Gray] aside, and that’s an important piece of the process, for us as well as for him.”

Although Gray had been scheduled for release on May 23, 2013, last December the state Board of Pardons and Appeals heardd to his appeal for an earlier date and granted it to him, at least partly because he is said to have been diagnosed—for real, this time—with colon cancer.

Gray was released from prison in February and sent to a treatment facility in Maryland. The Archdiocese of Hartford has said that once rehabilitated he could receive a future assignment somewhere in the state. There is no telling where that assignment might lead or if Gray actually has cancer (he declined both a visit and a phone interview for this story).

That the 66-year-old former pastor may in fact have cancer this time doesn’t surprise lector Charles Correto Jr.

“I think life has a funny way of bestowing stuff upon you sometimes,” he says. “I don’t wish it on him—if anything, I feel sorry for him at this stage. What I’m so proud of is that he did not destroy the parish, did not destroy the spirit. He couldn’t bring us to our knees—and I don’t think that was his intent—but his selfishness did not destroy us.

“We have a happy ending,” Correto adds. “That you can have an 80-year-old woman of Anglo heritage sitting next to a Latin boy. You would think they have nothing in common but they share that pew and they’re worshipping together, in English and in Spanish. And at the end of the mass they will shake hands and go in peace.”
 

Unbroken

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