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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.”