Bishop Confirms four inmates

A group of men recently completed their final step of Christian initiation by being “sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit” during their Confirmation by Bishop Frank J. Dewane at Avon Park Correctional Institute in Avon Park on April 10, 2024.

Bishop Dewane, who has stressed the importance of prison outreach since his 2006 appointment as Episcopal leader of the Diocese of Venice, shared with the Confirmandi the message of God’s Mercy as reflected in the readings from Divine Mercy Sunday, the Second Sunday of Easter.

In those readings, Jesus appears to the apostles in the Upper Room, but St. Thomas is not present and doubts the story. When Jesus returns, Thomas is present and Jesus questions his faith, telling him to touch his wounds so that he can believe in the Resurrection of the Lord.

“This is an important lesson to learn for all of us,” Bishop Dewane said. “Jesus gives Thomas, and all of us, a path toward believing in Him and trusting in His Mercy.”

Bishop Dewane used the example of the “Doubting Thomas” painting by Carravaggio, an Italian Renaissance painter whose image shows a close-up image of Thomas sticking his fingers into Jesus’ wounds. The Bishop asked the Confirmandi to imagine themselves in that scene, standing before Jesus and to think of how they would react and if they would believe.

When celebrating the Mass for the incarcerated, Bishop Dewane emphasized that he is bringing the forgiveness, mercy, compassion, peace, love and joy of the Lord to others. Each year, the Bishop celebrates Mass for inmates at different facilities throughout the 10-county Diocese, and has conferred the Sacraments of Confirmation, First Communion and Baptism for dozens of inmates since 2006.

The Confirmation Mass was witnessed by about 30 people, including sponsors and other inmates. Volunteers Toni and Tom Cruz Wiggins help lead the formation program.

Also participating in the Mass were Father Vincent Clemente of St. James Parish in Lake Placid, and Father Sean Mulcahy, of the Diocese of Orlando, who rotate celebrating Mass and hearing confessions. In addition, Deacon Sam Knight, of the Diocese of Orlando, regularly ministers and teaches and coordinates the volunteers.

During the Sacrament of Confirmation, the candidates renew their baptismal promises and then the Bishop, the attending priests, and all the faithful, pray that the Holy Spirit descend upon and remain on the Confirmandi. The Bishop then recites a prayer. Finally, the candidates are presented to the Bishop with their sponsor placing his/her hand on the candidates’ right shoulder. Then with his right thumb, the Bishop makes the sign of the cross on their forehead with the Holy Chrism oil and says “Be sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit.” The newly confirmed replies: “Amen.” The Rite concludes when the Bishop says “Peace be with you,” and the new Confirmandi replies, “And with your Spirit.”

Bob Hiniker, who helps to coordinate the prison outreach throughout the Diocese of Venice, helped facilitate Bishop Dewane’s visit to Avon Park Correctional Institute. While four men received the Sacrament of Confirmation, four others were unable to participate due to a security lockdown at the facility. The Bishop vowed to return to confirm those men at a future date.

The Diocesan Prison Ministry provides a variety of services, including Bible study, religious education and assistance with receiving the Sacraments.

Hiniker stressed the importance of continuing to expand the number of people who volunteer in the five state prisons, 10 county jails and one civil commitment program. There are approximately 15,000 incarcerated within the Diocese; meaning the need for priests and volunteers is great.

“In particular, we are in dire need of priests to hear confessions in the jails and to Celebrate Mass in the prisons,” Hiniker said. “Also, we have several jails and prisons where we can utilize more volunteers. With more volunteers, we can reach and minister to more.”

All volunteers participate in an orientation program before entering a correctional facility and “shadow” experienced volunteers until they feel comfortable. Times and days vary by facility.

If you are interested in learning more about the Diocesan Prison Ministry, please contact Bob Hiniker at or Joe Mallof at

2024 Priest and Deacon Jubilarians

Seven Priests and four Permanent Deacons who are celebrating the 25th and 50th anniversaries of their ordination in 2024 were recognized and honored on March 26, 2024, during the annual Chrism Mass at Epiphany Cathedral in Venice.

Bishop Frank J. Dewane congratulated each jubilarian for their years of service to Christ and Holy Mother Church. A reception was held in the Parish Hall following the Mass.

The priest golden jubilarians were Msgr. Mark Svarczkopf, who assists at multiple Parishes in Hardee and Highlands counties; Father Richard Bondi, who assists at Ave Maria Parish and University in Ave Maria; and Father Brian Manning, who assists at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Naples. Priest silver jubilarians were Father Anthony Hewitt, Pastor of Our Lady of Mercy Parish in Boca Grande; Father Victor Caviedes; who is Parochial Vicar at St. Jude Parish in Sarasota; Father Anthonio Jean, who is Parochial Vicar at Sacred Heart Parish in Bradenton; and Father Jayabalan (Jay) Raju, Administrator of St. John XXIII Parish in Fort Myers.

Among the Deacons, the lone golden jubilarian was Deacon Michael Leahy, who is retired. Celebrating their silver jubilees are Deacon Edward Gwiazda, who assists at St. Raphael Parish in Lehigh Acres; Deacon William Hickey, who assists at Our Lady of the Angels Parish in Lakewood Ranch; and Deacon Alfred Mauriello, who assists at St. Finbarr Parish in Naples.

Jubilarian Bios

50 years

Father Richard A Bondi

Father Richard Bondi graduated from Boston College in 1970 with a degree in philosophy and theology, then from Mount Saint Mary Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland, with a degree is sacred scripture. On May 11, 1974, he was ordained a priest of the Diocese of Springfield (Massachusetts) where he served as both Parochial Vicar and Pastor in various Parishes. Further assignments, in addition to Parish ministry, members of the Diocesan Priest Senate, head of the Renew Program, as well as assisting at six different university and colleges within the Diocese. Father Bondi served as Chair of the Diocesan Building Commission and further advanced his studies, receiving a Doctor of Ministry Degree in Psychology and Clinical Studies from Weston Jesuit School of Theology. In 2009, Father purchased a home in Ave Maria and since 2022 he retired to the Diocese of Venice, assisting at Ave Maria Parish and Ave Maria University. Born the second of twin sons, Father Bondi was born in 1948 in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

Father Brian Manning

Father Brian Manning was Ordained to the Priesthood in Boston, Massechusetts, on May 18, 1974. Father Manning obtained degrees from St. John Seminary College in Boston. Upon his ordination, Father served as Parochial Vicar at several Parishes in the Boston area. As Pastor, Father Manning served at Parishes in Somerville, Scituate, and Franklin, before retiring in 2023 to Naples. Father currently assists at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Naples. Father Manning was born in 1948, the fourth of six children.



Msgr. Mark Svarczkopf

Prior to ordination, Msgr. Mark Svarczkopf studied at the Latin School of Indianapolis High School Seminary, St. Meinard Seminary College and then at Pontifical North American College in Rome. Ordained to the Archdiocese of Indianapolis on June 8, 1974, Msgr. began his priestly ministry in various capacities including Associate Pastor, Administrator, Pastor, Chaplain of Scouts, Dean of the Indianapolis Northern Deanery, and Priest Moderator. He was also named Prelate of Honor, Director of the Institute for Continuing Theological Education, U.S. Bishop’s Seminary, North American College in Rome, and Vice-Rector for Administration of the North American College. Msgr. Svarczkopf retired in 2019 and for the Diocese of Venice currently assists in the Eastern Deanery, including at St. Michael in Wauchula, St. Catherine in Sebring, St. James in Lake Placid, and Our Lady of Grace in Avon Park. Born in 1948, Msgr. has two brothers.

25 years

Father Victor A. Caviedes

Father Victor Caviedes, a native of Lima, Peru, earned degrees from the University of Martin de Porres in Peru, and Autonomous University in Madrid, Spain. While in Madrid, he met Father Celestino Gutierrez who arranged for him to come to the United States in 1997. He studied as St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach. Bishop John J. Nevins ordained Father Victor as a Diocesan priest at Epiphany Cathedral in Venice on Oct. 22, 1999. For the Diocese of Venice, Father has served at numerous Parishes as a Parochial Vicar, including Our Lady Queen of Heaven in LaBelle, Jesus the Worker in Fort Myers, and St. James in Lake Placid, dedicating himself to pastoral work with poor families and immigrants. Father’s current assignment is as Parochial Vicar at St. Jude Parish in Sarasota. He was born in Peru in 1953.

Father Anthony Hewitt

Father Anthony Hewitt was Ordained to the Priesthood at Epiphany Cathedral in Venice on Oct. 22, 1999. He studied at St. John Vianney College Seminary in Miami, and at St. Vincent de Paul Regional seminary in Boynton Beach, and Catholic University in Washington, D.C., prior to his ordination. For the Diocese of Venice, Father Hewitt has served as Parochial Vicar at St. Andrew Parish in Cape Coral, St. Jude Parish in Sarasota, and Pastor at St. Francis Xavier Parish in Fort Myers. Father currently serves as Pastor of Our Lady of Mercy Parish in Boca Grande. In addition to his Parish duties, Father also serves as a Defender of the Bond in the Diocesan Tribunal Office. Father was born in Kokomo, Indiana, in 1971 and has three younger sisters.

Father Anthonio Jean

Upon completing his studies at Cap-Haitien College Notre-Dame and the Grand Seminary Notre Dame of the Holy Cross in Haiti, Father Anthonio Jean was Ordained to the Priesthood on Oct. 22, 1999, at Epiphany Cathedral in Venice. Father has served as Parochial Vicar at numerous Parishes within the Diocese of Venice, including St. Charles Borromeo in Port Charlotte, St. Francis Xavier in Fort Myers, San Pedro in North Port, Ss. Peter and Paul the Apostles in Bradenton, and St. Katharine Drexel in Cape Coral. Father Jean also served as Administrator of St. James Parish in Lake Placid. His most recent assignment is as Parochial Vicar at Sacred Heart Parish in Bradenton. He also served on the Presbyteral Council as a representative of the Eastern Deanery. Father Jean was born in Carice, Haiti in 1966, and has eight siblings.

Father Jayabalan (Jay) Raju

Having received degrees from Arul Anandar College, and St. Paul’s Seminary, all in India, Father Jayabalan (Jay) Raju was Ordained to the Priesthood on Aprill 11, 1999. His assignments as a priest included Parishes in India as well as Director of Madurai Multipurpose Social Service Society (Diocesan Catholic Charities), and Deputy Director of the Tamil Nadu Social Service Society (Regional Catholic Charities), also in India. For the Diocese of Venice, Father Raju has served as a Parochial Vicar at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Grove City, St. Andrew Parish in Cape Coral, St. Francis Xavier Parish in Fort Myers, and Epiphany Cathedral in Venice. Father’s current assignment is as Administrator of St. John XXIII Parish in Fort Myers. Father Raju was born in 1971 and is the middle of three children.


Permanent Deacons

50 years

Deacon Michael Leahy

Deacon Michael Leahy obtained his education at the University of Dayton in Ohio, the University of Toledo in Ohio and Sacred Heart Seminary, Shelby, Ohio. On June 1, 1974, Deacon Michael was Ordained as a Permanent Deacon at Rosary Cathedral in Toledo. Since his Ordination, Deacon Leahy has served in nine different Dioceses in seven different states. Highlights from his career includes serving in jails, as well as state and federal prisons; being a Fire Department Chaplain in Ohio and Florida; leading a Deacon Training Course in New Hampshire and the Diocese of Charlotte; and serving in rest homes and hospitals in several different Dioceses. Deacon Leahy was born in 1939 in Tiffin, Ohio.  He has been married to his wife, Judy, for 62 years. Together they have eight children, 31 grandchildren and 17 great-children.

25 years

Deacon Edward J. Gwiazda

Deacon Edward Gwiazda was ordained to the Permanent Diaconate on May 8, 1999, in Trenton, New Jersey.  He completed his studies at Monmouth University, West Longbranch, New Jersey.  Deacon Edward served at St. Isaac Jogues Parish, New Jersey, and currently serves at St. Raphael Parish, Lehigh Acres.  For his career, Deacon Gwiazda was a software engineer. Deacon Edward was born in 1948 in Elizabeth, New Jersey. He is married to Kathleen, and they have one child and two grandchildren.


Deacon William Lawrence Hickey

On June 6, 1999, Deacon William Hickey was ordained to the Permanent Diaconate in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.  His post graduate education was completed at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. Deacon Hickey served in Philadelphia as Assistant to the Associate Vicar for Clergy – Permanent Deacons, and as Associate to the Director in the Archdiocese for Permanent Deacons as well as at St. Maximilian Kolbe Parish in West Chester. For the Diocese of Venice, Deacon Hickey serves at Our Lady of the Angels Parish in Lakewood Ranch. He was born in Philadelphia in 1962, and is married to Melissa (Carragher) Hickey. They have six children and eight grandchildren. His current profession is as an Instructional design consultant.

Deacon Alfred J. Mauriello II MD

Following his Ordination to the Permanent Diaconate on June 5, 1999, in Philadelphia, Penn. Deacon Alfred Mauriello served at St. Maximilian Kolbe Parish and continues to serve at Ss. Simon and Jude Parish, both in Philadelphia. Since 2022, he assists in the winter months at St. Finbarr Parish in Naples for the Diocese of Venice. Deacon Alfred was born in Philadelphia in 1943, and attended St. Charles Seminary in Philadelphia. On June 1, 2023, Deacon Mauriello retired as a head and neck surgeon. Since his retirement, he still volunteers his time. Deacon Alfred is married to Susan (Patterson) and they have three children.

Chrism Mass – Symbol of Unity – Renewal of Priestly Promises; Consecration and Blessing of Holy Oils

Bishop Frank J. Dewane was joined by more than 150 priests from across the Diocese for the annual Chrism Mass March 26, 2024, at Epiphany Cathedral in Venice.

The Chrism Mass, which the Bishop concelebrates with priests from throughout the Diocese and during which he consecrates the sacred Chrism and blesses the other oils, is among the principal manifestations of the fullness of the Bishop’s Priesthood and is considered to be a sign of the close bond between the Priests and their Bishop. For it is with the sacred Chrism consecrated by the Bishop that the priests are ordained, the newly baptized are anointed, and those to be confirmed are signed. It is with the Oil of Catechumens that catechumens are prepared and disposed for Baptism. Finally, it is with the Oil of the Sick that those who are ill are comforted in their infirmity.

This celebration, which was witnessed by more than 1,000 of the faithful, including 350 students from Diocesan Catholic schools, is an expression of unity of the priests with their Shepherd, the Bishop of the Diocese.

The celebration not only brings into focus the historical context of the priesthood by the renewal of Priestly Promises, but also presents an opportunity for the priests to recall their ordination and to reflect upon their ongoing priestly vocation. Having all the priests of the Diocese come together at the Chrism Mass, united with their Bishop, on the eve of the Easter Triduum, reminds priests of their calling to act in the person of Christ – in persona Christi. This is the largest annual gathering of the clergy for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

During the Renewal of Priestly Promises the gathered priests stood as one, and spoke with one voice responding, “I am,” three times to a series of questions asked by Bishop Dewane. These same questions were asked of them at the time of their Ordination to the Priesthood.

Bishop Dewane publicly thanked the priests for their continued service to the People of God throughout the Diocese of Venice. He also called upon the faithful to continue to support the priests who bring the Sacraments into their lives.

“The Chrism Mass highlights the role and responsibility of the ordained in relationship with their Bishop, but primarily in their relationship to God and to Jesus Christ in offering that eternal sacrifice at the table of the Lord,” Bishop Dewane said. “My brothers, our hands were and remain anointed with the oil of Chrism, the same Chrism that will be instituted today; may Jesus always preserve you to sanctify the Christian people and in the Holy Office, in sacrifice to God.”

The anointed hands of a priest are sacramental instruments that baptize, confirm, bless, absolve sin, consecrate, offer the Bread of Life, the Chalice of Salvation; they are sacramental instruments that touch heads who ask for a blessing and at the end of life, open the door to eternity for many.

“Those are the instruments the Lord gives us,” Bishop Dewane said. “St. Teresa of Avila emphasized this point, saying, ‘Christ has no hands on earth but yours.’ Your hands are important in that role. They pray, they labor, they offer compassion and peace to those you meet. The anointed hands have been further consecrated, use them carefully for what God wants.”

While the priesthood can be challenging, the Bishop said that the heart of the priest “pulsates the lifeblood of the Body of Christ, the Church, keeping Her alive, active and sacred. Let it be part of who you are. That beating heart; let it be for Christ in every way.”

Pope Francis said the grace of the priesthood is for service, not for glory, as there is no recompense greater for a priest than the friendship with Jesus Christ. Seeking one’s own glory robs the priest, and ultimately the faithful, of the presence of Christ.

“We must all be careful of not letting our hearts and hands get numb to the repeated exercise of our service, but recognize them as a blessing and grace for those whom we serve,” Bishop Dewane said. “Be men of a priestly heart, so the faithful can approach and listen to you, as they yearn to be faithful themselves. Let them feel the presence of the Lord, through you as a priest, while they seek your companionship on their spiritual journey.”

During the Chrism Mass, Bishop Dewane recognized the seven Priests and four Permanent Deacons who are celebrating the 25th and 50th anniversaries of their ordination for their years of service to Christ and Holy Mother Church. Bishop Dewane also recognized Father Celestino Gutierrez, who is marking his 60th anniversary as a priest in 2024 and recently retired as founding Pastor of St. Jude Parish in Sarasota.


In attendance for this special occasion were religious men and women; Diocesan seminarians; Knights and Dames of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem; Knights and Dames of the Sovereign Order of Malta; the Knights of Columbus, including those of the Color Corps; members of the Venice Diocesan Council of Catholic Women; students from Diocesan Catholic schools; as well as the faithful of the Diocese of Venice.

Sacred Chrism Oil

The Chrism Mass takes its name from the sacred Chrism oil, the most eminent of the three holy oils, which the Bishop consecrates and blesses for use by Parishes of the Diocese. Bishop Dewane referred to the Gospel message which described the oils as being the oil of gladness, which represent the indelible mark each bestows.

The Oil of the Sick, used for those who seek anointing, and the Oil of the Catechumens, which is imposed on those preparing for baptism, are blessed, by the Bishop at different times during the Chrism Mass. The sacred Chrism is both blessed and consecrated. The verb “consecrate” is applied to the action of making holy the chrism and indicates its use to spiritually separate, sanctify and purify its recipients.

For the blessing and consecration of the sacred Chrism oil, the initial motion is to pour balsam into the oil, and then this is mixed. The balsam is added so that it gives the oil a sweet smell intended to remind those who encounter it of the “odor of sanctity.” All of the Faithful are called to strive for sanctity. Next, the Bishop breathes on the Sacred Chrism “to symbolize the Holy Spirit coming down.” At a particular point in the consecratory prayer for the Sacred Chrism, all the priests join the Bishop in extending their right hand toward the Chrism, as the Bishop concludes the prayer.

After Mass, the oils were given to each Pastor to use in their Parish throughout the Liturgical Year.

Priest and Deacon Jubilarians

A reception was held in the Parish Hall following the Mass to honor Priests and Deacons celebrating their jubilee in 2024.

Reverend Mark Svarczkopf spoke for the golden jubilarians. Father Svarczkopf is originally from the Archdiocese of Indianapolis and currently assists in the Eastern Deanery of the Diocese of Venice, primarily at St. Michael Parish in Wauchula, but also at St. Catherine in Sebring, Our Lady of Grace in Avon Park and St. James in Lake Placid. Father said a key part of being a priest is having the grace to soften the hardest of hearts.

Father Anthony Hewitt spoke on behalf of the silver jubilarians. Father Hewitt spoke about the importance of Holy Week to priests. “The totality and the very reason we exist on this planet – Jesus Christ – that Holy Hour where He goes to glorify His Heavenly Father; where He goes to die and rise on Easter Sunday.” Father prayed that the faithful find the beauty of the Paschal Triduum, because many “don’t see the joy of Holy Thursday; the magnificent beauty and the glory that is Good Friday; and they never ever come to Easter Vigil.” Father Hewitt is currently Pastor at Our Lady of Mercy Parish in Boca Grande.

Also celebrating 50 years were Father Richard Bondi, who assists at Ave Maria Parish and University in Ave Maria; and Father Brian Manning, who assists at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Naples. Additional priest silver jubilarians were Father Victor Caviedes, who is Parochial Vicar at St. Jude Parish in Sarasota; Father Anthonio Jean, who is Parochial Vicar at Sacred Heart Parish in Bradenton; and Father Jayabalan (Jay) Raju, Administrator of St. John XXIII Parish in Fort Myers.

Deacon Michael Leahy, a golden jubilarian, is retired. Celebrating their silver jubilees are Deacon Edward Gwiazda, who assists at St. Raphael Parish in Lehigh Acres; Deacon William Hickey, who assists at Our Lady of the Angels Parish in Lakewood Ranch; and Deacon Alfred Mauriello, who assists at St. Finbarr Parish in Naples.

News Briefs for the week for March 29, 2024

Palm Sunday opens Holy Week

Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord brought the faithful together as the Lenten Season nears a close (Holy Thursday). This is the day we remember and honor Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, greeted by cheering crowds waving palm branches that they set out on the ground along his path, before his crucifixion on Good Friday.  As is tradition, the faithful received palms upon entering church, which were then blessed by the presiding priest. During this Mass, the Passion of the Lord from the Gospel of Mark was read.

Hour-long Easter Sunday Televised Mass schedule

The Diocese of Venice in Florida will air the televised Easter Sunday Mass for a full hour. This special Mass for the homebound and celebrated by Bishop Frank J. Dewane, can be viewed at noon on the CW Network in Sarasota, Manatee, Desoto, Charlotte, Hardee and Highland counties, and at 10:30 a.m. on FOX4 in Charlotte, Lee, Collier, Hendry, Glades and Desoto counties. The Mass is also available on the Diocese of Venice website at

Bishop Dewane inspires high schoolers

Bishop Frank J. Dewane celebrated Mass for students at Bishop Verot Catholic High School in Fort Myers on March 19, 2024. During the Mass, Bishop Dewane encouraged the students to finish Lent and the school year strong, while focusing on placing Christ before all else. The Bishop also complimented the faculty and students for their support of the wildly successful Diocesan Eucharistic Conference which was hosted by the school and included many student volunteers on March 16. Bishop Dewane said the actions of the faculty and students reflected well on the school and let others in the Diocese know what he already knew – Bishop Verot is a place where students are educated and formed to be leaders in the community.

Students learn about importance of having a vocation

Juniors and seniors at Cardinal Mooney Catholic High School in Sarasota were blessed to have the opportunity to learn more about hearing the call to vocations in the priesthood and religious life on March 15, 2024. Father Alex Pince, Diocese of Venice Director of Vocations and Mooney Chaplain, and Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist spoke to men and women respectively, sharing their experiences and spiritual journey to the priesthood and/or religious life. The key message was to keep one’s heart open to the call of Jesus.

Couples retreat at Ave Maria University on April 6

Missionaries to the Family is hosting a FREE half-day couples retreat from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., April 6, 2024, in the St. Scholastica Honors lounge, Ave Maria University, 5050 Ave Maria Blvd., Ave Maria. “The Art of Catholic Family Life: Building a Holy Home” is a half-day retreat open to all married and engaged couples, offering a unique opportunity to explore what it means to live the spirit of Nazareth in your home. Note, the Feast of the Annunciation Mass will be celebrated at 1 p.m. Please register at The Missionaries to the Family is an Ecclesial Lay Ministry of the Catholic Church and an Initiative of Paradisus Dei, well-known for THAT MAN IS YOU!

Retired Monsignor dies

The Diocese of Venice is mourning the loss of Msgr. Joseph Stearns, a retired priest of the Diocese, who passed away Thursday, March 14, 2024, at the age of 79, in Sarasota, Florida.

Born in 1945 in Worcester, Massachusetts, Msgr. Stearns was the youngest of five children. He studied at Eymard Prep Seminary of Blessed Sacrament Fathers in Hyde Park, New York, and St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach, Florida.

Msgr. Stearns was ordained to the Priesthood on May 20, 1972, at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Miami. He served as Parochial Vicar at Our Lady of the Lakes in Miami Lakes, Little Flower Parish in Coral Gables, and Sacred Heart Parish in Homestead. Monsignor was serving as Pastor of St. Margaret Parish in Clewiston in 1984 when the Diocese of Venice was established and into which he was incardinated.

Within the Diocese of Venice, Msgr. Stearns’ next assignment was as Pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Punta Gorda, then as Pastor of St. William Parish in Naples, and finally, in 2007 as Pastor of St. Michael the Archangel Parish on Siesta Key before retiring in 2015.

As announced from the Office of the Bishop on June 11, 2010, Pope Benedict XVI bestowed Papal Honors on Msgr. Stearns, along with four other Diocesan Priests, in recognition of their dedication and exemplary service to the Church. This Papal Honor elevated him to the rank of Monsignor, as Chaplain to His Holiness. This group of priests was the first to receive this honor in the history of the Diocese of Venice.

Through the years, Msgr. Stearns served as Diocesan Vocations Director, as well as on numerous advisory boards, including the College of Consultors and the Presbyteral Council. Having retired in March 2015, Monsignor assisted at several Parishes including Incarnation Parish in Sarasota and most recently at Our Lady of the Angels Parish in Lakewood Ranch. He was also a Secular Franciscan.

Bishop Frank J. Dewane was the main celebrant at a Mass of Christian Burial for Msgr. Stearns, Thursday, March 21, 2024, at Our Lady of the Angels Parish in Lakewood Ranch. Father Jack Costello was the homilist.

Bishop Dewane expressed his sorrow over the death of Msgr. Stearns, noting that his service to the faithful of the Diocese never faltered, even in his retirement years.

“He was a true servant of God,” Bishop Dewane stated.

Please pray for the repose of the soul of Msgr. Stearns and the consolation of his family. May his soul, and the souls of all the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in eternal peace.

New affordable housing community marks new beginning for many in Fort Myers

With praise from local and state officials, the first phase of the St. Peter Claver Place affordable housing community, with 136-units, was blessed by Bishop Frank J. Dewane on Feb. 27, 2024.

The Diocese of Venice partnered on the project with National Development of America, Inc. (NDA), and was supported by the City of Fort Myers, the Fort Myers Community Redevelopment Agency, and the Florida Housing Finance Corporation.

During the blessing and ribbon-cutting ceremony, Bishop Dewane thanked each of the officials and NDA for their support in getting the much-needed project built. A second phase of 78 units is already in the works.

“We had this property and believed this was the perfect place to build quality housing that is affordable for families,” Bishop Dewane said. “By creating this housing, families with children will stay together, and they can remain in Fort Myers and be great contributors to the community.”

Fort Myers Mayor Kevin Anderson said events, like the ribbon-cutting for St. Peter Claver Place, make the struggles and challenges of governing a city like ours all worthwhile. “Bishop, thank you for pulling this all together.  This shows how government can work to address housing needs working with great community partners.”

City Council member Johnny W. Streets Jr. said he has been on the Council long enough to remember when the project was first proposed more than eight years ago and the results were spectacularly better than he ever imagined.

“This is probably one of my brightest moments since I have been on the Council,” Streets said. “It started with a dream, a vision and now to fruition. Thank you!”

Humbled by the collaborative spirit that has brought St. Peter Claver Place into existence, Michelle Hylton-Terry, Executive Director, Fort Myers Community Redevelopment Agency, said the project is the culmination of a shared mission that has strengthened the community by addressing a critical need.

“The buildings of St. Peter Claver are not merely structures, but they are cornerstones of hope,” Hylton-Terry said. “They provide a foundation for families to build their lives, nurture their dreams, and contribute to the vibrant tapestry of Fort Myers. This development not only fills a crucial need, but serves as a catalyst for growth, fostering a more inclusive and prosperous city.”

Ryan Benson, Chair of the Florida Housing Finance Corporation Board of Directors, said he was proud his agency could facilitate the project and was impressed by the quality of the development and promised support for future projects.

Although the project faced numerous delays and massive price increases since its first proposal in 2016, National Development’s Rick Miller said the time and effort has been worth every moment.

“Not everyone can afford decent housing,” Miller said. “But these apartments are offered at prices families can actually afford. That is the most rewarding part of this.”

The 136 apartments are two- and three-bedroom units, built to hurricane standards and complete with new appliances. There is an on-site playground and clubhouse. An added amenity is the proximity to AFCAAM of Catholic Charities, Diocese of Venice, Inc. This program, on the adjacent property, offers after-school care and tutoring, as well as summer programs for children and teens.

Monthly rent ranges from $630 to $1,300, less than half the market rate. Without promotion or advertising, Miller said there is already a waitlist of more than 1,500 for the 136 apartments that will be available in mid-March. Phase 2 is in the planning stages, and total build out would reach 214 units.

Previously, the Diocese and NDA worked together in Arcadia to build San Pedro at Meadow Park affordable housing, Casa San Juan Bosco I & II, 97 duplex homes used for farmworker housing, and later the adjoining St. John Paul II Villas, a 64-unit senior housing complex. Other projects include the recently completed Casa San Alfonso, an affordable housing community in Zolfo Springs. Additional affordable housing projects are currently in development for Lehigh Acres and Immokalee.

In addition, the Diocese has built several low-income elderly housing communities in Sarasota (2), Fort Myers (4), Port Charlotte (2), and Palmetto (2), as well as creating transitional emergency housing for individuals or families in need in partnership with Catholic Charities, Diocese of Venice, Inc. in North Port and Englewood.

Bishop Dewane concluded a blessing prayer service by saying, “May Christ always be here among the residents, nurturing in love, sharing in joy, and comforting in sorrow. Inspired by His teaching, His graces, and His example, may the residents seek to make each home a dwelling place to be shared with God.”

Founder of St. Jude Parish retires

There was an overwhelming show of love and support for Father Celestino Gutiérrez, founding Pastor of St. Jude Parish in Sarasota, as he celebrated his final public Mass at noon on Feb. 25, 2024, before a crowd that overflowed out into the parking lot.

Father Gutiérrez, who is retiring after nearly 60 years of service to the Church, 17 of those at St. Jude, and 39 within the Diocese of Venice, celebrated his farewell Mass. The large crowd did not deter anyone who wished to offer their gratitude to the man who had served as their spiritual leader for many years.

“I have been blessed by the Holy Spirit to have served the wonderful people of St. Jude for so many years, but it is time for me to step away,” Father Gutiérrez said. “I love you all. You are my family; you are my life.”

Bishop Frank J. Dewane said “Father Celestino’s tremendous influence on St. Jude Parish and indeed, the Diocese of Venice, cannot be overstated. His great joy, which he always credits as a gift of the Holy Spirit, is contagious, and has been a bright light in our Catholic community.  Father Celestino’s pastoral guidance for almost 40 years here in the Diocese has brought many closer to Christ, especially those in the Hispanic community. He had a clear passion for service and taught that so much can be learned about faith through the simple act of helping others.”

A native of Bercimuel, Segovia, Spain, Father Gutiérrez, 83, entered seminary at age 12. He was ordained on June 24, 1964, in Madrid, Spain, and shortly after was sent to Guatemala to serve the poor indigenous population during the civil war. It was there that he developed a passion for serving and working with the poor, whom he said taught him so much about faith, hope and joy, especially in the face of terrible persecution.

“It was a tough experience, but the faith of those people helped me grow in my own faith,” Father said. “There I experienced the gift of the Holy Spirit – joy – that has helped me be a better servant to the People of God throughout my life. When I came to Sarasota (in 1985 at St. Martha Parish), I knew I had found a home.”

While at St. Martha, Father Gutiérrez served the growing Hispanic American Catholic community in Sarasota. He celebrated Mass for migrant workers, created a Christmas program for the needy and focused his efforts to ensure the children took part in religious education programs.

The growing Hispanic Catholic community warranted the establishment of a new Parish and St. Jude was formally erected in May 2006. Hundreds of children participate in the religious education program. Each year as many as 100 receive the Sacrament of First Holy Communion and nearly as many teens receive the Sacrament of Confirmation.

A signature event at the Parish has been the Hispanic Festival, which for 19 years has attracted more than 10,000 on the first Saturday in November, in a grand celebration of the cultural heritage of the diverse community. The day includes musical performances and ethnic dancers as well as food from many nations. The proceeds of the Hispanic Festival support the various outreach efforts of the Parish, including a food pantry two days a week and other direct support as needed.

Many expressed their sadness at Father’s retirement, but joy for having been blessed to have him serve as their spiritual leader for so many years.

Maria Sanchez received her First Communion from Father Gutiérrez while he was serving at St. Martha. She was married at St. Jude in 2006, and each of her four children were baptized and received their Sacraments at the Parish.

“This was a sad day, because Father has been part of my life for so long,” Sanchez said after having a photo taken with Father at a post-Mass reception. “He has served this community with all his heart and that is what we will all miss; his big heart, and the joy he brought to the community.”

Father Gutiérrez, who is recovering from a recent illness, said he is not leaving the area or the Parish forever, and will return when he can for special occasions. “I love you all. Thank you for your prayers and support throughout the years. God bless you all!”

Answering the Call – Ordination brings blessings upon new priest

In a public response to a “call to holiness” Alan Baldarelli Jr., 41, was Ordained to the Priesthood by Bishop Frank J. Dewane during a Mass on Feb. 10, 2024, at Epiphany Cathedral in Venice.

The poignant and emotional rite places Father Baldarelli in a new role as he is raised to the Order of the Presbyterate where he will now celebrate the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, confer the Sacraments and teach the Gospel.

Bishop Dewane congratulated the ordinand for answering the call to holiness and advancing in formation through prayer, discernment, guidance and direction which helped him grow closer to the Lord. Through the Sacrament of Holy Orders, the ordinand is called to reflect and magnify Christ and bring others closer to Christ. The priesthood was established as coworkers with the Order of Bishops, with whom they are joined in a priestly office, and with whom they are called to the service of the people of God.

“The call for you today is to configure yourself to Christ,” the Bishop said. “It is really for everyone, but for those in the priesthood, there is a particular call to follow in the footsteps and likeness of Jesus Christ as we strive in our humanness to serve the Lord and to be that representative of Christ here on earth.”

Joined to the priesthood, Bishop Dewane said Father Baldarelli is consecrated as a true priest in the New Testament, to preach the Gospel, to shepherd God’s people, and to celebrate Divine Worship – the Holy Sacrifice at the Table of the Lord. By being raised to the Order of the Priesthood, the new priest will exercise the sacred office of teaching – to impart the Word of God upon the world. A priest is called upon to live that life as an example of holiness for others to follow as they invite the faithful to enter into the mystery of the Lord’s death, and to journey with them, pointing always in the direction of the resurrection. This holiness is not developed overnight but is a continual part of the priestly journey.

“It is the joy of that Word that gives inspiration to the people of God, to hear it, to be encouraged to live it, to let it resonate,” the Bishop said. “The life of a priest is to exemplify that Word of the Lord – as we go out – to live, to teach. Keep the example of the one who came to serve and not be served.”

“In the ministering of the Sacraments, be always kind and gentle, aware of following in the footsteps of our Savior Jesus Christ. This is a role that has been given in the Sacrament of Holy Orders, in the saving of those with whom we have contact. May you be blessed with the ability to call others closer to the Lord.”

When the Rite of ordination began, Baldarelli was called forth to the presence of the Bishop by Diocese Director of Vocations Father Shawn Roser, and upon hearing his name called out, he answered “Present.” After the homily, Baldarelli knelt before the Bishop to promise respect and obedience to him and his successors. Then he lay prostrate before the altar for the Litany of Supplication/Litany of Saints. The whole assembly joined in the prayer which invoked God’s grace and the intercession of the saints in heaven.

After this solemn act of prayer, the Sacrament of Ordination was conferred when Baldarelli knelt before Bishop Dewane, who in silent prayer, imposed his hands on the head the ordinand. In the sharing of the priesthood, each priest present laid their hands on the head of the newly ordained Father Baldarelli, one at a time.

The ordinand then knelt once again before the Bishop, who then recited the consecratory Prayer of Ordination; the prayer, together with the Bishop’s imposition of hands, is the essential Rite of the Sacrament of Holy Orders.

After the prayer, the newly ordained was vested in the stole and chasuble, vestments which are worn when celebrating the Eucharist and symbolize the responsibility and authority in service to Christ. Father Baldarelli was vested by Father Dennis Gonzales, who was is a Pastor at St. Vincent Ferrer Parish in Delray Beach, and served as a spiritual advisor when Father Baldarelli assisted at the Parish while in seminary.

The palms of the new priest were then anointed with the Sacred Chrism by Bishop Dewane, the sign of the special anointing of the Holy Spirit who will make the priest’s ministry fruitful. Next, the Bishop presented Father Baldarelli with the chalice and paten which all priests are called to present to God in the Eucharistic sacrifice saying: “Receive the oblation of the holy people, to be offered to God. Understand what you do, imitate what you celebrate, and conform your life to the mystery of the Lord’s Cross.”

The Rite of Ordination ended with the Bishop giving a fraternal kiss of peace to the newly ordained priest, welcoming him into the Diocesan Presbyterate or priesthood. The priests present then followed the Bishop’s example. The newly ordained Father Baldarelli then joined Bishop Dewane at the altar to the applause and joy of all present.

The Liturgy of the Eucharist followed. Father Baldarelli joined all the priests for the first time in concelebrating the Eucharist with Bishop Dewane, reciting together the words of consecration. For the first time, he offered the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, acting in persona Christi. From this sacrifice his whole priestly ministry will draw its strength.

Present for the ordination were his parents and four siblings, as well as other relatives and friends. In addition, present were more than 40 priests, men and women religious, Permanent Deacons, Knights and Dames of the Order of Malta, Knights and Dames of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem, the Knights of Columbus, as well as hundreds of the faithful.

Originally from Hermitage, Pennsylvania, Father Baldarelli grew up in a loving, faith-filled family. He went on to earn a degree in international business from John Carroll University before working in sales and marketing in various corporate jobs. Not satisfied with the path his life was on, a stray comment from a family friend that he should consider becoming a priest began his path to the priesthood and while working at a university job, he began taking courses on Sacred Scripture.

An annual visitor to Southwest Florida with his family from a young age, Father Baldarelli sought to become a seminarian for the Diocese of Venice.  His formation took place at St. John Vianney College Seminary in Miami and then at St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach. He was ordained as a Transitional Deacon in 2022.

With an easy smile in all humility, on Feb. 11 Father Baldarelli was very emotional while celebrating his first Mass at St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Port Charlotte. St. Charles Borromeo is where Father had been on pastoral assignment as a Transitional Deacon in the time leading up to his priestly ordination. Father thanked the faithful for their prayers and encouragement while he served the community.

“It is so profound to be able to do this for Christ and for all of you,” Father Baldarelli said of celebrating the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. “This was an imperfectly perfect celebration. We all make mistakes; we trip, we fall, we get back up, but God brushes us off and we are able to go out and be reinvigorated, proclaiming that Jesus is Lord and Savior.”

As a seminarian, Father Baldarelli served pastoral assignments at Holy Cross in Palmetto, St. Paul in Arcadia, St. William in Naples, Our Lady Queen of Heaven in Labelle, Epiphany Cathedral in Venice, as well as at St. Charles Borromeo.

The Ordination to the Priesthood is considered one of the most critical events in the life of the Diocese as it ensures the continuation of the Church and the availability of the Sacraments to the faithful.

A reception followed in the Cathedral Parish Hall where Father Baldarelli formally greeted the public and imparted his priestly blessing upon them, smiling all the while.

News Briefs for the week of February 16, 2024

Large group goes to Catholic Days

More than 50 people from the Diocese of Venice, including Bishop Frank J. Dewane and two dozen Catholic school students, took part in Catholic Days at the Capitol in Tallahassee from Feb. 7 to Feb. 8, 2024. This is an annual opportunity for the faithful to voice opinions directly to lawmakers from Southwest Florida on key pieces of legislation which are under consideration during this session. Primary focus was on ensuring the continued limitation on access to abortion. The students from Cardinal Mooney Catholic High School in Sarasota and Bishop Verot Catholic High School in Fort Myers also met with lawmakers and received a tour of the State Capitol.

40 Days for Life opens in Fort Myers, Sarasota and Naples

Show your support for life by simply praying for an end to abortion on the public sidewalk in front of Planned Parenthood throughout the Lenten Season until March 24, 2024. For details and flier go to (add /sarasota or /fortmyers or /naples for a direct link to the location near you). Questions? Contact Jeanne at 941-374-1068 or

Two Diocesan teams participate in Model UN conference

Teams from St. John Neumann Catholic High School in Naples and Bishop Verot Catholic High School in Sarasota were delegates to the 23rd Boston University Model United Nations Conference (BosMUN) Feb. 2 to Feb. 4, 2024. The Model UN is a three-day simulation of the United Nations hosted by Boston University for high school students. Jake Marks and Alessio Cirino, of Neumann, took home the prestigious title of Outstanding Delegates, showcasing their exceptional diplomatic skills and commitment to global problem-solving. Fellow delegates Hunter Lund and Kale Van Wart received Verbal Commendations. Congratulations to all the delegates who listened, engaged, and contributed to this wonderful conference of intelligent minds who hope to help guide the world to a better tomorrow.

Bishop welcomes priests, deacons to his home

Ahead of the Lenten Season, Bishop Frank J. Dewane hosted the priests of the Diocese of Venice to his home for a dinner and reception on Feb. 9, 2024. The next evening the Permanent Deacons of the Diocese visited with Bishop for their own dinner and reception. The evenings were intended to create an opportunity for the clergy to gather together in an relaxing atmosphere ahead of busy Lenten Season.

Vocation talk inspires

Sharing her vocations journey, Sister Juliana Alfonso, Salesian Sister of St. John Bosco, and teacher at St. John Neumann Catholic High School in Naples, inspired eighth grade girls during a vocation talk at St. Francis Xavier Catholic School in Fort Myers. Sister Juliana spoke about her vows of chastity, poverty and obedience, and encouraged the young girls to think about their own relationship with Christ. Sister offered tips about growing closer to the Lord through prayer, reading the Sacred Scriptures, participating in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and most importantly by being at Mass each Sunday. The girls found Sister Julian engaging and loved having her visit.

Knights on Bikes promotes its Diaper Ride

The Knights on Bikes, a motorcycle club of the Knights of Columbus, took part in the first-ever Diaper Ride to Thrive Pregnancy Clinic in Cape Coral on Feb. 10, 2024. In addition to bringing diapers, they also donated $500. Thrive is a maternity home (formerly known as Lifeline), that brings Christ to women who have chosen life, The Knights on Bikes mission is to promote and adhere to the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church, and evangelize through fellowship, charity, and service. For more information about the Knights on Bikes please contact Pete Battle at 239-601-6061 or email

Scholarship application deadline approaching

The Catholic Community Foundation of Southwest Florida has opened the 2024-25 online scholarship applications. There are currently five different scholarships available from the Foundation. Applications close on Feb. 29, 2024. The majority of the scholarships are for residents of Sarasota County. These scholarships are for graduating seniors (class of 2023 or 2024), or for non-traditional students who have been out of school for 3+ years and wish to pursue a higher education. To find out which Catholic Community Foundation scholarship you qualify for, please visit

Our Mother’s House Wine Tasting Feb. 29

All are invited to attend the Our Mother’s House Wine Tasting, 5:30 p.m., February 29, 2024, at the Venice Community Center, Venice, 326 Nokomis Ave. S. The event will benefit the mothers and children at Our Mother’s House of Catholic Charities, Diocese of Venice, Inc. This is a 2-year transitional living program, dedicated to empowering single mothers and their young children. Tickets are $90. Register online at For more information, 941-485-6264 or email

News Briefs for February 9, 2024


After broad consultation, Bishop Frank J. Dewane announces the following:

Father Joseph Binu, appointed as Parochial Vicar of St. Agnes Parish, Naples, effective January 19, 2024, and thus, is relieved of his duties as Parochial Vicar of Sacred Heart Parish, Bradenton.

Father Benjamin Casimir, appointed as Administrator of Jesus the Worker Parish, Fort Myers, effective February 5, 2024, and thus, is relieved of his duties as Parochial Vicar of St. Peter the Apostle Parish, Naples.

Order of Malta retreat

The Knights and Dames of Malta recently gathered in Naples for a retreat: a time of prayer, reflection and renewal. Bishop Frank J. Dewane celebrated the opening Mass for the retreat at St. William Parish on Feb. 2, 2024, The Feast of the Presentation of the Lord. During the Mass, the Bishop said that the message the Knights and Dames carry is one of preparing the way for the Lord. The Order of Malta is a lay religious order of the Catholic Church that seeks to glorify God by promoting the sanctification of each member through witness to the Catholic Faith and service to the sick and the poor. The retreat master was Msgr. Robert Dempsey of Chicago. The retreat is held ahead of Lent to help the Knights and Dames prepare spiritually for this important Liturgical Season.

Eucharistic Conference held at Ave Maria University

The Aquinas Center for Theological renewal and the Thomistic Institute hosted the “Thomas Aquinas and the Eucharist: Pathways to Revival” Conference from Feb. 1 to Feb. 3, 2024, at Ave Maria University. Bishop Frank J. Dewane celebrated Mass for the Conference on Feb. 2, the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, in the Ave Maria Parish Church. Bishop Dewane praised the Conference organizers and the attendees for taking time to focus on the Holy Eucharist during the ongoing National Eucharistic Revival, a three-year revival of devotion to the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist created by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The conference drew upon Saint Thomas for theological, spiritual, pastoral, and evangelistic pathways in the Eucharistic Revival. Concelebrating the Mass with Bishop Dewane was Archbishop Allen Vigneron, of Detroit, who was the conference keynote speaker.

40 Days for Life opens in Fort Myers, Sarasota and Naples

Show your support for life by simply praying for an end to abortion on the public sidewalk in front of Planned Parenthood between Ash Wednesday, Feb. 14, and March 24, 2024. For details and flier go to (add /sarasota or /fortmyers or /naples for a direct link to the location near you). Questions? Contact Jeanne at 941-374-1068 or

Theology on Tap Sarasota Feb. 15

Theology on Tap for young adults takes place on the third Thursday of each month at 7:00 p.m. at the Mandeville Beer Garden in Sarasota, 428 N. Lemon Ave, Sarasota. Join the gathering for food and refreshments, presentations, and discussions about the Catholic Faith. The next scheduled date is Feb. 15, 2024, and will feature Father Daniel Scanlan, Parochial Vicar at St. Thomas More Parish, Sarasota. The topic will be Lent. For any questions, please email Jim Gontis at

Walk for the Poor Feb. 17 in Cape Coral

The St. Andrew Conference of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul (SVdP) is hosting its 3rd Annual “Walk for the Poor” on Saturday, Feb 17, 2024, in the campus of St. Andrew Parish and Catholic School, 2628 Del Prado Blvd., Cape Coral. The event will begin at 10 a.m., and end at 1 p.m. The walk supports the outreach of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, which answered 1,176 calls for assistance in 2023. Assistance includes food, transportation, clothing, household items, job resources, as well as financial support for prescriptions, housing and utilities. Anyone interested in walking or making a donation can visit, or contact Marlene Douglas at 239-772-3543.

Health Care Ethics Conference Feb. 17 in Bonita Springs

Medical professionals, students, and interested laypeople are invited to the first annual Converging Roads health care ethics conference on Feb. 17, 2024, at St. Leo the Great Parish, 28290 Beaumont Road, Bonita Springs. This one-day conference will offer continuing education credits for health care professionals with presentations centered on the theme of Catholic Medicine in a Secular Society. For information, contact Carrie Harkey at, and to register, go to

2024 Catholic Charities Ball Feb. 17 in Sarasota

Catholic Charities, Diocese of Venice, Inc., invites all to the 2024 Catholic Charities Ball, 6 p.m., Feb. 17, 2024, at Michael’s On East Ballroom, 1212 S. East Ave., Sarasota. The theme is “Serving All,” and supports the programs of Catholic Charities in Sarasota and Manatee counties. This year also marks the launch of the new Long-term Recovery Program, which is actively helping families still recovering from Hurricane Ian and other natural disasters. Tickets are $400 a person. The evening will include a cocktail hour, live and silent auctions, fine dining, dancing, and live entertainment. Register at For more information, 941-376-7845 or email