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Thomas Stokes, priest for all walks of life in Tampa

TAMPA — Parishioners often asked the Rev. Thomas Stokes how he slept through weekend nights in the heart of Ybor City. The humble rectory of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church, where he lived for 26 years, is a block and a half from Club Skye, Club Prana, and the start of the Ybor strip, where no one enters or leaves quietly.

In his lilting brogue, Father Stokes replied that he had tuned out the noise. But if the phone rang at any hour of the night, he was dressed and out the door to help.

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Often the calls came from St. Joseph’s Hospital or Tampa General, which already have priests on hand. The people or families making the requests were often unaffiliated with a local parish. Sometimes they spoke only Spanish or French. Either way, someone was dying and wanted to see Father Tom.

The calls kept him up all night. In the morning, he led separate Masses in Spanish, French, and English. It was the perfect position for a man who had taken a vow of poverty, who used his fluency in several languages to hold together a historic Catholic church, the second oldest in Tampa, through financial problems that nearly closed it.

Father Stokes, a beloved figure credited with saving Our Lady of Perpetual Help, died April 22 in his native Dublin, apparently of a heart attack, friends in the church said. He was 75.

Father Stokes arrived at the church in 1986, after the diocese invited the Society of Mary to take over the parish. Membership had fallen from a peak of more than 5,000 in the mid-1960s, but was as diverse as ever. Father Stokes settled in with clusters of parishioners of Haitian, Italian, Cuban, and Filipino descent and conversed with them in their own languages.

Thomas Anthony Stokes became a Marist priest in Dublin and studied theology in France.

The Marists sent him to the United States. He ran a church in Wheeling, W.Va., studied Spanish in Washington, D.C., and spent five years working with the poor in Mexico City and Lima.

He came to Ybor City when it was split by redevelopment and Interstate 4. In the early 1990s, he razed the old school, shuttered since 1975, and built a new social hall in its place.

As the area grew over the years, Father Stokes became well known for his Christmas Eve Midnight Mass, in which he led the singing of Silent Night in several languages: Spanish for local Cubans, French for Haitians, and even Polish on one Christmas for visiting sailors. He retired from the church in September.

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