by Melvin Arrington
A few months ago parishioners at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church learned that Father Joe Tonos, the church’s pastor for the last eighteen years, would be leaving in May to become the pastor of St. Richard’s Catholic Church in Jackson. And now it’s May, so it’s time to say goodbye, which is a most appropriate word since it’s really a contraction of “God be with ye.”
Last week, at the jam-packed reception held in his honor in the Parish Hall, the Knights of Columbus wanted to make a presentation, but no one could hear the speakers because all those in attendance were talking loudly. So the crafty pastor looked around and said, “I know how to do this.” He then proceeded to shout, “In the name of the Father.” At that point everybody automatically became quiet and made the sign of the cross. Yes, he knew how to get their attention.
Father Joe has held our attention for almost two decades now. His tenure has had a transformative effect on St. John’s and the entire Oxford/Lafayette/University community. The things that really stand out are his teachings by example about the things that matter most, which can best be expressed by the phrase “love thy neighbor.” From the beginning he has championed the cause of the less fortunate among us with his unwavering advocacy for important social service agencies such as Interfaith Compassion Ministry, More Than a Meal, Love Packs, Doors of Hope, the Oxford Pregnancy Center, and many others. His strong support of St. John’s Drawdown, a community-wide event that produces tens of thousands of dollars annually, has been just as significant. All the proceeds of this fundraiser benefit local charities, including those listed above. Now that he’s leaving, Oxford will have to step up in a big way to maintain a robust level of support for these organizations.
After all these years Father Joe has taken on the aura of a local “personality,” just like other great Oxford fixtures past and present, such as Angelo Mistilis, Ron Shapiro, Sparky Reardon, and Richard Howorth. Practically everybody in Oxford knows him, at least by sight, because he’s always wearing his all-black clerical attire instead of ordinary street clothes. If you see in the distance someone wearing black, you know it has to be Father Joe because Johnny Cash is dead.
Many may be unaware that Oxford’s most famous member of the clergy is also an accomplished artist. Among his creations are a number of “action figures” of local celebrities. If you don’t believe this, you can view these figurines at Square Books. And if you haven’t seen the beautiful series of stained glass panels adorning the walls of the narthex (vestibule) of St. John’s, you should stop by to check it out—Father Joe designed that, too.
Those who know him well are keenly aware of his remarkable sense of humor and his legendary sarcasm, which is always flowing like the Nile. Nevertheless, it’s easy to tell when he’s kidding because that’s most of the time. Here are just a few samples of his wit and wisdom:
On Lent: When a student asked him what he planned to give up for Lent, he replied, “I’ve already given up everything. What do you want me to do, give up breathing?”
On the Ole Miss/LSU rivalry: “Although we are sure that only God knows who is in Hell, a Catholic in good standing may be allowed, on certain occasions, to shout: ‘GO TO HELL, LSU, GO TO HELL.’ Choose the occasion carefully! Peace be with you.”
On those who (like me) attended the Catholic Church for decades and then, finally, decided to convert: “If you hang around a barber shop long enough, you’ll eventually get a haircut.”
On fasting and abstinence from meat on Ash Wednesday: “I’m not telling anyone to do anything. It’s Ash freakin’ Wednesday. You know what to do. If you decide you want to have chocolate-covered strawberries, a steak dinner, champagne, and romance, then go on and go to Hell.”
St. John’s had needed a new church building long before Father Joe arrived on the scene in 2004. All the previous efforts to raise the money and construct a new building had come to naught, but the new priest was able to pull it off. He did it in a most ingenious way: by tearing down the old building and then saying, “Okay, if you want a new church, go raise the money.” It was a daring approach, but it worked. In the meantime St. John’s met in several campus locations—Paris Yates Chapel, Nutt Auditorium, Johnson Commons—and would have, in his words, met in a pool hall, if necessary.
A Greenville native and graduate of Delta State University, Father Joe is the living embodiment of the saying, “You can take the boy out of the Delta, but you can’t take the Delta out of the boy.” What’s more, he’s a Rebel through and through. I wonder if that will apply to St. John’s incoming priest, Father Mark Shoffner, who is also from Greenville. I hope so. Father Joe Tonos, Oxford’s one and only Catholic priest, has left a deep, indelible mark on this place we call home. And I don’t just mean that spot in front of the church where he wrote his name in the wet concrete while workers were building the sidewalk. He has given everything he has to give and has set the bar high. Our local community will have to work hard to live up to his standards of charity and service. And so, as we welcome Father Mark to Oxford, we bid a fond farewell to Father Joe: goodbye, adiós, Godspeed, and as Roy and Dale used to sing, “Happy Trails to You.”