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No strangers

By MICHAEL SANDLER

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 27, 2001


CARROLLWOOD -- The priest can memorize a thousand names. That's been his secret to longevity for 40 years.

Even in mildly broken English, Bishop Eugenio Loreto can identify everyone in the Sunday crowd.

"That is my trademark," Loreto, 65, told his congregation at a March mass celebrating his four decades with the priesthood. "Somebody knows you, he is not a stranger. He cares for you.'

From his pulpit at the Cathedral of Jesus of Nazareth at 14322 North Blvd., Loreto singled out each of his parishioners and announced their names to the rest of the congregation.

"He'd be a great politician," said Jose Sibayan, a longtime friend and a founding member of the church.

That's been the way for Loreto, who founded his church -- the first Philippine Independent Church in North America -- 22 years ago. His faith allows its priests to marry, and Loreto came to the United States from his native Philippines in 1971 to follow his wife's medical career.

But leading a religious congregation opens a man to scrutiny. Like the politician running for office, he has faced controversy.

In the late 1970s he told authorities he was kidnapped and twice threatened with death. He was arrested on a lewd and lascivious charge, of which he was found innocent. A decade later a former church board member sued him unsuccessfully.

Through it all, Loreto has continued preaching.

"There's always problems, especially when you work with a lot of people," said the Rev. Raynald Bonoan, a fellow Filipino clergyman at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church. "Overall, he stood the test of time, and come hell or high water, he's still there."

For Loreto, accusations are like accolades; they come with the chosen path. His was a divine calling he says he heard deep inside his mother's womb.

"Sometimes," he said, "the Lord tests you when you are in the prime of your success."

Finding faith

Loreto has retold his story so many times that it has the tone of a Sunday sermon.

"I think God called me," he said from behind the desk in his church office, replete in a pink shirt, pin-striped suit and a heavy gold neck chain.

"When my mother was pregnant with me, she touched her stomach and said, "If this will be a boy, he will be a priest.' "

Born in Concepcion in 1935, Eugenio Loreto was the son of a Filipino sentenciador, Tagalog for the man who judged cock fights. His mother only wanted her son to be a priest, despite his father's disapproval. She died one year after Eugenio's birth. The boy somehow followed her wishes.

Every day before school, he stopped at the church to attend Mass. When he was 21, he entered the seminary. By 1961, he was a priest of the Philippine Independent Church.

"I missed my mother," he said. "Every time I saw Mother Mary on the altar, I was reminded of her. Every time I prayed, I found joy."

After leaving the seminary, Loreto worked with a parish of nearly 6,000 in Manila. He took time off to study theology in New York City in 1962.

Traditionally, Filipinos practice the teachings of the Roman Catholic church, making the Philippines one of the only predominantly Christian nations in Asia. But in 1902, a group split from the church to establish the Philippine Independent Church, also known as the Aglipayan Church, as an alternative. Loreto said the clergy follow doctrines similar to those observed by the Episcopal Church, which allows priests to marry.

He married a woman studying to be a physician in 1967. When Dr. Lourdes Loreto received an invitation to practice in New York in 1971, the priest left his flock.

In Manhattan he could not find full-time work as a priest. So he took a job as an office clerk and rode the subway on weekends to Morris Boulevard in the Bronx to perform mass at an Episcopalian church. In the meantime, he interviewed with bishops, hoping to find a permanent position.

"I could do different work," he said. "but I had faith that one of these days, somebody would find me."

Having faith

In November of 1972, there was an opening at Grace Episcopal Church in Jamaica, a large urban area in New York's borough of Queens. But a concern surfaced: how would this Filipino priest lead a mostly black, West Indian congregation.

"I can memorize thousands of names, whether you are black or white," he remembered telling the rector. "I pray to God that I know the names of these people."

It worked. He spent the next few years building relationships that lasted even after he left New York.

"He served with distinction," said the Rev. Percival Brown, the current rector at Grace Episcopal Church in Queens. "While we never worked together, he is still fondly remembered by the old-time parishioners. One of the things they remembered most about him was his ability to remember names. It's a gift I wish I had."

In late 1976, his wife had a chance to practice medicine in Tampa, a city they felt would also be provide a better climate for their son, who had asthma.

"I am a chemist," Loreto told his congregation, joking that he married into wealth to pursue his priestly calling. He and his wife had three children, two daughters and a son.

"I could be a very good businessman," he said during a recent interview. "Of course, there are moments where I am disappointed. Sometimes I am so depressed. But I can only be a priest."

Testing faith

Father Loreto found a large Filipino community in Tampa, though most were Roman Catholic. In 1977, he organized a prayer group.

"He used to preach on a street corner in downtown Tampa," said Jose Sibayan, who joined his group.

Eventually, they bought property in Carrollwood and began planning the Cathedral of Jesus of Nazareth, the first Philippine Independent Church in the United States.

The church was under way when trouble surfaced. He reported to authorities that he received a death threat in the mail on March 23, 1978.

On Feb. 8, 1979, Hillsborough sheriff's deputies responded to a possible kidnapping at Loreto's home. When they arrived, Loreto told deputies two men came in his house and demanded $5,000. He said they threatened to kill him, his 3-year-old son and a neighbor's 3-year-old son. He said they forced all three into a car, demanding that Loreto drive to a bank and cash two checks. When the bank refused, he said the kidnappers fled.

Deputies dismissed the case after they said Loreto gave conflicting stories and could not identify the suspects.

Loreto reported another death threat on Feb. 26, this time made by phone. Deputies never made an arrest in this case either. But they returned to see Loreto on June 4, about two weeks after the church officially opened on May 19.

This time, Loreto was accused of molesting a 13-year-old boy who attended his church. Deputies said the boy alleged the incident occurred in the church bathroom on May 3, two weeks before the church opened. Loreto denied the allegations. But the boy passed a polygraph test and deputies arrested the priest on a lewd and lascivious charge on June 22, 1979.

"I told the congregation, you know me," Loreto said. "You are coming here, you trust me. So I am telling you, you are my family. In the eyes of the Lord, I am innocent. But sometimes it is very hard to explain to people if they are determined to accuse you of something which might be believable."

The congregation stood by him.

Ernie Cabreros, a founding member of the church, was a witness during the trial. He said Loreto was offered a plea bargain that included no jail time if he admitted his guilt. Loreto refused.

"He told me that he would rather rot in jail than accept something he would not do," said Cabreros. "So I believed him."

Loreto was acquitted in 1980.

Cabreros, a lifelong Roman Catholic, left the church in 1990 to join another church. But he remains friends with Loreto.

"I'd rest my heart on him," he said. "He's very persistent in what he believes in and he kept going. That made him survive all these years. He stood up for what he believes, regardless of what people think."

Spreading faith

Father Loreto became Bishop Loreto in 1984. In the ensuing years, he helped other priests start 23 missions for the Philippine Independent Church in the United States and Canada.

Church life spread to his home. Loreto led his family in prayer and read lessons from the Bible at all meals, and he held regular family meetings.

"He liked family meetings, and our family meetings were like sermons," said Abby Hamilton, his second child. "He'd talk to us about life and the importance of doing things. He told us what to do, but everything was like a sermon. He would tell us to fix our beds and do our chores and be responsible, but he would also tell us about the importance of it and why they would make us better people."

Bishop Loreto had become an influential man in the Filipino community, and his church was his headquarters.

In Tampa, his parish grew, serving as a meeting place for all Filipinos, said the Rev. Raynald Bonoan, the Episcopal priest at St. Andrews. Bonoan also is Filipino and serves as the diocese' canon missioner for the Asian community in southwest Florida.

The Filipino ambassador to the United States has visited Loreto's church.

"It is a place where we can come together," Bonoan said, "not necessarily as members, but as Filipinos."

But harmony was interrupted in 1989 when Norma Kalmanson, a member of the church's board of directors, filed a civil lawsuit against Loreto seeking $1-million in damages.

She alleged that Loreto slandered her by telling the congregation she had threatened to burn down the church and cause him harm. She also accused him of calling her daughter a cultist and her son an adulterer. Such slanderous accusations, she alleged, hurt the businesses she and her husband operated in the Filipino community, grocery and travel agency.

"I did not tell the people "Don't buy from her,' " Loreto said. "I used to buy from her. But after that, our relationship ended. She sued me."

Kalmanson dropped the suit on March 22, 1993. Today she calls the dispute "a story way back" and declines to discuss it.

Keeping faith

The years have tested Bishop Eugenio Loreto. In addition to threats and accusations, he has survived open-heart surgery. Now a resident of Carrollwood Village, he continues to preach well into his 60s.

Both his daughters are teachers now, married with children. His son is a medical school student in the Philippines.

"People always tell me that he is a great man," said daughter Abby Hamilton. "That someday, someone will write a book about him."

Though his church has about 500 members, fewer than 100 came to his English-language celebration Mass. More arrived for a second mass in Tagalog. Loreto said that like most churches, his struggles to attract regular attendance.

But a small congregation is still a congregation, and that keeps him going.

"Every moment that I've been a priest is a good moment," he told his congregation. "A calling is very important, my brothers. You have your calling, but you don't call it . . . this is my life."

- Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Michael Sandler can be reached at (813) 226-3472.

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