Father Bob Wagenseil and his wife P.T. at his goodbye luncheon Sept. 15 at Calvary Episcopal Church.
INDIAN ROCKS BEACH – It was a day that began with laughs and ended in tears, but a happy day nevertheless. It was the last official day that Father Bob Wagenseil would say Mass as the Pastor of Calvary Episcopal Church in Indian Rocks Beach. It was Sept. 15.
There would be only one service that day at 9 a.m. and as expected, the church was packed with people who came to say goodbye. The laughs came as Father Bob stepped up to the lectern.
“So this is what it takes to fill the church,” he said as he looked out over the full house. “Well surprise, I’m staying!”
The tears would come later at the end of Mass when it struck home that Father Bob would be gone.
During his homily, Wagenseil stuck to the lesson of scripture, but somehow, even as he pointed out that the scripture for this day was chosen decades ago, it seemed appropriate for the occasion.
Everywhere he went before Mass began, parishioners were offering him words of encouragement and good luck. In his sermon, he reminded them that words can be used to hurt as well as help, and words can lead to action. He said even though a new priest is coming in two weeks never give up on one another.
Then Mass ended and Wagenseil walked down the aisle, stopping to hug and embrace his parishioners for one last time. All around him, people were breaking down in tears. Tears of sorrow no doubt that he was leaving. Even more people cried when the St. Andrews Pipe and Drum Band, there especially to bid him farewell, played Auld Lang Syne.
Then it was off to the Parish Hall for more goodbyes and tributes.
Kristy Palace of Largo grew up in Indian Rocks Beach and had to come back to say farewell.
“He has been a breath of fresh air, especially for the young people,” she said. “He has managed to connect with everyone. I remember when my dad was dying, Father Bob didn’t know him but he came and administered the last rites anyway.”
IRB resident Chuck Pond said he wasn’t surprised that so many people were in tears at the end of Mass.
“Why wouldn’t they be?” He said. “He has been involved in baptisms, weddings, funerals and counseling. There is a strong emotional connection there.”
Retired Treasure Island Fire Chief Charles Fant came all the way from his home near South Pasadena to say goodbye to Wagenseil who is also the chaplain of the Suncoast Fire and Rescue Department, and a volunteer firefighter.
“I’ve known Father Bob through his work with the fire service,” he said. “I retired in 2012 and he came to my retirement party; I wanted to be here today for him.”
Several presentations were made to Wagenseil during the event but perhaps the most touching was the presentation of a Parochial Cross by parishioner Betsey McKenna.
“I guess you know that for some time several parishioners have chipped in to give Father Bob an annual membership to the Clearwater Yacht club,” she said. “We did that because he would never accept anything else. For every wedding, every funeral, every house blessing he would turn the money over to the church; he never kept anything for himself. Apart from that, we knew we had to find something else for him today that would have some meaning. We decided on a Parochial Cross, which has no meaning unless it is blessed by a priest.”
She then took her own cross from around her neck and put it on Wagenseil. It was an emotional moment.
Earlier she paid tribute to him by saying what he meant to her personally.
“He is my brother,” she said. “He will always be part of my life, he is like a brother to me. I know we must embrace change and we will. But we’re never going to let him escape entirely.”
With all the plaudits and activity swirling around him, Wagenseil said he wasn’t sad.
“No, I’m not sad. It is time, the parish is in good shape, and so am I, knock on wood.”
It was 18 years plus one day when Wagenseil and his wife P.T. arrived at Calvary Episcopal. He recalled that his wife wanted to come to Florida more than he did but as he said at the time.
“She sort of said if you want to stay in New York that’s fine, but not me. That sort of helped me make the decision,” he said.
Wagenseil is 59 years old but able to retire because of the 32 years he has spent as an ordained priest. He and his wife intend to remain in the area in their Largo home and he intends to continue to be active as the program director of Calvary’s sailing program.
He got a standing ovation with his final words to the crowd.
“You have blessed me. Keep your eye on the prize. Carry on.”
Wagenseil’s replacement is Father Jon Roberts of Naples who will begin his duties on Oct. 1.