Married Newtown Man Ordained To Priesthood In Danbury
Father Thomas “Tom” Davis has the responsibility of balancing two Catholic sacraments, matrimony and holy orders, after his recent ordination on December 1, 2019, at St Ann Melkite Catholic Church in Danbury.
Prior to priesthood, Father Davis fell in love with his now wife, Joanne, in law school and the two wed in 1988.
They moved to Newtown from New York 30 years ago and today have three grown children: Greg, 27, an EMT; Julia, 24, a Naval Officer; and Sophia, a senior studying philosophy at Fordham University.
All three of their children graduated from St Rose of Lima School where Father Davis was a member of the St Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church at the time.
“St Rose is a fantastic place with a tremendously great group of people,” he said.
When his children attended St Rose, he played an active role in their Cub Scout, Daisy Scout, and Middle School Mock Trial programs.
Meanwhile when many of his children’s peers were studying for Holy Communion in their early school years, his children had already been receiving the Eucharist since infancy.
“When we had our first child, we wanted our child to receive communion as a baby, and in the Roman Catholic Church you don’t have communion until you’re 7 years old,” Father Davis said, “That’s not the ancient tradition.”
The ancient tradition, he explained, “is communion as a baby when you’re baptized, but that changed over the centuries in the west. In the east, in the lands of Christ in the middle east, communion is at baptism. You get baptized, you receive the sacrament of confirmation, and you receive the Eucharist all in the same day as an infant.”
This decision led Father Davis to research what his options were, and he sought guidance from an eastern orthodox church in Stamford, where his father had attended high school.
He was told that there is a church near him that provides communion to infants. That church is St Ann Melkite Catholic Church in Danbury.
“I discovered this parish and its ancient Eastern traditions and fell in love with it,” Father Davis said.
He began attending the church in 1993 and after his second child was born, the family began attending together.
“The day before my daughter was born, Pope John Paul [II] wrote a famous apostolic letter called ‘Light of The East,’ all about the Eastern Catholic Churches that people don’t know much about,” Father Davis said. “I discovered this letter all about the eastern traditions and living authentic eastern traditions, and I started being full-time at St Ann around then.”
What Is A Melkite Church?
After following his faith to St Ann Melkite Catholic Church, Father Davis was “swept away with the liturgy,” he said, and inspired to become a deacon in 2004.
While he has remained a Catholic, he says the Catholic Church is a very large organization with about 20 different branches within it.
Most of the world’s Catholics are considered Roman Catholics, following the Latin (Roman) Rite, but there are also Eastern Catholic Churches.
“Almost all the Catholic churches that people are familiar with in the United States are Roman Catholic. But when you go around the world and, because of all the immigration that comes to United States from around the world, we have some of the others here,” Father Davis said.
One of those groups is the Melkite Catholic Church, which he describes as an ancient church from Antioch, a city that ceased to exist around 600 CE.
“It was an ancient capital in Syria, a big commercial center,” Father Davis explained. “It was the first city where St Peter was bishop; he later went to Rome and became Bishop of Rome.”
Melkite Catholics mostly originate from the Middle East and consist of people who are Arab, Lebanese, Syrian, as well as Egyptian.
“As immigration from those places occurred, especially from the start of the 20th Century, a lot of people left [their home countries],” Father Davis said. “Life was tough for the Arab Catholics in lands that they were a tiny population.”
Melkite Catholics started coming to the United States — in addition to other countries, such as Australia, Brazil, and France — and the Syrian community moved to Danbury, where they founded St Ann Melkite Catholic Church in 1910.
With the church established almost 110 years ago and having a small parish of about a hundred families, it has formed a tight-knit community of families who have known each other for generations.
Tradition Of Married Priests
While much of the Melkite Church follows liturgy identical to the Orthodox Churches in Greece, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East, there are some aspects that differ.
For instance, Melkites use leavened bread instead of wafer hosts for Eucharistic celebrations and they honor Pope Francis as their spiritual Father, unlike the Orthodox Church.
“The Melkite Church is very much a meeting ground, trying to bridge the divisions of Christianity between the ancient Orthodox churches and ancient Catholic churches. That’s really our mission to find a way to draw these two groups to communion together,” Father Davis said, adding that his wife is a member of the Orthodox Church.
Melkite Churches are part of the Eastern Rite Catholic Churches, which consist of many individual groups.
“One group of them is called Byzantine,” Father Davis explained. “The ancient Byzantine Empire was the eastern part of the Roman empire. That particular rite of the Catholic Church, the Byzantine Rite, has 17 Byzantine Rite Churches.
“There’s two of them actually in Danbury,” he added. “There’s St Nicholas, with mostly people from Hungary and Transylvania and so forth, and there’s St Ann. Those churches have always had the tradition of a married clergy.”
When those religious members came to the United States in large numbers during the early 20th Century looking to have a parish, they found that they needed to have a bishop.
“At that time in Connecticut, there was only one [bishop] in Hartford — there was no Diocese of Bridgeport until 1950s,” Father Davis said.
As a result, they operated under the jurisdiction of the Roman Catholic Church’s Latin Bishop, who does not allow for married priests.
This difference brought confusion. The Vatican issued a decree in 1929 prohibiting married priests in the Eastern Churches in North America, despite there being many in their home countries.
“The decree was revoked by Pope Francis two years ago,” Father Davis said.
Today, Bishop Nicholas Samra is the bishop for all the Melkites in the United States, and he was originally part of advocating to the Vatican to have the group’s ancient traditions restored, including ordained married men.
There are specific rules that must be followed when it comes to married clergy, however.
Men must be married before becoming ordained as deacons or priests, and they cannot get married afterwards. Also, Father Davis added, “If you are ordained as a celibate, you cannot get married; and if your wife dies, you cannot get married again.”
Growing up, Father Davis never thought being a priest would be his calling.
He was one of seven children in an Irish Catholic family and spent his days outdoors swimming and playing sports. When he took a vocational test in fifth grade, everyone thought it was hysterical, he said, that it said ministry should be his career path.
“We were an active, gregarious family. I always thought of priests and ministry as sedate, sober, and calm,” Father Davis said.
His mother, though, passed away in 2016, but was of such strong Catholic faith throughout her lifetime that she would never miss a Sunday mass.
“Her brother was a priest, so if she ever was sick, she’d have her brother come over to say mass for her at home,” Father Davis said.
Both his mother and his wife, whom he says, “is a devout Orthodox woman very much in love with the divine liturgy,” were influential figures in leading him on the path of where he is today.
When a bishop at St Ann approached him in 2019 asking if he would consider being ordained as a priest and take over as pastor at the church, he leaned on his relationship with God for an answer.
After he and his wife prayed for a number of months, they came to the decision together that he would pursue it.
“You don’t enter priesthood as a married man alone,” Father Davis said, “You enter it with your wife.”
Priesthood, he adds, is not a situation you necessarily choose, but one that God chooses “and places the grace in you, and then allows you to discern what He wants you to do.”
On December 1, 2019, Bishop Nicholas Samra visited St Ann Melkite Catholic Church and ordained Father Davis into priesthood.
“It was great,” he recalled. “We had an ice storm that day — not at the start of the day, but by the time we finished the liturgy. When we came down for the celebration, it was snowing pretty good. It was quite an adventure.”
Since then he says he has been in the “honeymoon” stage of ministry.
At 63 years old, he is utilizing his life experiences as a husband — lessons of compromise, for instance — as well as experience as a father to help him lead the parish.
“Raising children is about helping people become mature,” Father Davis said. “A parish is a little different, of course, because the people are already mature adults…but you are very much in the role of spiritual fatherhood helping people to reach spiritual maturity.”
For more information about St Ann Melkite Catholic Church, 181 Clapboard Ridge Road in Danbury, visit saintann.org.