'Pope of Phenix City' celebrates 50 years in clergy

As a politically active priest of two parishes, the Rev. Tom Weise often seems to be in many places at once. When he’s not celebrating Mass at Mother Mary Mission or congregating with the free lunch crowd at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, he’s addressing county commissioners or taking a call from a recovering drug addict in need of advice.

So perhaps it’s no surprise the “Pope of Phenix City,” as Weise is affectionately known, plans to mark the 50th anniversary of his ordination in three separate cities, retracing a long and colorful tenure in the clergy. The milestone will allow Weise to catch up with old friends and associates he’s encountered along the way.

The celebration begins Sunday with Mass at Mother Mary, followed by a “Taste of the Nations” fellowship at St. Patrick’s. Archbishop Thomas J. Rodi of Mobile plans to attend.

“The anniversary Mass and reception Sunday will be filled with people from both parishes here and Columbus, as well as family, friends and former parishioners of Father’s from across the country,” said Ashley Richey, director of marketing and development for Mother Mary School. “Children from both schools will be performing during the Mass, along with other special surprises.”

Weise will travel next weekend to Mater Christi in North Riverside, Ill., in his native Cook County, where he celebrated his first Mass after being ordained in 1962. The tour wraps up June 17 with Mass at Saint Francis Xavier in Mobile, Ala., Weise’s former parish.

Ever the raconteur, Weise, 75, has been in a state of reflection ahead of the celebration, retelling anecdotes from his travels and swearing they’re not the least bit embellished — including the “argument” he had with Mother Teresa in Guatemala. Then there was the time he was fired upon — but not struck — on a trip to Vietnam, and the controversial execution of Cornelius Singleton he witnessed in Alabama in 1992, about which he plans to write a book when (if) he finally retires.

Singleton was convicted of beating and strangling a nun who was praying in a Mobile cemetery, but Weise remains convinced of the man’s innocence. After viewing the electrocution, Weise proclaimed — in a national news report — that the authorities who carried out the sentence were “well-dressed barbarians.”

“He’s very colorful,” said Gentry Lee, the Russell County commissioner. “He’s pretty sincere.”

Two decades later, that vigor is undiminished. Weise was similarly outspoken this year in the case of Michael P. Lendzian, a St. Pat-rick’s parishioner tried in February in Russell County Circuit Court on sexual abuse charges that were later dismissed.

“Mark Twain once said ‘It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog,’” Lendzian said. “Father Tom has been a ferocious friend and a kind mentor.”

The celebrations offer parishioners a chance to thank Weise for his service — and to try to persuade him to stick around a few more years. Weise says he’s unlikely to retire before the new St. Pat-rick’s School is constructed; the former school was destroyed by fire in January 2010.

“He is a wonderful asset to our parish and our entire community, and we would be blessed to have him here for many years to come,” said Richey, who also attends St. Pat-rick’s. “He is never too busy to lend a helping hand or shoulder to cry on for anyone who needs it, whether they are parishioners or not.”

Weise has seen the world and has a special place in his heart for Israel, a country he visits frequently. But there are two things — besides the reasonable tax rates — he adores about Phenix City, a community he’s called home for 15 years.

“I like the water and I like the proximity to the Atlanta airport,” Weise said.

Weise’s high profile has been propelled by his interest in local politics. He was particularly critical of the recent criminal investigation into the finances of the House of Restoration homeless shelter. Weise, who serves as president of the shelter’s board, stood beside the Rev. Johnnie C. Robinson Jr. at a news conference last month after a grand jury declined to indict Robinson, a Phenix City mayoral candidate.

“People ask me if I’m going to run for something,” Weise said. “A Columbus multimillionaire offered to bankroll a run for mayor, which I’m not able to do. I can’t get married and I can’t run for office — otherwise I might consider it.”