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Home-grown vocations

Miami's newest priests are native to South Florida, products of local Catholic schools

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MIAMI | Their ordination ceremony, like their "yes" to priesthood, was a bit delayed. But Fathers Andrew Tomonto and Ryan Saunders both agree that it ultimately happened in God's good time.

Their ordination ceremony took place June 27, 2020, more than a month after the usual date, with reduced attendance and no post-ceremony first blessings due to the COVID-19 precautions.

In his homily, Archbishop Thomas Wenski noted that the archdiocese usually ordains its priests in May, on the Saturday of Mother's Day weekend, as "a kind of gift to the mothers of our priests." Since this year the ceremony took place the weekend after Father's Day, he said, it could be considered "a belated Father's Day gift to this local Church of Miami."

Local being a key word this year, as both of the newly ordained are South Florida-born and raised, products of Catholic elementary and secondary schools. Both also felt God's call early but postponed entering the seminary until graduating from college — and, in Father Saunders' case, pursuing a parallel interest in politics.

Here are brief profiles of Miami's newest priests.

 

FATHER ANDREW TOMONTO

"It's in his blood," Elsa Tomonto said of her eldest son's vocation to the priesthood.

Archbishop Thomas Wenski lays hands on Deacon Andrew Tomonto, ordaining him "a priest forever."

Archbishop Thomas Wenski ordained two South Florida natives to the priesthood for the Archdiocese of Miami June 27, 2020. The ceremony had been postponed from May due to the COVID-19 outbreak, and was still punctuated by mask-wearing and social distancing among the limited number of both faithful and priests in attendance.

Photographer: ANA RODRIGUEZ-SOTO | FC

Archbishop Thomas Wenski lays hands on Deacon Andrew Tomonto, ordaining him "a priest forever." Archbishop Thomas Wenski ordained two South Florida natives to the priesthood for the Archdiocese of Miami June 27, 2020. The ceremony had been postponed from May due to the COVID-19 outbreak, and was still punctuated by mask-wearing and social distancing among the limited number of both faithful and priests in attendance.

Andrew's grandfather, the late Bob Tomonto, was a permanent deacon at the family's home parish of St. Louis in Pinecrest. He and his wife, Irene Tomonto, joined the Christian Family Movement in the 1960s. At St. Louis, they created the Covenant Experience, a parish-based enrichment program for married couples.

"I've always had very, very good priests in my life," said Father Tomonto, who was born in Mercy Hospital.

But Elsa Tomonto didn't necessarily want her son to become a priest. "She's a Colombian mom who wants to be a Colombian grandmother," he explained. His becoming a priest would cut her chance at that by one-third, as Andrew is the eldest of three sons.

"He remembers when he was 12, he told me he wanted to be a priest and I started crying," Tomonto said moments before her son's ordination. "Now we're thrilled."

Father Tomonto said he first vocalized the thought of becoming a priest in seventh grade, as a student at St. Louis Covenant School. He then moved to Marist-run Christopher Columbus High School in Miami, where a couple of archdiocesan priests — both retired now — proved deeply influential: Father Liam Quinn, who taught him theology in ninth grade, and Father Arthur Dennison, who taught him in 11th grade.

But Father Tomonto didn't realize it at the time. At 14, he thought "you couldn't be happy without a family." Looking back later, he realized how Father Quinn changed that perspective.

"This guy is happy. There's a joy in him, and it's infectious," Father Tomonto recalled. "It helped bring down a wall in my mind, a barrier to discerning."

But he moved on, to major in business at the University of Miami.

"This is where the vocation really showed itself," he said. "College was where I had that adult moment when you take ownership of your own faith."

He began "praying more profoundly." During his sophomore year, he attended a vocation awareness weekend at St. John Vianney College Seminary in Miami. He got involved in UM's Catholic campus ministry.

Still, he put off entering the seminary. "I had a good scholarship and I loved college," he said.

He entered the seminary immediately after graduating. "It was just like a puzzle piece fitting," he said. "I went into the seminary and I loved it. I knew that's where I was supposed to be."

As for not having a family: "I haven't found any life that's really that easy," he said. "Each (vocation) has its own challenges and its own joy."

His mother thinks he'll make a good priest. "He's a very comforting person. He's very calm," she said. "I think he's going to be a wonderful person to minister to the people of God."

 

FATHER RYAN SAUNDERS

Father Saunders remembers the question the late Auxiliary Bishop Agustin Roman would ask him whenever he visited St. Mary Cathedral: "When, Ryan, when?"

At the time, Saunders was working fulltime as master of ceremonies at the cathedral and associate director of the archdiocesan Office of Worship. Msgr. Terence Hogan, then rector of the cathedral, had hired him for the job in 2005, while he was completing his studies in political science at Barry University in Miami Shores.

Archbishop Thomas Wenski lays hands on Deacon Ryan Saunders, ordaining him "a priest forever."

Archbishop Thomas Wenski ordained two South Florida natives to the priesthood for the Archdiocese of Miami June 27, 2020. The ceremony had been postponed from May due to the COVID-19 outbreak, and was still punctuated by mask-wearing and social distancing among the limited number of both faithful and priests in attendance.

Photographer: ANA RODRIGUEZ-SOTO | FC

Archbishop Thomas Wenski lays hands on Deacon Ryan Saunders, ordaining him "a priest forever." Archbishop Thomas Wenski ordained two South Florida natives to the priesthood for the Archdiocese of Miami June 27, 2020. The ceremony had been postponed from May due to the COVID-19 outbreak, and was still punctuated by mask-wearing and social distancing among the limited number of both faithful and priests in attendance.

The combination of studies and work harmonized with Saunders' lifelong passion for both politics and the priesthood. He remembers as a child telling his family he would either become "president or pope."

He also remembers dragging his grandfather to the front pews of the church whenever they went to Mass. "There was always something about the liturgy that drew me in," said the Fort Lauderdale native, born at Holy Cross Hospital. "There was always something about the elevation that I loved, and I wanted to be close to that."

He also was close to Father Timothy Hannon, his pastor at St. Anthony, where he attended elementary school, taught religious education and served as an extraordinary minister of holy Communion. He also gained experience there coordinating liturgical ceremonies for the parish.

Near the end of his years at Cardinal Gibbons High School, young Ryan spoke to Father Hannon about entering the seminary. The priest, who died in 2005, advised him to get some life experience and finish college first.

"If God is calling you, you will know when he's calling you," Father Hannon advised.

So Ryan graduated from Barry and worked at the cathedral until 2010, when a friend, Chip LaMarca, asked him to run his campaign for Broward County commissioner. LaMarca, now a member of Florida's House of Representatives, won that seat and Saunders became his chief of staff.

"It was a fantastic opportunity," Father Saunders recalled. "I loved what I did," managing the office, meeting with constituents. "But there was always something missing, always something I would experience at Mass, receiving the Eucharist, a voice in the back of my head saying, 'This is what you should be doing.'"

The voice turned into a psalm one day while he took part in daily Mass at St. John the Baptist Church in Fort Lauderdale: "You are a priest forever, in the line of Melchizedek."

"It was like a lightbulb went off," Father Saunders recalled. He left church knowing he had to enter the seminary. As he was searching for his car keys, he inadvertently pulled from his pocket the holy card from Bishop Roman's funeral.

"When, Ryan, when?"

"Ok, I get it," Father Saunders recalled thinking. "To this day, I keep that holy card on my desk."

Newly ordained Father Ryan Saunders, center left, and Father Andrew Tomonto, center right, pose for a photo with Archbishop Thomas Wenski, center, and the outgoing and incoming archdiocesan vocations directors, respectively Father Elvis Gonzalez, far right, and Father Matthew Gomez, far left.   


Archbishop Thomas Wenski ordained two South Florida natives to the priesthood for the Archdiocese of Miami June 27, 2020. The ceremony had been postponed from May due to the COVID-19 outbreak, and was still punctuated by mask-wearing and social distancing among the limited number of both faithful and priests in attendance.

Photographer: TOM TRACY | FC

Newly ordained Father Ryan Saunders, center left, and Father Andrew Tomonto, center right, pose for a photo with Archbishop Thomas Wenski, center, and the outgoing and incoming archdiocesan vocations directors, respectively Father Elvis Gonzalez, far right, and Father Matthew Gomez, far left. Archbishop Thomas Wenski ordained two South Florida natives to the priesthood for the Archdiocese of Miami June 27, 2020. The ceremony had been postponed from May due to the COVID-19 outbreak, and was still punctuated by mask-wearing and social distancing among the limited number of both faithful and priests in attendance.


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