It was his last mass, but it felt like his first one.

The pews at St. Mark the Evangelist Catholic Church were filled. Everyone was eager to hear what he was going to say. And, the nerves and emotions were almost overwhelming.

“It was pulling me in all kinds of different directions,’’ Father David DeJulio said.

After 16 years of leading St. Mark’s through massive growth and the construction of a new church, making hundreds of friends in the community and helping even more families, Fr. David said goodbye on June 30 to a congregation that has grown from 2,100 families when he came to the church to more than 3,800 as he departs.

He was pleased with his homily, which challenged parishioners to hold steady as they follow Christ, despite the ever-growing plague of distractions. Towards the end of the eucharist prayer, as the end of his time at St. Mark’s drew nearer, he started fighting back those emotions.

Tampa City Council member Luis Viera presented Fr. David with a city commendation, leading to a rousing 45-second standing ovation. When Fr. David tried to bring the mass to a close, his staff 

interrupted him and presented him with a plaque.

“I lost it there at the end,” Fr. David confessed. 

After gathering himself, he followed a procession of altar boys and deacons and, for the last time as their priest, walked past rows of the adoring St. Mark congregants for the final time.

”I’m not really thrilled about leaving,” Fr. David said afterwards, “but when God tells you you gotta go, you gotta go.”

He is headed north (but not too far) to St. Frances Xavier of Cabrini in Spring Hill, only 15 minutes from where his twin brother Frankie’s family lives.

Fr. David will essentially trade parishes with Rev. Richard Jankowski, who has been at St. Frances of Cabrini for 13 years.

It’s the next stop on Fr. David’s journey, which began at the age of 5, when he says he first knew the church is where he wanted to be.

It wasn’t until he was 27, however, that he entered the seminary. He graduated with a finance degree from the University of South Florida, making the long drive to classes from his family’s home in Holiday, FL.

He took a job at a bank in St. Petersburg, a job he said he truly enjoyed. But, that feeling he got in church as a kid never went away.

“It kept haunting me,” he says.

His first year in the seminary, he wasn’t so sure he made the right choice. He thought about quitting after one semester. He had been living with his girlfriend in an apartment in St. Petersburg and was in control of his life. But, when he entered the seminary, he wasn’t.

“My first year was tough,” he says. “I just really didn’t like it.”

He knew he had faith, but wondered what kind. In the end, it turned out to be a determined, resilient and unbending faith, the same kind of faith he implores his parishioners to strive for every day.

It is Fr. David’s style, which is described as easy-going, funny but still somewhat stern, that made him a popular fixture in New Tampa.

Among the first families he met when he came to St. Mark’s were Richard and Nancy Larson. Nancy was the liturgist at St. Mark’s, and Frankie contacted her about planning a party for the installation of his brother, the new priest.

The party was held at Hunter’s Green Country Club, in the community where Fr. David has lived in a home the church uses as its rectory.

Richard and Fr. David became instant friends, as did dozens of others from Hunter’s Green who joined Fr. David’s Bible study group that would meet weekly at his home. Fr. David would teach, and afterwards, there would be wine and food and cigars.

“He built my faith and he made me a much stronger person,” Richard says. “He did that to our whole group.”

Many, Richard says, weren’t even members at St. Mark’s, but Fr. David still brought them home, too.

“He was so good at evangelizing and bringing people back to the church,” Richard says. “He was just a regular guy. I think that appealed to a lot of people.”

Fr. David golfed with the group — he says his handicap is currently a 13 — and the more time he spent with those who had stopped going to church, the more those people started going again.

When they found out Fr. David was leaving, the group pitched in and bought him a membership to Southern Hills Plantation in Brooksville, 10 miles from his new church, so he could continue to spread God’s word to new friends while working on that handicap. 

After Fr. David’s final mass Sunday, he was greeted in the courtyard by Noel and Nellie Negron, whose eyes welled with tears as they thanked their longtime priest for bringing them back into the church.

Noel has been a member for 23 years, but hasn’t always been a regular churchgoer.

“I went when I felt like it,” he said. “When I met Fr. David, he brought me back. (Now) there isn’t a Sunday I miss. I love coming to church.”

Nellie recalled a story about the time her granddaughter Olivia saw Fr. David walking alone across the field next to the church, and asked if that was Jesus.

“I will always remember that story,” she said, smiling. “I love him. I am going to miss him.”

The Negrons have already been to his new church, and plan on stopping in for a mass here and there.

Richard says he will do the same, as, he suspects, many others who knew Fr. David also will do. He joked that he will definitely see Fr. David again, “because I made him promise he would do my funeral.”

Priests usually serve 12 years at one church, but Father David was given 16, so he could spend some time enjoying the church he helped to build.

Fr. David was named pastor at St. Mark’s in 2003, preaching from the Family Life Center the church flock was quickly outgrowing. He envisioned a spiritual center for New Tampa, a place for families to come together in prayer. A fund-raising campaign was started, and the although the economic downturn in 2008 forced a delay, on June 6, 2015, the $10.1-million, 35,000-sq.-ft. sanctuary was dedicated. 

Today, the church is only $1.5 million from paying off a $5-million loan to finish it.

“It’s kind of a slip of the tongue to say it’s “my place,” but I feel connected here,” Fr. David says proudly. I spent half my priesthood here. It’s always going to have a special place in my heart, wherever I am.”

Father David will always be remembered for his stewardship over the sanctuary project, which he credits as a testament to the “tremendous sacrifices on the part of parishioners.”

But, it’s just a small part of the legacy he hopes he leaves behind.

“Obviously buildings are important, but what happened here is we created a place with a story,” he says.

He says he wants to be remembered not only for helping create a beautiful structure to worship in, but also for what has happened inside it. He is proud that St. Mark has been a place where families feel welcome, where you’re greeted by four or five people before you even got to your seat, where he challenged his parishioners’ faith and helped guide them through both happy and difficult times.

He fostered a community that did many good things, a community that he helped connect to God through his teachings.

At the end of the day, and 16 wonderful years, it was all that he could ask.

“I started to think about him not being here, and it was a very emotional thing,” Noel said. “When you have someone you can turn to for some encouragement and leadership and someone to guide us…and now he won’t be here. He was a good shepherd for us.” 

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