WEST PALM BEACH | How many people can say that their name appears on the bottom of a paten used during Masses to hold the element of bread offered to God at the offertory, and then again, to hold the holy Eucharist after the consecration?
“It is a blessing to know that when we are gone, every time the paten is elevated, we will be prayed for,” said Connie Cooley, 84, a parishioner of St. John Fisher in West Palm Beach for more than 30 years. She attends daily Mass at Holy Name of Jesus in West Palm Beach and participates in the weekly TV Masses produced by the Diocese of Palm Beach Sundays at 10:30 a.m. on CW34 WTVX.
Connie and Reuben, 87, her beloved husband of 36 years, both volunteer to coordinate the diocese’s televised Mass, handling all the details for more than 33 years. The beautiful paten used at the TV Mass each week since October is inscribed with two names and a message. It reads, “In grateful appreciation of Reuben and Connie Cooley.”
Last year, Bishop Gerald M. Barbarito and Father Brian King, episcopal secretary, showed up at the filming studio and surprised Connie and Reuben with the paten and large chalice.
“We had no idea,” said Connie, delighted, surprised and emotional when she opened the container that held the new eucharistic vessels and saw the beautiful shiny items with inscription. “Father Brian said, ‘No tears, Connie,’” she vividly recalled as if it was yesterday.
Connie and Reuben safeguard the precious paten and chalice at their house in Lake Worth between tapings of the Mass, storing them in a protective casing and safe spot. They also store the cloths and various seasonal flowers used to cover and decorate the altar, and the candles and candle holders, which Connie keeps polished.
“Some people don’t know the liturgies are taped in a television studio,” Connie said. She and Reuben work with a television crew at a transformed studio to make the TV Mass happen. They arrive early and set up the altar and make sure everything is in place.
According to archive articles, the TV Mass was first broadcast for the area in 1977 when portions of the diocese were part of the Miami Archdiocese. It was first produced at WPTV Channel 5 in West Palm Beach by the Archdiocese of Miami. Over the decades and after the Diocese of Palm Beach was formed in 1984, the televised Masses have been filmed at various locations and the crew has changed.
Today, each month, four Masses are taped back-to-back on two different days with the help of 10 priest volunteers who rotate as celebrants. Bishop Barbarito and Father Charles Notabartolo, vicar general/moderator of the curia, both take a turn each month. At the present time and for many years, the Mass is produced at Parallax Productions in West Palm Beach.
“She puts a lot of work into getting the priests,” explained Reuben about Connie’s work scheduling and contacting priests, making sure there is a celebrant for the Masses and booking times for shootings, working around the priests’ schedules.
The couple’s passion about coordinating the televised celebration and bringing the holy Mass to people unable to attend a church for various circumstances has remained strong all these years. Connie serves as the lector. Reuben is floor director, giving the priests cues to help them stay on track as far as time goes. He has it down to a science.
“The Mass is 26 minutes and 30 seconds,” explained Reuben, a native of Ohio and former science teacher for 31 years as part of the Palm Beach County School System. After retirement, he went back to school and received nursing certificates, going on to work at Hospice for five years.
Reuben fondly recalled the time Bishop Barbarito jokingly commented on his well-developed skills as TV production floor manager, keeping everyone on time right down to the last second. “He told me that I am the only one who can tell him what to do,” said Reuben with a big smile.
He then explained Bishop Barbarito is always on cue and right on time from beginning to end as he celebrates the TV Mass each month. Bishop Barbarito also helps with the taping of the Easter Mass and the Christmas Mass, typically filmed away from the studio in the Cathedral of St. Ignatius Loyola in Palm Beach Gardens decorated for the season.
Connie is a former director of religious education in Pennsylvania, her home state, and a teacher of theology and world religion at Barry University in Miami, where she taught at satellite campuses. She also worked as a chaplain with Hospice of Palm Beach County for 20 years.
Today, this busy woman has not slowed down. For seven years she has been a volunteer chaplain at JFK Medical Center in Atlantis four days a week. Both Reuben and Connie serve as extraordinary ministers of holy Communion, and Connie teaches a parish Scripture class on Tuesdays.
Working with Hospice patients, the sick, frail and homebound over the years, the Cooleys know how important the TV Mass is for homebound and hospitalized Catholics, who want to be nourished and healed by the word of God each week. “I know the value of spirituality and the celebration of the liturgy for shut-ins,” Connie told the Florida Catholic.
Stephanie Link, ministry relationship coordinator at Our Lady Queen of Peace Cemetery in Royal Palm Beach, is also a chaplain. She knows the Cooleys very well. “Connie is a saint,” she said.
Link shared that she has learned from the hospitalized she visits as part of her chaplaincy and the families she reaches out to as part of her cemetery outreach to those experiencing loss that the TV Mass is an important ministry of the diocese, connecting people with their faith and with the faith community here. “It gives people hope and comfort,” she said.
According to a media research company, people 65 and older are the greatest majority of the thousands of viewers watching the Mass. “Some are not Catholic,” said Connie, who gets feedback and comments from people everywhere — on the streets, in businesses, at church and through correspondence.
“She can’t walk down the street without someone recognizing her,” said Reuben about his wife, a local TV super star.
Connie received a shout-out last month when spotted in her doctor’s office. “I was at my cardiologist’s office,” said Connie. “The receptionist called my name, and a woman jumped up and shouted, ‘My husband and I are so grateful to you.’”
Theresa Allen, 91, is one of those fans who tunes into the TV Mass every Sunday come rain or shine, even if she has attended Mass at her parish of Holy Name of Jesus. Allen tapes the TV Mass and plays it throughout the week.
“I admire Connie. She is an excellent lector,” said Allen, the mother of seven girls and two boys, and grandmother of 19.
When family members visit, Allen turns on the television, but she doesn’t tune into a movie, sports or game show. “I say let’s look at the TV Mass,” she said. “I love the Mass. I can’t remember when I started watching it. I like to hear the homilies. All the priests are beautiful. It is wonderful to have the Mass especially for those who can’t go to church.”
Connie hopes that she and Reuben will be able to continue to serve the diocese and help bring the TV Mass to viewers for many years to come, bringing the word of God and hope.
“We pray to God that we can continue to do this,” she said. “It is so valuable. It is a valuable part of the diocese’s ministry.”