New priest takes pulpit at St. Francis Assisi

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NAUGATUCK — Three weeks after the Rev. Michael Slusz resigned abruptly from his position and took a leave of absence from the ministry, St. Francis of Assisi Church downtown has a new priest.

The Rev. John Kuzhikottayil of the order of Salesians of Don Bosco started last Monday as the leader of the new parish, according to Maria Zone, spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Hartford. Kuzhikottayil has spent the last four years as a priest at Saint Mary Church in Branford.

Kuzhikottayil, who introduced himself as “Father John,” visited St. Francis-St. Hedwig School on Monday, Principal John Salatto said.

“We got off to a great start, so I anticipate that to continue,” Salatto said. “The kids really gravitated toward him quite nicely.”

Kuzhikottayil’s appointment represents the latest in a series of changes for the church and its newly merged parish school, which enrolls almost 250 students from kindergarten through eighth grade.

Salatto, who was principal of St. Hedwig School in Union City before the school combined with St. Francis last year, had announced his intention to retire at the end of this school year, but he reversed that decision the same week Slusz left.

“I just figured the opportunity here was too good to let go,” Salatto said.

Salatto, who is 62 and lives in Litchfield, signed a contract with the archdiocese to remain through the end of next school year, but said he intends to stay on several more years until his retirement.

He said his decision had nothing to do with Slusz’s resignation.

“We had a positive relationship,” Salatto said. “He was great with the kids. He would come to the school most every day.”

Slusz resigned May 1 and parishioners were informed May 6 at Sunday services. In prepared remarks, Msgr. Gerard Schmitz, the archdiocese’s vicar for priests, did not give a specific reason for Slusz’s departure.

“I wish to assure you that this decision was a totally personal decision on Father Slusz’s part,” Schmitz told the congregation. “He has been speaking with Archbishop Mansell about this since last fall. It was always our hope and encouragement that he would reconsider.”

The church is conducting a survey, available on its website, that asks members to rate the parish and offer suggestions for improvement.

Slusz, 37, a Bristol native, came to St. Francis in 2003, weeks after earning his Master of Divinity degree from Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Maryland.

The Rev. Vito DeCarolis, the former pastor of Saint Vincent Ferrer Church on New Haven Road, helped Slusz on occasion with confessions, weddings and funerals and said the congregation’s mood was one of “total astonishment” when they heard of his leave.

“It’s unusual, highly unusual, to resign at that age,” DeCarolis said. “He was very well-liked and he got along with the children very well, so there’s almost a feeling of missing him.”