For years, hundreds upon hundreds of children had arrived at Saint Thomas the Apostle in Woodhaven with basketballs in tow, pouring into the church’s gymnasium to spend weeks dribbling, shooting, and passing as part of a longtime tournament honoring a community member who died in 2003 of cancer.
The Frankie Caropolo Memorial Basketball Tournament, according to those who participated, has been one of the best run sports competitions in the borough, drawing Catholic Youth Organization teams from throughout the area to the spot where the man for whom the contest is named grew up learning the meaning of friendship and ambition as he shot hoops with some of his closest friends in the Woodhaven gymnasium.
This year, however, the pastor of Saint Thomas, Father Frank Tumino, did not allow the eighth annual tournament to be held at the church, located at 87-19 88th Ave., saying it could not financially sustain the event. However, others involved have said the tournament annually ended up generating funds for the church, paying for both its time at the facility and giving additional money to religious institution.
The competition has been able to continue, with St. Mary Gate of Heaven in Ozone Park offering to host it, which coaches, players and area leaders said they greatly appreciated, but those involved stressed they wanted it to remain at Saint Thomas because Frankie Caropolo’s association with it. Additionally, because of the move, fewer children have enrolled in the tournament, with the contest’s participants decreasing from 800 kids in 72 teams last year to 500 children and 47 teams this year.
“This is something very important, not only for my family but for the community as well,” said Doreen Caropolo, Frankie’s mother. “We’re grateful Saint Thomas had it there for seven years, and Mary Gate of Heaven has been nothing but generous to let us go there. But Woodhaven is where I live. That’s where Frankie grew up. That’s my parish.”
Describing Saint Thomas’ athletic facility as one of the most beautiful gyms in the area, Doreen Caropolo said her son, who was 26 years old when he passed away, would always be playing sports – especially basketball – in the gym “whenever it was open.”
“Now, when I watch the little guys in the tournament, it’s so amazing,” she continued. “They make friends; they learn great sportsmanship. It’s such a positive thing in the community.”
The move, which has generated widespread anger among parishioners and community residents, has also been lambasted by area residents who said it was emblematic of a sports program that has been allowed to decay at Saint Thomas. Some residents have questioned whether what they see as an intentional plan to eliminate the long popular athletic program is underway to allow the church leadership to ultimately sell the large gymnasium.
Tumino said in an email that Saint Thomas “is no longer able to fund” the tournament and the portions of the sports program that have been eliminated. While about 300 children – many of them from low- and middle-income families – once participated in Saint Thomas’ sports program, that number has dwindled to about 70, according to those involved.
“If those calling The Forum are supporting members of this parish community, they have had more than five years to be keenly and appropriately informed of the spiritual, as well as the financial, issues that concern our faith community,” Tumino continued.
He did not respond to a request for comment about the potential of the gym being sold in the near future.
“Father Tumino made up his mind at the beginning of the year that St. Thomas would no longer have a sports program,” said a community member who wanted to remain anonymous. “It’s really upsetting from a community
standpoint. We had many children this year that went to play on CYO teams at other parishes because he hiked up the membership fees so much that families couldn’t do it.”
The same individual said they “found out from several high-ranking members of the church he’s going to sell the gym.”
Mike Kelly, who currently has one child in the basketball tournament and has long been involved with it, said it was “pathetic” that the pastor did not allow the tournament to be held at Saint Thomas.
“It’s nothing against Mary Gate of Heaven, but Frankie was a kid born in Woodhaven who played for Saint Thomas,” he said. “He’s from a family affiliated with Saint Thomas.”
Kelly too said he believed the church’s leader aims to sell the building.
“Father Tumino would be more than happy if there was no sports program and would be happy to sell the building,” he said. “I don’t think he sees the positives that come from sports. It’s a way for kids in the community to get together. It’s a good bonding and learning experience.”
Joe Bode, the athletic director at St. Stan’s in Ozone Park, also expressed frustrations with the tournament being moved.
“It was discouraging and disheartening to hear a place like this isn’t available to the youth,” he said. “This tournament is one of the best-run tournaments, and it’s for such a good cause, to help a member of the parish who passed away.”
Despite the anger and frustration over the tournament being moved, residents said it is also a reminder of the tight-knit and caring community in which they live – and one which does not stop fighting for what they believe is right: Keeping the memory of a loved one alive in the community he was always a part of.
“Frankie was a true leader on the basketball court, and he would often volunteer to oppose the other team’s best player,” wrote Brian McEvoy, who coached Frankie Caropolo in basketball and has known the Caropolo family for more than 35 years. “Frankie was a quiet but intense leader that all teammates looked to for leadership. Frankie embodied all the qualities that any parent and friend would want in a person. He was all that was right with sports at the youth level and at St. Thomas.”
By Anna Gustafson