The Italian priest who grew up in an idyllic coastal town now leading Kent's largest parish

Father Graziano de Palma, parish priest at St Augustine's Catholic Church in Tunbridge Wells
Father Graziano de Palma, parish priest at St Augustine's Catholic Church in Tunbridge Wells -Credit:Mary Harris

Father Graziano de Palma looks so much younger than his 47 years. Perhaps it was all the warm sunshine and swimming in the sea growing up in southern Italy.

He's very cheerful and seems energised by the role he took up in September 2022, as parish priest at St Augustine's Catholic Church in Tunbridge Wells. It's a big job, as it's the largest parish in Kent for the Archdiocese of Southwark.

And the role has grown even more, as since April 30, he has also become parish priest of St Dunstan's Catholic Church in Southborough. He's fitted in well in Tunbridge Wells, and made his flat 'home' at St Augustine's Church where he makes, as you might expect being Italian, fantastic coffee.

It's hard to know the exact numbers of those who attend the many masses each week at St Augustine's, but it is around 700. At a recent mass there were three people baptised, three confirmations and one person joining from the Church of England.

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There are often baptisms of children and there are around 24 youngsters preparing for confirmation, and another 24 for first holy communion, with several weddings. And these regular baptisms and confirmations shows the congregation is "growing in numbers", he said.

Talking of his childhood, he was born in Molfetta, and into a large, close family. Molfetta is a charming coastal town in southern Italy, with an historic centre, overlooking the sea with a picturesque harbour and delicious Apulian cuisine. It is crisscrossed by many narrow streets and has many cultural events and stunning coastal views.

Father Graziano was born in Molfetta, a small town near Bari, one of the main cities of Puglia in Southern Italy - a beautiful blue harbour, with sandy coloured buildings including a cathedral, and boats bobbing on the water
Father Graziano was born in Molfetta, a small town near Bari, one of the main cities of Puglia in Southern Italy -Credit:iStockphoto/GettyImages/Paolo Graziosi

He spent so much time swimming there, he "knew every stone". He prefers Tunbridge Wells to London, and says people here are more relaxed and likely to make conversation.

He said: "London, it's an exciting place to be but I do prefer to be in Kent, you have more opportunity to be closer to people - the kind of lifestyle we have in the South of Italy, you can go outside and talk to people, in London you can't do that, everyone is rushing."

Although he is very busy with priestly and parish matters, he has discovered the joys of Dunorlan Park, a short walk from the church, and also Wellington Rocks.

Perhaps it is no surprise as an Italian that he loves opera and he seemed interested to hear the Assembly Hall attracts excellent opera. He is also a good swimmer and misses being in the water. He is hoping to find a full length pool so he can get back into it but he says "unfortunately I don't have much chance to go out".

But he aims to fit in his "10,000 steps a day" and judging by his diary, he must easily reach that target rushing from one appointment to the next.

'Calling on people to help'

Father Graziano moved to Rome in 1996 to attend seminary, studying with the Jesuits at the Pontifical Gregorian University. He was ordained in 2006, and spent nine years as a priest in Italy and has now been in England for nine years.

In London he was assistant priest at St Peter's in Woolwich, and then at St Lawrence in Sidcup, and at St Mary Magdalen in Mortlake, and was parish priest at Church of the Sacred Heart in Sittingbourne.

He has a bachelor's in philosophy and theology, a degree in psychology and a master's in counselling. In southern Italy he spent five years working in a therapeutic community helping drug addicts, and carried out parish work in several churches and with youth Catholic movements.

At St Augustine's in Crescent Road, somewhat at the top of his agenda for the parish, is driving home the theme of "a call to stewardship". The dictionary says stewardship can mean "taking care of something".

Dunorlan Park in Tunbridge Wells in owned by Tunbridge Wells Borough Council
Father Graziano has discovered this spectacular gem of a park, Dunorlan Park, which is not far from the church where he lives -Credit:Mary Harris

He is calling on his flock to look at ways they can contribute to the parish. He aims to galvanise people to give their time to help the church and its work, or put their particular skills to use for the church. And lastly, it could be by donations through the offertory, or other ways.

"It's three words: time, treasure, talents," he said. He said the parish was responsible for funding its own activities and property, independent of the Diocese and other agencies.

"It's an appeal to promote parish life, involving more people to understand they can be committed to help the parish on different levels. Sharing talent, treasure or time. It's an opportunity for fundraising, as we have a fundraising team in the diocese, it's an opportunity to be part of that process," he said.

"People who can share their time, for example prayer. Then talent, people who can for example become a reader. Treasure is if people can help financially."

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