By MICHAEL ALEXANDER, Staff Photographer | Published November 2, 2017
SMYRNA—It’s another Sunday morning at Smyrna’s St. Thomas the Apostle Church, and Thomas Brito Sr. is heading to the church entrance in his motorized wheelchair before the 9:30 a.m. Mass. His daughter, Shelia, accompanies him.
The 86-year-old widower is wearing a baseball cap with the word “FORGIVEN” written across the front. Around his neck are a small crucifix on a chain, a religious scapular and a Miraculous Medal, which was a gift from the late Archbishop Thomas C. Kelly of the Archdiocese of Louisville, Kentucky. Brito occupies a spot in the rear of the church, reserved for people with disabilities. His daughter gets him there early, so he has time to pray the rosary before Mass.
Brito is a U.S. Army veteran. He and his family lived on military bases in Frankfurt, Germany, and several in the continental United States, including Fort Knox, Kentucky, after a tour of duty in Vietnam during the war.
When Brito retired from the military in 1969, he and his family settled in Louisville. He worked at the U.S. Post Office as a manager, and his wife, Laura, was a special education teacher.
They were members at St. Margaret Mary Catholic Church, and later St. Augustine Catholic Church in Louisville. They were always actively involved in the church and served as extraordinary ministers of holy Communion, leaders in the Cursillo movement, volunteers with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and members of the Knights and Ladies Auxiliary of Peter Claver. In spite of that, they had no idea their faith would be tested in a profound way.
Abusive relationship leads to loss
In 1982 the Brito’s oldest daughter, Cheryl, and her six-year-old son, Vincent, moved from Las Vegas to Louisville, following Cheryl’s failed marriage. Their daughter made friends easily and was full of life. She had the kind of good looks that had opened the door for her to model for three different agencies.
Louisville resident Jerri Anderson and Cheryl had been friends since fifth grade. They were both “Army brats,” whose fathers were stationed at Fort Knox.
“Cheryl was a woman of faith, instilled upon her as a child from her loving parents, who taught her the importance of God and family,” said Anderson. “She was outgoing and had tons of friends, but it was her family that meant the world to her.”
A year after moving to Louisville, Cheryl started seeing a young man, but she and others had some misgivings about his behavior and character. He was overly possessive and when Cheryl tried to break off the relationship, he began to stalk her. One day as she was driving to a girlfriend’s apartment, he followed Cheryl, beat her with a tire iron and threatened to kill her. She was hospitalized for a week with broken bones in the face and hand. Since her assailant was employed with no criminal record, he was released on a $200 bond.
The young man continued to stalk her. On March 2, 1983, nearly six weeks after the first attack, Cheryl was stepping out of her car when he shot her three times, leaving her for dead in the parking lot of her apartment complex. She had just celebrated her 27th birthday two weeks earlier.
Amid unbearable grief her father found the strength to share some words at Cheryl’s funeral. He spoke of forgiveness and discouraged any feelings of retaliation. Brito said he had to be strong for his wife and children but admits the ordeal left him empty. He says his faith never wavered, but he had to pray consistently and lean on the prayers of others.
“As hard as it was, I tried to live with the loss of our daughter, and not allow rage to control my emotions”, said Brito. “I had to forgive the man (Cheryl’s killer), but I found it hard to forgive the act.”
Brito and his wife did everything they could do to immerse themselves in the church and avoid dwelling on the loss of their daughter. Father John T. Judie, a priest of the Louisville Archdiocese for 30 years, knew the Britos during the early stages of his priestly ministry in the late 1980s at St. Augustine Church.
“They were a model couple in terms of church leadership and service,” said Father Judie. “They never mentioned the murder of their daughter to me. The Britos appeared to have found a sense of healing through their church discipleship, and they exhibited a profound trust in God.”
Eventually the Britos moved to the Atlanta area, where one of their other daughters was living. Brito said it wasn’t until years after Cheryl’s death that Laura conveyed to him that at one point she wondered why God would let something like that happen. She never lost her faith, but she struggled with it. Brito said it was his wife’s love for the Blessed Virgin Mary, the mother of God, and her devotion for praying the rosary that helped bring her around. It sustained Laura until she died at age 78 in 2011.
At St. Thomas the Apostle Church, Brito finishes the glorious mysteries of the rosary before Mass begins. It’s the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time. The first reading is from the Book of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus).
“Anger and wrath are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight,” read the lector. “The vengeful will suffer the Lord’s vengeance … Could anyone harbor anger against another, and expect healing from the Lord?”
After Mass, Brito reflected on the reading from Sirach in relation to Cheryl’s murder.
“If Jesus can forgive me, I had to ask myself why can’t I forgive others,” said Brito. “In hearing the voice of God, he was telling me to not have anger or revenge in my heart. I believe God has used me as a vessel to help get the message out to others about forgiveness and mercy.”
It’s a message Brito hopes will resonate with his six remaining children, 20 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren throughout their lives.