A ‘gift’ from Ireland: Hundreds pay final respects as Fr. Rooney laid to rest

Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron blesses the casket of Fr. Stephen Rooney during Fr. Rooney’s funeral Mass on Aug. 26 at St. Frances Cabrini Parish in Allen Park. Hundreds mourned the late pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Trenton, who died in a tragic boating accident Aug. 16 on the Detroit River along with parishioner Robert Chiles. (Photos by Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic) 

Late St. Joseph pastor made himself a ‘bridge for others to Christ,’ friend Fr. Gawronski says at funeral, livestreamed across ocean

ALLEN PARK  Hundreds of mourners gathered at St. Frances Cabrini Parish in Allen Park for the funeral of Fr. Stephen Rooney, the ending of a whirlwind story for all who loved the Irish-born Downriver priest.

Fr. Rooney died Aug. 16 in a tragic boating accident on the Detroit River that also claimed the life of parishioner Robert Chiles. Authorities found Fr. Rooney’s body in Lake Erie four days later, bringing some semblance of closure to a community that grew to love the welcoming, warm-hearted pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Trenton. Fr. Rooney was 66.

People gathered at St. Frances Cabrini — chosen for the funeral because of its larger capacity and proximity to St. Joseph — to share their final goodbyes Aug. 26. 

“Fr. Rooney and I shared meals many times and were very good friends,” Fr. Marc Gawronski, who is now the temporary administer of St. Joseph Parish, told Detroit Catholic before Mass. “Fr. Rooney liked to entertain, he liked to welcome people. He always made sure things were well-prepared; you could tell he planned in advance, preparing everything just for you.”

Family, friends and well-wishers hug one another as Fr. Rooney’s casket is escorted from the church. 

Fr. Gawronski, pastor of Sacred Heart on Grosse Ile and St. Cyprian in Riverview, delivered the homilies during the funeral Masses for both Fr. Rooney and Chiles, which was celebrated Monday at St. Joseph.

Fr. Gawronski said Chiles was now reunited with his late wife, Christine, who passed away last year.

“I think it’s fair to say Rob Chiles was a man after your own heart,” Fr. Gawronski said during the homily. “He was going to get your heart, your love, your friendship. As Mary Jane (Chiles’ sister) told me, as a child, he was so restless, so noisy, so active, so the older siblings had to sit on him to get him to be still.

“He was an unstoppable child, a successful businessman and faith-filled husband and father,” Fr. Gawronski added. “It might be tempting to get back to normal, get back to work and school, back to life. But we know we can’t do it. There is a hole in our hearts. A hole that’s the size of Rob and Christine.”

Fr. Gawronski remembered Fr. Rooney in a likewise manner during the priest’s funeral Wednesday.

Mourners listen as Fr. Marc Gawronski, a close priest friend of Fr. Rooney and temporary administrator of St. Joseph Parish, gives the homily during Fr. Rooney’s funeral Mass.

“It wasn’t supposed to be like this,” Fr. Gawronski said. “It wasn’t supposed to be me that would speak at Stephen Rooney’s funeral; it was supposed to be Stephen Rooney preaching at my funeral. I’m sure many of us would want Stephen Rooney preaching at their funerals. His wit, his wisdom, the way he told the truth — and that great Irish voice, right?”

Fr. Gawronski elaborated on Fr. Rooney’s love of the saints, in particular St. Catherine of Siena and her vision of a wheel that served as a bridge for others to Christ. 

“Christ made His own life like a bridge. He laid down His life so we could cross the river,” Fr. Gawronski said. “That was Stephen Rooney, the bridge for others to Christ. Stephen was so clear that he was made to connect so many people to Christ.”

Stephen Rooney was born on Feb. 10, 1954, to John and Catherine (Higgins) Rooney, one of 15 children growing up in the predominantly Protestant Ballymacarrett area in East Belfast in Northern Ireland.

In 1970, he entered the house of the Passionist order at Tobar Mhuire (Mary’s Well) in Crossgar, County Down. He later joined the Redemptorist order in Clonard, Belfast, and subsequently the order’s house in Esker, County Galway.

After taking vows as a Redemptorist brother in St. Joseph’s Dundalk in 1975, Fr. Rooney entered in the Cistercian order in 1978, joining the monastery at Bolton Abbey in County Kildare and becoming a monk, taking his final vows in the community in June 1985.

Flowers and pictures of Fr. Rooney greet mourners as they enter the church.
Born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Fr. Rooney spent time in Passionist, Redemptorist and Cistercian monasteries before emigrating to the United States in the 1980s.

Upon his ordination to the priesthood on June 15, 1985, he left for the United States, becoming incardinated into the Archdiocese of Detroit, where he served as associate pastor of St. Martin de Porres in Warren (1987), St. Alphonsus in Dearborn (1989-90) and St. Patrick in White Lake (1994-95).

Later, he served as pastor of St. Michael Parish in Monroe (1995-2008), Our Lady of Mt. Carmel in Temperance (2008-13), and Our Lady on the River in Marine City (2013-18) before coming to St. Joseph in Trenton in 2018.

“Fr. Rooney came to us from Ireland as a gift, a gift the Father has now called back,” Detroit Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron said while presiding over the funeral Mass. “I speak for many in the Archdiocese of Detroit who grew to love and admire Fr. Rooney.”

Archbishop Vigneron read a letter of appreciation from the bishop of Down and Connor in Northern Ireland, and St. Matthew Parish in Belfast, the Rooney family’s home parish, assuring Archbishop Vigneron and the Detroit faithful that they are not alone in grieving for Fr. Rooney, whose love for the Blessed Virgin and carrying for others spanned an entire ocean. 

“The Father calls all of us, and in that mystery we offer the life of Fr. Rooney back to God today,” Archbishop Vigneron said. “In the waters of baptism, God sent His servant and priest, Stephen, who died in Christ and rose again in a new life. May he now share with Christ eternal glory.”

A man kneels in prayer during the consecration of the holy Eucharist at Fr. Rooney’s funeral Mass. Fr. Rooney was deeply dedicated to the Church, friends say, including a love for the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Michael Roehrig, a parishioner of St. Michael in Monroe, became friends with Fr. Rooney shortly after the priest arrived at the parish. The Roehrig family would often have dinner with Fr. Rooney, who baptized all of Roehrig’s children.

“We spent countless hours with him in his rectories, at our home, restaurants, shows and social events,” Roehrig, who serves as Monroe County prosecutor, told Detroit Catholic. “From dress to manner of speech, he was a down-to-earth person. As formal as he was in observance of the rituals of the Mass and other liturgical services, he was similarly casual in demeanor and appearances outside of church.”

Once, Roehrig recalled, Fr. Rooney accompanied the family to the ballet at the Lyric Opera House in Chicago. While everyone else was dressed in formal attire, Fr. Rooney showed up to the neo-Gothic theater in shorts — in the middle of winter.

“He had some alien body temperature,” Roehrig laughed. “He was never cold, and we frequently found him in shorts in the dead of winter. I was dumbstruck he did that, but I think he enjoyed watching me squirm with him dressed like that. But that’s who he was; he wanted everyone to be comfortable.”

Fr. Rooney was instrumental in helping Betsy Davenport, current principal of Holy Cross Catholic School in Marine City, convert to Catholicism when he was assigned to Our Lady on the River.

Davenport, then a teacher at Holy Cross, recalled having many long, in-depth conversations with Fr. Rooney about the faith. 

Public officials and law enforcement attend the funeral of Fr. Stephen Rooney on Aug. 26 at St. Frances Cabrini Church in Allen Park.

“When I was thinking about RCIA, I remember speaking to him about being raised Episcopalian,” Davenport said. “He said it’s about not taking everything in the Episcopalian faith and leaving it behind; it’s about adding to the Catholic faith. Making it richer.” 

“His homilies were always something you could relate to in your life,” Davenport added.

In each of Fr. Rooney’s assignments in Marine City, Monroe and Trenton, he was in close proximity to a school. He loved being around students and embraced his role as a school pastor, friends said.

“He was in the school regularly and was always active, multiple times a week, knowing each of the children by name,” Davenport said. “He had a way of using his humor. He had a commanding presence, but in the most kind and loving manner; the children lit up when he walked into the room. 

Fr. Rooney made sure to relate to each student on a personal level, Davenport said.

“He knew personable things by them, asking how their families were, what they had for breakfast, if one of them got a new puppy,” Davenport said. “He was so down to earth, but always made you feel special.”

If there was one lesson Fr. Rooney wanted to impart to parishioners, it was to always be accommodating, spreading the love of God by being a bridge between a stranger and Christ, Roehrig said. 

The casket of Fr. Stephen Rooney is escorted from the church to its final resting place. Burial information was not made public following the funeral Mass. 

“If there is a lesson to be learned from our 25 years of friendship, it was that we should strive for the same kind of faith and commitment to the service of God and His people,” Roehrig said. “There is no greater tribute we can pay to him than to care for our family and friends, because that’s what he did; he was a model priest in every respect.”

Fr. Rooney is predeceased by his parents, John and Catherine; and his brothers, John and Billy. He is survived by 12 brothers and sisters: Jim, Betty, Marie, Eddie, Gerald, Dolores, Patrick, Aodh, Pilib, Brendan, Bernadette and Paula; his brothers-in-law Tucker, Thomas and Paddy; his sisters-in-law Theresa, Maisie, Theresa D., Annette, Noreen, Sinead and Susan; and his 47 nieces and nephews.

While Fr. Rooney had a large natural family, he was also family to those he met along the way, including his fellow priests, Fr. Gawronski said. 

The two met when Fr. Gawronski was in seminary and Fr. Rooney was at St. Martin de Porres in Warren. Through providence, the two were assigned to parishes nearby for most of their priesthoods, a particular blessing, Fr. Gawronski said.

“It’s always important for priests to share their lives and their experiences together,” Fr. Gawronski said. “But when it’s with someone you are good friends with, it’s an even richer experience.

“Fr. Rooney showed me the importance of hospitality, not only at the table, but at the parish or wherever you met people,” Fr Gawronski continued. “Fr. Rooney always talked about people being bridges to each other, not just priests. He used the image of St. Catherine of Siena: Christ being a bridge to the Father, and since we’re all baptized in Christ, we are bridges to the Father for one another. So the gift of hospitality is a way of sharing Christ.”

Fr. Rooney’s funeral Mass was livestreamed at https://webcasts.lifetributes.com/1085683