A staple at St. Peter Parish for 30 years, Fr. Michael Cooney had a big, Irish heart

Fr. Michael Cooney, the son of Irish immigrants and the pastor of St. Peter Parish in Mount Clemens for 30 years, died Nov. 26 after battling medical issues for several years. He also had been diagnosed with COVID-19, though his cause of death is not confirmed. (Archdiocese of Detroit file photo)

MOUNT CLEMENS — Known for being a detail-oriented priest who went the extra mile to know his parishioners and charming his staff with his soft Irish demeanor, Fr. Michael Cooney had been a staple of St. Peter Parish in Mount Clemens for three decades.

Over 30 years, the Detroit-born, Irish-American priest left his mark on the parish and established its reputation as a welcoming, engaged community. 

Fr. Cooney, 72, died Nov. 26 after an extended bout with medical issues, including a recent diagnosis of COVID-19. 

Michael Noel Cooney was born March 10, 1948, to Irish-born parents, Michael and Elizabeth Cooney, in Detroit, one of four children. He earned a bachelor’s in English from Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit in 1970 before obtaining a master of divinity from St. John’s Provincial Seminary in Plymouth in 1975.

A prolific student, Fr. Cooney also earned a master’s in moral theology from the University of Detroit in 1973, a post-theology doctorate in pastoral theology from St. Mary’s Seminary and the University in Baltimore in 1988, a master’s in educational administration and supervision from The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., in 1990, and a doctorate in general administration and supervision from Wayne State University in Detroit in 2000.

Fr. Cooney was ordained by Cardinal John F. Dearden of Detroit on June 6, 1975, at the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament.

After completing associate pastor assignments at the National Shrine of the Little Flower in Royal Oak (1975-80), St. Basil the Great in Eastpointe (1980-83), St. Malachy in Sterling Heights (1983) and St. Suzanne/Our Lady Gate of Heaven in Detroit (1984-88), Fr. Cooney was assigned as pastor of St. Peter in Mount Clemens in 1990.

But it was during his assignment at St. Suzanne/Our Lady Gate of Heaven where Fr. Cooney met Sheila Roy, a kindred spirit from County Cork, Ireland, who volunteered at the parish.

Because the two worked together — and probably because Fr. Cooney’s parents were from County Mayo and County Armagh — Roy followed Fr. Cooney to his assignment at St. Peter.

“I think he asked me because I had the right letters after my names in education and church work, and it was a good opportunity to move to Mount Clemens,” Roy, who now serves as the pastoral associate at St. Peter, told Detroit Catholic. “He had a personality that was easier to work with; he was very hands on, but when you got the job, he didn’t look over your shoulder. He just expected us to do what we had to do.”

For 30 years, Fr. Cooney led the parish, making a point to make every liturgy a prayerful experience for parishioners and going above and beyond to make all feel welcomed and involved.

Forever proud of his roots, Fr. Cooney maintained close contacts with the Irish-American community and was a staple in the Corktown St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

“He had been to Ireland many times with his brother and sisters, and he had cousins who lived there,” Roy said. “Both his mom and dad were born in Ireland, and there were a lot of gifts in his office that were Irish things. I’m sure the program for the funeral Mass will have some green on it.”

“Fr. Mike was probably one of the most welcoming priests I met,” said Tori Kearney, Coordinator of Youth Ministry at St. Peter Parish. “He made me feel like I belonged, was need and wanted at the parish. My students essentially found him to be funny. He always gave you his time. If you were at St. Peter’s for only four years, he would make you feel like you have been there for 40 years.”

Kearney remembers who much Fr. Cooney loved interacting with students, brightening their day with high fives and asking them about what they were learning.

“We were breaking ground for the new gym at the school, and the little kids came out where these fake hardhats, and he’d come out with his hardhat too, asking them how they were doing,” Kearney said. “One of my students got to participate and help with the shovel during the groundbreaking, and you could see how it made his day and her day as well.

“Fr. Mike was one those priests who went out of his way to make sure people felt known and loved, not only by him, but by Jesus too,” Kearney continued. “Everyone knew they were loved by Jesus, Fr. Mike made sure of that.”

Detroit Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron, a classmate of Fr. Cooney at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, wrote a letter to St. Peter parishioners and families of attached St. Mary School in Mount Clemens, expressing his condolences for the passing of their longtime pastor.

“Father Mike was known around Mount Clemens and beyond as a ‘down-to-earth’ pastor who was proud of his Irish heritage,” Archbishop Vigneron wrote. “Among his brother priests, he encouraged a great love for the priesthood as a brotherhood in service of Christ. He went out of his way to recognize the value of the archdiocese’s senior priests, welcoming them into your parish family and inviting them to his annual summer gathering for many years.”

Fr. Cooney’s deteriorating health would have forced him into retirement in July 2021, despite Fr. Cooney’s steadfast commitment to his priesthood, the archbishop said.

In May, Fr. Cooney spoke to Detroit Catholic about how much he missed seeing his parishioners and students at St. Mary School during the COVID-19 lockdown, saying, “I miss my people; they are my family.” 

In addition to his pastoral assignments, Fr. Cooney also served on the archdiocesan presbyteral council, assignment board, pension board, Metropolitan Tribunal and as vicar of the Central Macomb Vicariate. He also was chaplain to local police and fire departments. 

Fr. Cooney’s body will lie in repose on Thursday, Dec. 3, 1-6 p.m. at St. Peter Parish, 95 Market St., Mount Clemens. His funeral will be Friday, Dec. 4, at 11 a.m., with burial on Saturday, Dec. 5, at 11 a.m. at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Southfield.  

Fr. Cooney is predeceased by his parents, Michael and Elizabeth Cooney; his brother, Bishop Patrick Cooney of Gaylord, a former auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Detroit; and his sister, Mary Cooney. He is survived by his sister, Sr. Leontia Cooney, OP, a retired Adrian Dominican.

“I know the entire parish is going to miss him,” Roy said. “St. Peter Parish is a very active, very wonderful parish to belong to, and he added to it. It was a wonderful community before he came here, but there are many people who will grieve him for a long time.

“I think I’m going to miss seeing him in the morning, asking how he was, and he’d respond, ‘Not too bad for an old guy,’” Roy said. “There was something he used to say all the time: ‘Be with God, fly with the angels.’”