Decades after they could have retired, two priests 'never thought of stopping'

Fr. Norman Thomas, 92, smiles in his office at Sacred Heart Parish in Detroit, where he's served full time for the past 54 years. While priests in the Archdiocese of Detroit have the option to retire from full-time ministry at the age of 70, Fr. Thomas and Msgr. James Moloney of St. Anselm Parish in Dearborn Heights, also 92, are among a handful of priests who say they've never considered giving up full-time parish work. (Photos by Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic)

Msgr. Moloney and Fr. Thomas, both 92 and still serving in parish ministry, reflect on the blessing of sharing Christ’s priesthood

DEARBORN HEIGHTS — Msgr. James Moloney of St. Anselm Parish in Dearborn Heights could have retired from active ministry years ago, but he chose not to. And at age 92, he doesn’t plan to anytime soon. Msgr. Moloney’s legs might not be as limber as they used to be, but his zest for life and hearty laugh are as strong as ever.

“I really enjoy being a priest. I like preaching. I like writing my sermons. I’m very happy with what I’m doing. Why would I quit? It’s all I’ve ever done my whole life,” Msgr. Moloney told Detroit Catholic.

Msgr. Moloney is one of a handful of priests in the Archdiocese of Detroit who have continued to serve in parish ministry for decades beyond the age of retirement. It’s not something he’s being compelled to do; rather, he enjoys every minute of it.

In addition to his longtime service as pastor of St. Anselm Parish in Dearborn Heights, Msgr. Moloney, 92, has directed the Archdiocese of Detroit's Society for the Propagation of the Faith for more than 50 years. Even recently, his efforts brought in more for the missions than any diocese in the United States.
In addition to his longtime service as pastor of St. Anselm Parish in Dearborn Heights, Msgr. Moloney, 92, has directed the Archdiocese of Detroit's Society for the Propagation of the Faith for more than 50 years. Even recently, his efforts brought in more for the missions than any diocese in the United States.

Like Msgr. Moloney, 92-year-old Fr. Norman Thomas continues to receive joy from his ministry, having served for the past 54 of his 67 years in the priesthood at Sacred Heart Parish in Detroit.

In the Archdiocese of Detroit, priests are given the option to retire at the age of 70. While many senior priests continue to assist with Masses and confessions well after they retire, the two nonagenarian priests are among the few who remain in full-time active ministry, complete with the responsibilities of running a parish, saying there’s nowhere they’d rather be.

“I’ve never thought of stopping,” Fr. Thomas told Detroit Catholic. “I like what I’m doing and there’s always more to be done. We’ve got great lay people here who are self-starters that have ideas and put them into action.”

Like Msgr. Moloney, Fr. Thomas has slowed down physically over the years, but his heart for ministry is as strong as ever. His parishioners help him navigate the altar during Masses and make his way around the parish.

“As I slow down, they get faster,” Fr. Thomas said.

Fr. Thomas goes over paperwork in his office at Sacred Heart Parish in Detroit, where he began serving as pastor in 1968. At 92, he relies more these days on his parish staff, but says he's never considered retiring.
Fr. Thomas goes over paperwork in his office at Sacred Heart Parish in Detroit, where he began serving as pastor in 1968. At 92, he relies more these days on his parish staff, but says he's never considered retiring.

In addition to serving at St. Anselm, Msgr. Moloney also continues in his longtime role as director of the Archdiocese of Detroit’s Society of the Propagation of the Faith, assigning missionaries from around the world to speak at parishes each year to raise money for their work. Recently, Msgr. Moloney received a call from Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle at the Vatican thanking him for raising the most of any diocese in the country, bringing in nearly 10% of all funds raised in the United States for the missions.

As part of his responsibilities, Msgr. Moloney receives nearly 200 applications annually from missionaries from different countries and religious communities, and selects about 90 to speak in archdiocesan parishes. He writes letters to monthly donors to thank them personally and let them know he is praying for their intentions. Before he became pastor of St. Anselm 44 years ago, he visited missions in 58 countries.

Both priests credit their longevity in part to their active lifestyles in their younger days. Fr. Thomas and Msgr. Moloney, who were ordained a year apart in 1955 and 1956, respectively, played ice hockey together for many years, driving to Windsor, Ontario, every Wednesday night to play against Canadian priests. They often played without extra equipment, including helmets; Msgr. Moloney racked up a total of 40 stitches in his face to show for it. The team of American priests had so many stitches and injuries that the doctor at the hospital in Windsor knew them, charging them a flat fee of $5 each visit.

Despite their many adventures over the years, both priests say the quieter moments of being a priest are the most special to them.

Msgr. Moloney (in red) played ice hockey during his younger days, suiting up as a right winger.
Msgr. Moloney (in red) played ice hockey during his younger days, suiting up as a right winger.
Msgr. Moloney and Fr. Thomas played on the same team, affectionately known as the "Flying Fathers." (Photos courtesy of St. Anselm Parish)
Msgr. Moloney and Fr. Thomas played on the same team, affectionately known as the "Flying Fathers." (Photos courtesy of St. Anselm Parish)

“The most memorable thing about being a priest is being with people during their ordinary times and also in times of grief, of celebration at a wedding or an anniversary party,” Fr. Thomas said. “Just being with the people and being part of the families of the parish is what makes me most happy.”

Over six and a half decades, Msgr. Moloney estimates he’s baptized more than 3,000 children and adults.

“Baptizing children is my favorite part of being a priest, to know what you’re doing for that family and their child,” Msgr. Moloney said. “It’s a great honor to know you’re continuing the Church by baptizing these babies.”

Those who know the two senior priests say that’s what drives them more than anything else: bringing God’s kingdom to each and every parishioner they serve.

“He once told me that he was ordained to provide the sacraments, and as long as he’s able to offer those sacraments, he will,” said Maureen Powers, a St. Anselm parishioner and longtime friend of Msgr. Moloney. “The anointing he received at ordination will never be washed away and he wants to continue as long as he can.”

With the average age of the archdiocese’s 312 priests reaching 57.4, Fr. Thomas and Msgr. Moloney are proof that age is just a number. As the Archdiocese of Detroit observes a Year of Prayer for Priestly Vocations in response to a growing shortage in the priesthood, both men say the advice they would give to younger generations is the same: God’s calling is never boring.

“The life of a priest is a great life,” said Fr. Thomas. “I saw myself as a general practitioner and wanted to be a parish priest, but the priesthood has so much to offer. You can be a teacher or a missionary. Whatever it is you want to do, you can do it as a priest and be part of a great tradition. It’s exciting to be part of that tradition.”



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