Toledo Irish: Beloved Irish Priest Drowns in a Boating Accident in Michigan
By Maury Collins
Father Stephen Joseph Rooney, age 66, passed away as the result of a tragic boating accident on the Detroit River, August 16, 2020. Fr. Rooney has been described as a priest with an Irish brogue and a sense of humor, who was a wonderful role model as a Christian and dedicated his entire life to service of other people. Fr. Rooney spent many of his priestly years in Monroe County, which is just North of Toledo.
It’s ironic that Fr. Rooney died as a result of a boating accident; he did not know how to swim. He did not like being in a boat or on the water. Why was he even there?
Fr. Rooney had helped Robert Chiles through his grief after his wife, Christine Chiles, disappeared in September of 2019. Her body was found after a community wide search covering several days. Her death was ruled a suicide.
The couple had three children and the family grew close to Fr. Rooney in their grief. They shared meals and time together, with Fr. Rooney a guest at their home many times. On Sunday, when Mr. Chiles invited Fr. Rooney to join him and his family on his thirty-nine-foot speed boat, he accepted.
Mr. Chiles owned the boat and was at the helm at around 7:30p.m., when they hit a strong wake, flipping the watercraft and sending its fourteen passengers overboard. A passing boat rescued most of those on board, including seven children, but Mr. Chiles and Fr. Rooney remained missing.
Mr. Chile’s body was recovered near the accident scene around 9:00a.m. on Tuesday. Fr.’s body was located fourteen miles south of where the accident occurred, in Lake Erie at Stoney Point, in Monroe County.
“The fact that he was found in Monroe County is very fitting,” said Monroe County Prosecutor Michael Roehrig, a close friend. “It might be a stretch of the imagination to think he had a hand in it, but clearly he was very happy at St. Mike’s. He put down some really deep roots.”
Maureen Shelton, former National LAOH President told me, “As you know, Fr. Rooney was my national chaplain when I was LAOH National President. He was a godsend to me, a very dear friend and trusted advisor. We have remained friends for many years. He was at our parish here at Saint Michaels; he gave us permission when LAOH started in Monroe to meet in the Rectory basement with his full support. He had a wonderful sense of humor.”
Maureen went on to tell me; “. I can tell you what was said at the visual that happened here in Monroe is that Father Rooney came back to Monroe over 14 miles through shipping channel to come home to us, we felt. He did not like the water so this is a great thing for us. We felt he really wanted to get back to us. The other victim was found near the accident site so why did Father Rooney get away and come so far? We only believe that it was because he wanted to come home to Monroe. His visual in Monroe was held on the feast of our Lady of knock and as we were preparing to say the rosary and start the vigil we felt the earth move beneath us. It was an earthquake. They also don’t happen in Monroe and it was a 3.2. It started out in the river where he came home and came to town.”
Fr. Rooney was born Belfast, Ireland on February 10, 1954 to John and Catherine (nee Higgins) Rooney. He grew up in a family of fifteen children and is survived by twelve. He is preceded in death by his brothers John Jr (d.1945 aged 11 months), Billy (d.1951 aged 4 days) and his parents John (d.1999) and Catherine (d.2017).
Stephen Rooney started off his spiritual journey as a sixteen-year-old. In 1970, he entered the house of the Passionist Order at Tobar Mhuire (Mary’s Well) in Crossgar, Co. Down, about twenty-five miles from his home in the Ballymacarrett area of Belfast.
After that first taste of life in the Catholic Church, Stephen returned home to work as a care giver for senior citizens in Nazareth House. He spoke fondly of his time with the residents there, and the lessons in dignity and respect that work gave him. Subsequently, he joined the Redemptorist Order, first in Clonard, Belfast and subsequently in the order’s house in Esker, Galway. He worked in the St. Vincent De Paul charity shop in Galway City, and was active in a program to help young traveler children.
This was at a time when there was much anti-traveler sentiment in the city. From this early age and throughout his life, Stephen challenged racism whenever it raised its head. Coming from a background in the north of Ireland where Catholics suffered institutionalized discrimination at the hands of the state heightened his strong sense of social justice. Armed with his innate compassion, and this lived experience and knowledge, he instinctively strived to make the world a better place.
Stephen took his vows as a brother in the Redemptorist Order in St Joseph’s Dundalk, in 1975. He then took an unexpected detour when he decided to enter the Cistercian Order. In 1978 he entered the monastery at Bolton Abbey, County Kildare, where, with his characteristic enthusiasm, he undertook the ascetic life of a monk.
The routine of communal prayer, physical labor and solitary contemplation left an imprint on him for the rest of his life. The city boy became adept at farm work and rising at 5.00am for prayer. Stephen took his final vows while a member of the Cistercian community June 1985. His spiritual journey continued the following year when, like so many Irish people before him, he left for the United States to work as a priest in the diocese of Detroit.
Fr. Rooney was pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel parish in Temperance, Michigan, one mile north of Toledo. John Mohr recalls when he had the 9:00 o’clock daily Mass at OLMC. The Mass always started promptly, and he would just walk in at 9. He would have a twenty-eight to thirty-three-minute Mass, with about six-minute Homily; he knew people were on their way to work.
Crossing the River
The Mass of the Resurrection was held August 26 at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church in Allen Park, Michigan. More than 300 people attended the Mass, including Archbishop Allen Vigneron, bishops, and fifty clergy from the area.
The live stream of Father Rooney’s funeral was viewed by those in Ireland and Britain and was overloaded by more than 5,000 viewers at one point. Father Mark Gawronski gave the homily. He said that “Father Rooney would be confused with all the fuss over his death, but he shouldn’t be: The fuss is because you truly impacted our lives. He completed his crossing in, of all places, a river.”
*Maury Collins is a Charter Member and past president of the John P. Kelly Division of the AOH and a proud first-generation Irish American. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.