Born, raised and formed for the Holy Priesthood in Ireland, Father Richard Cronin wanted to be laid to rest in Westphalia.
“This is my home now,” he said of the rolling hills, stone dwellings and extended family that reminded him so much of where he came from.
Fr. Cronin, 84, a retired priest of the Jefferson City diocese, died peacefully on April 8 in Westphalia.
The Mass of Christian Burial was celebrated April 13 in St. Joseph Church in Westphalia, with Bishop W. Shawn McKnight presiding, Monsignor Gregory L. Higley preaching the homily, and Bishop Emeritus John R. Gaydos and priests of the diocese concelebrating.
“Fr. Cronin was a man of the Resurrection,” said Msgr. Higley. “In so many different locations, from prisons to parishes, from convents to churches, and on so many different altars, Fr. Cronin invited thousands of Catholic believers to enter into the mystery of our Savior’s death and resurrection ... and as a result, experience the promise of life eternal.
“And now, this brother of ours meets the reality of what he has always lived, as the grace of the resurrection, so abundant in his life, now becomes his reality and the reward in death.”
Fr. Cronin was born on June 25, 1934, in Cork City, Ireland, one of nine children of the late Christopher and Mary (Lynch) Cronin.
Bright, athletic and popular, he occasionally thought about being a priest but never seriously until he was about 16.
During confession, a priest asked him outright whether he had thought about the Priesthood. That started a conversation that led Fr. Cronin to enter formation for a priestly society that ministered in Africa.
That program disbanded shortly after Fr. Cronin’s arrival. There were plenty of priests in Ireland at the time, so the young man began writing to dioceses in the United States.
He eventually connected with Monsignor Francis O’Duignan, a native of Ireland who was a priest of the newly formed Diocese of Jefferson City.
Bishop Joseph M. Marling C.PP.S., founding bishop, accepted Fr. Cronin as a candidate for the Priesthood. He completed his seminary formation at St. Kieran’s Seminary in Kilkenny, Ireland.
On June 5, 1960, in the seminary chapel, Bishop Patrick Collier of Ossry, Ireland, ordained Fr. Cronin to the Holy Priesthood.
He traveled to the United States on an ocean liner with Father James O’Sullivan, a fellow Irishman who was also a newly ordained priest of the diocese.
They remained best friends until Fr. O’Sullivan died of cancer in 2004.
Fr. Cronin served as assistant pastor at St. Peter parish in Jefferson City; assistant pastor of Cathedral of St. Joseph parish in Jefferson City; chaplain to the Missouri State Penitentiary, Jefferson City; for a few months as pastor of St. Cecilia parish in Meta before being made administrator of Cathedral of St. Joseph parish in Jefferson City; spiritual moderator of the Diocesan Sisters Association; pastor of Immaculate Conception parish in Jefferson City; pastor of Ss. Peter and Paul parish in Boonville; pastor of St. Joseph parish in Westphalia and St. Anthony of Padua parish in Folk; pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes parish in Columbia; and Immaculate Conception parish in Loose Creek.
He retired from parish ministry on June 30, 1999.
He started out splitting his time between Ireland and Missouri, doing weekend fill-in work while here and eventually spending more time Westphalia.
He moved to the Westphalia Hills Senior Living Community, home of many friends and former parishioners, when his health began to fail.
Called by name
Fr. Cronin maintained that the Priesthood has been about building relationships with people and with God, “and getting to know them.”
He kept a notebook in which he kept track of all the baptisms, weddings and Funeral Masses he celebrated as a priest.
He worked hard to learn the names of all the people, including the children, in each of the parishes he served in, so he could address them by name when giving them Holy Communion.
As a pastor, he encouraged younger priests to connect with Catholics who were detached from the parish, as well as people living in poor neighborhoods.
“It opened an insight to people who were suffering, who were not part of the mainstream,” one of his former associates stated.
As chaplain at MSP, he took great interest in the spiritual wellbeing of the men in prison, inviting people who were involved in the Cursillo movement to help him lead Saturday-morning Bible studies.
He once organized a one-day Cursillo renewal experience for about 50 MSP residents.
The men there chose him as their Man of the Year in 1965 for “his availability to all the inmates — Catholics, Protestants and atheists.”
Above earth’s lamentations
A friend recalled that if Fr. Cronin ever met someone, he would remember that person 20 years later.
“We’ll miss him dearly, but we have great memories of his friendship” stated a close friend and member of Westphalia parish.
“He was a true gentleman,” another friend stated. “He loved to work with people. He could work with the young; he could work with the old.”
Fr. Cronin held tightly onto his Irish heritage, culture and spirituality. He derived tremendous satisfaction from music, poetry and literature, especially of the Celtic variety.
“He always spoke very, very highly of his family in Ireland,” a friend recalled, “especially his mom and dad.”
His niece, Fiona Barrett, noted that whenever he was in Ireland on July 4, he would start the day by singing “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Once a championship rugby player, Fr. Cronin continued to enjoy watching rugby and Gaelic football. He also liked walking, running and playing golf and racquetball.
One former youngster was amazed at how well he could volley a soccer ball off the top of his head and have it go where he wanted it to go.
He often could be heard singing favorite hymns, Irish tunes and, as the year grew late, Christmas carols.
“He had the ability to make friends, and they welcomed him and he welcomed them,” another friend from Westphalia recalled.
His sense of humor was legendary. Two dentists once invited him to go fish-gigging in Tavern Creek near St. Elizabeth. Accepting the invitation, he deadpanned: “I can see the big headline in the newspapers back home: ‘Irish pastor drowns in the Tavern.’”
Everywhere he went, people knew him, and he remembered their names.
“Always a gentleman,” said Monsignor Robert A. Kurwicki, who had succeeded him as pastor in Westphalia and Folk in 1990.
Even as his memory began to fail, Fr. Cronin remembered to pray for his family and the people who were closest to him — “and for myself,” he would say.
When word got out that he was dying, fellow priests, former parishioners, Westphalia Hills employees and other friends made what amounted to a five-day procession to his living quarters.
“He was unconscious the whole time,” a friend stated. “But I do think he could hear us talk. We prayed and we sang and joked around.”
Online reactions to Fr. Cronin’s passing were swift and emphatic.
“Such a special man, always full of smiles!”
“What an amazing priest and friend.”
“He was such a kind and gentle man! Heaven is a better place for him.”
“I always enjoyed Mass when Fr. Cronin was preaching.”
“He touched so many hearts in his life and even with his health failing, he still always managed a smile and kind words.”
“He was my favorite priest. Rest in peace, dear friend.”
“A wonderful pastor and man of God!”
“Heaven is celebrating today! Fr. Cronin was the finest of God’s creations!”
“Fr. Cronin, you left a lasting impression on all of us and we will never forget you. May God welcome you with open arms.”
Shamrocks in the doorway
Msgr. Higley, in his homily, pointed out that in answering the call to stand in the place of Christ in celebrating the Eucharist and the other sacraments, every priest is a man “of the Resurrection, about the Resurrection and for the Resurrection.”
“And in his pastoral care, his daily work, Fr. Cronin carried the risen Christ to his people — sometimes in deed ... many times in word ... and always in person,” said Msgr. Higley.
Near the end of the Mass, Bishop McKnight summoned to the sanctuary three of Fr. Cronin’s relatives — a niece and two nephews — who had made the trip from Ireland.
“Every priest that we have, we treasure as a gift from God,” Bishop McKnight stated. “... But in a special way, we owe a debt of gratitude for the priests who have left their homelands in order to serve us here. We wish to show you our gratitude to your family and to the Church in Ireland for the gift of Father Richard Cronin. Please take our gratitude back with you.”
The people stood and applauded.
After Mass, the priests and bishops chanted the “Salve Regina” (“Hail, Holy Queen”) as the pallbearers carried Fr. Cronin’s earthy remains out of St. Joseph Church for the last time.
Representatives of St Joseph School stood by with a banner, “We are praying for you.”
Preceding Fr. Cronin in death were his brothers Christopher Cronin, Michael Cronin and Patrick Cronin, and three of his sisters, Mary Cronin, Bonnie Koche and Pauline Meany.
Surviving are two sisters, Breda Healy and Monica O’Leary, and numerous nieces and nephews, grandnieces and grandnephews and his many friends in Ireland and in his adopted home in the United States.
A Memorial Mass is being planned for his home parish in Ireland.