Father John Groner believed that he would be forgiven and saved.
He wanted that also for everyone he ministered to.
“He put his life in God’s hands and totally trusted — and whatever God had planned for him, and whatever direction that took him, he believed and trusted in that,” said Deacon Richard Vise, who discerned a call to the Diaconate while Fr. Groner was his pastor and then ministered alongside him after ordination.
Fr. Groner, a retired priest of the Jefferson City diocese, died peacefully on Jan. 6, three days after his 78th birthday, following a six-month struggle with cancer and a decades-long battle with Type 1 diabetes.
The Mass of Christian Burial was celebrated on Jan. 16 in Immaculate Conception Church in Jefferson City, with Bishop Emeritus John R. Gaydos; Father Matthew Flatley, pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish; Father Eric Groner of the Divine Word Missionaries, Fr. Groner’s nephew; and other priests of the diocese concelebrating.
Father Patrick Dolan preached the homily.
Burial was in the Groner family plot in Resurrection Cemetery in Jefferson City.
“He was a good shepherd,” said Bishop Gaydos during a Mass celebrated for Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI on the day Fr. Groner died.
Ordained in 1971, the Jefferson City native ministered in Columbia; Marcona, Peru; Monroe City and Indian Creek; the diocesan Mission Office; Freeburg; Hannibal; Mexico; and for 22 years as pastor of St. Robert Bellarmine Parish in St. Robert and St. Jude Parish in Richland.
“We remember this man who ministered in many parishes, who was touched and served in Peru,” Fr. Dolan stated from the pulpit. “We remember him for his faithfulness to the Gospel, his ministry as a priest, and his greetings and hospitality to his people.”
Fr. Groner was born Jan. 3, 1945, a son of John and Lydia Groner, who are now deceased.
He studied at the former St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary high school in Hannibal, followed by philosophy and theology studies at what is now Conception Seminary College in Conception.
Priest and pastor
Holy Week was Fr. Groner’s favorite time to be a priest.
“Oftentimes,” said Deacon Vise, “he would just reflect on the meaning of those days and how we, too, have our own monsters that we have to suffer through, and knowing that in the promise of the resurrection of Our Lord, we can get through that.”
Monsignor Marion Makarewicz, pastor of Mary Immaculate Parish in Kirksville and the Mission of St. Rose of Lima in Novinger, was teaching in Hannibal when Fr. Groner became pastor of that city’s Holy Family Parish.
“The guy was passionate about everything he did,” said Msgr. Makarewicz. “And he did a lot.”
Fr. Groner’s brother, Robert, developed multiple sclerosis early in life. The entire family included him in every activity. Msgr. Makarewicz believes that helped fuel Fr. Groner’s compassionate streak.
“He was very much for the preferential option for the poor and the downcast and the outcast,” said Msgr. Makarewicz.
Having been diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes early in his Priesthood, Fr. Groner got to where he had to give himself five shots a day.
He weathered numerous near-death experiences due to low blood sugar. His housekeeper, the late Jewel Tawney, saved his life many times, as did several friends.
Fr. Groner drew energy from a circle of fellow priests, including Father David Maher and Father Patrick Shortt, who both died before him.
“He was so filled with joy, which I sometimes found exasperating,” recalled Msgr. Makarewicz, who was also a member of Fr. Groner’s priest support group. “I’d be trying to complain about something to him, and he’d just laugh and say, ‘Yes! That’s the way it is!’”
“He was generous with himself,” Fr. Groner’s niece, Amanda Avenoso, stated in her eulogy. “He was generous with letting us see his humanity. ... He never hid any of his complexity. He never modeled for us that imperfection equals unworthiness.”
One of the consistent messages she found while reviewing his past homilies was that “we are made to be in communion and in relationship with each other, because we are united in the Body of Christ — no exceptions.”
Al and Carolyn Cyr were members of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Columbia when Fr. Groner was assigned there as a newly ordained priest.
The Cyrs remained friends with Fr. Groner for more than a half-century, long after they moved to Colorado.
“We just treated him like as regular guy,” said Mrs. Cyr. “We never put him on a pedestal, and I think he appreciated that.”
Mark Saucier, who led the Mission Office for many years, is convinced that Fr. Groner, already sensitized to people’s suffering, grew in that awareness during his time in Marcona.
“I think John was one who by health issues was reminded of his own frailty and vulnerability every day,” said Mr. Saucier. “I think that made him much more sensitive, much more compassionate, much more understanding of the frailty of others.”
Fr. Groner’s love of nature and the outdoors blossomed into abundant zest for life in general.
“He loved to learn!” said Paula Glynn, who was Fr. Groner’s secretary and bookkeeper at St. Robert Bellarmine Parish for 13 years.
“He always had so many diverse interests, you never knew what was going to capture his attention next,” she stated. “He loved to try new things and share what he was learning.”
“The same place he knew God was guiding him to, he was going to guide you there without being preachy,” said Mrs. Glynn. “He had a personal way of communicating with you about spirituality. He made it personal to you.”
Here for a reason
In 2005, Fr. Groner joined a pilgrimage to the town of Medjugorje in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the site of numerous reported apparitions of the Blessed Mother.
He was hoping for a miracle — the healing of his diabetes.
But Mariana — one of the reported visionaries — reminded Fr. Groner that the first healing must be of the heart before any other healing can take place.
“We are called to be people of love and mercy, and not to lose faith when things look difficult,” Fr. Groner preached at Mass in St. James the Greater Church in Medjugorje. “Because the Lord is merciful and kind. He is that way first. All we have to do is follow Him and we’ll be on the right path.”
For years, Fr. Groner was inseparable from his service dog, Lilly. Trained with help from a family in St. Elizabeth, she was alert to subtle differences in his behavior and body chemistry and would warn him of low blood sugar.
“She has given me a way to remain an active parish priest, and that has meant everything to me,” he said in 2009.
Lilly died in 2018. Fr. Groner obtained an electronic monitor that helped in a similar way.
He remained convinced that God had a reason for helping him avoid death on so many occasions.
“He could have walked away so many times because of his health,” Deacon Vise noted. “But the way he saw it, ‘God is not done with me yet. There’s a reason I’m still here.’ And he kept serving.”
Fr. Groner collapsed and was rushed to the hospital while filling-in at a parish in northern Missouri last summer.
Further examination revealed the presence of cancer.
He died about six months later, a few days after a visit from family and friends.
“He’s where he needs to be now and happy with his brothers and parents and friends who went before him,” said Mrs. Cyr. “We miss him, but we can’t be too sad.”
Mr. Saucier believes that with this phase of life completed, Fr. Groner would tell the people he ministered to, to “be attentive to the needs around you, in your home, in your family, in your community, in your parish.”
“So much of it is Lazarus right outside your door,” Mr. Saucier stated, “and John saw that.”