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Sudden retirement of popular priest stuns his parish

Saturday, January 11, 2003

By Ann Rodgers-Melnick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The Rev. David Crowley, a priest known for his ability to bring fallen-away Catholics back to the church and for his care of the community of Hays, has announced his unexpected retirement, effective next week.

Local media have been besieged by calls from outraged parishioners, who believe that Bishop Donald Wuerl has forced a good priest to leave against his will. But Crowley, 73, called it a normal retirement and the diocesan spokesman said that Crowley offered his resignation.

"I'm on very good terms with Bishop Wuerl," Crowley said.

Although it is painful to leave the parish, "it wasn't any jolt or surprise. I'm leaving here at the end of next week -- just simply retiring . . . Everything is hunky-dory, except that it hurts."

The Rev. Ronald Lengwin, spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, said only that Crowley "has submitted a request . . . asking to resign as pastor of Holy Angels parish. Bishop Wuerl has accepted his request."

Lengwin said it was diocesan practice not to make a public statement about the reasons any priest might decide to retire early.

"It is always the right of parishioners to hear first from the pastor who has guided them about an impending retirement. But because of the questions that have been raised by so many people, we thought it was necessary to explain that he requested retirement from Bishop Wuerl and it was granted," Lengwin said.

Crowley is a year younger than canon law's mandatory retirement age of 75, but priests in this diocese can retire as young as 70 for health reasons. The parishioners who contacted the Post-Gazette all said that Crowley had health problems but that they did not believe he was too ill to continue, and they were certain he would have given them more than one week's notice if he had planned to retire.

Crowley, who will turn 74 next month, was ordained in 1954 and has served Holy Angels parish in Hays for 34 years. His six Sunday Masses are often standing-room only. Theologically he is well to Wuerl's left, and he is not considered persnickety about rules such as restricting communion to Catholics.

Diocesan officials in the past have spoken highly of his pastoral skills, but "we have also had to speak to him at times about some of his practices," Lengwin said.

Crowley kept parishioners from giving into despair during last year's national sexual abuse crisis in the church, said Mary Jo Horgan, who sent a letter protesting Crowley's retirement.

"Attending Mass with Father Crowley takes our weaknesses and doubts and turns them into our strength. Many of us attend Mass just to be near Father Crowley. He makes us want to be there, he makes us want to participate, he makes us proud to be a Catholic," Horgan wrote.

"We know we are there to fill our hearts and souls with love and the grace of God. He convinces us that we are good people and we do good things every day."

In 2000, Crowley was praised by local officials after a devastating flood struck Hays. He turned the church into a headquarters for relief work and gave help and encouragement to residents whether they were parishioners or not. He is much better known for giving away money than for asking for it.

"His selfless giving set an example for all of us," city Councilman Bob O'Connor wrote of Crowley in a letter to the editor.

Crowley said his parishioners may have jumped to the conclusion that he was forced out because when he spoke to a group of religious education students he referred to a policy of "mandatory retirement."

His parishioners will be in good hands, he said.

"Another good priest is coming. He is going to do a fantastic job," Crowley said.

Ann Rodgers-Melnick can be reached at arodgersmelnick@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416.

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