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Beloved priest says adieu to Holy Angels parish in Hays

Monday, January 13, 2003

By Al Lowe, Tri-State Sports & News Service

Tears and applause greeted the whimsical but melancholy farewell the Rev. David Crowley bade his Holy Angels parishioners at Sunday Mass.

Rev. David Crowley walks past his congregation yesterday after announcing his retirement as pastor of Holy Angels parish in Hays. Click photo for more pictures from the Mass. (V.W.H. Campbell Jr., Post-Gazette)

Attendance, as usual, was standing-room-only, with some churchgoers arriving an hour early so they could be seated.

The sudden retirement of the popular Hays priest, effective Wednesday, shocked the community and generated protest, including that of petitioners standing outside the church who said they had gathered 2,000 signatures asking the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh to keep Crowley as pastor.

Local news 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.

He told the assembly yesterday that he had asked Wuerl if he could resign and retire, and he asked them to support his successor "by 105 percent."

Crowley compared himself to a train engineer, a boyhood dream before he joined the priesthood. His leaky engine will be replaced by a sleek new diesel and he will be standing and waving goodbye to the train, Crowley said.

Alluding to the bishop, he said, "The stationmaster gave me a yellow flag and I said, 'Fine, I'm ready.' "

He read his statement but did not celebrate the 10:30 a.m. Mass. He later said private goodbyes to members of the congregation as they were leaving the service and urged one man not to petition the bishop.

Margaretta Lutz, of West Mifflin, gives the Rev. David Crowley a kiss on the cheek before the start of noon Mass and Crowley's farewell. (V.W.H. Campbell Jr., Post-Gazette)

Some parishioners are still convinced he was made to leave against his will.

"His whole life was devoted to his parish and its people. He was forced out but is too much of a class act to say so," said parishioner Fred Piel of West Mifflin.

Crowley has not reached the mandatory retirement age of 75, but priests in this diocese can retire as young as 70 for health reasons.

The parishioners who contacted the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette said 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.

The Rev. Ronald Lengwin, spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, said last week 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, 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.

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.

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