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Michigan Catholics mourn loss of pastor, parishioner, assumed drowned in boating accident

Fr Stephen Rooney credit archdiocese of detroit Fr. Stephen Rooney. / Archdiocese of Detroit.

Catholics from Trenton, Michigan and surrounding communities are mourning the loss of their pastor, Fr. Stephen Rooney, as well as 52 year-old Robert Chiles, both of whom are presumed to have drowned in a boating accident on the Detroit River on Sunday.

Rooney, 66, was pastor of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Trenton, a town roughly 25 miles south of Detroit located along the river. In a prayer service at the parish, broadcast on Facebook live, parishioners and friends remembered Rooney as a good priest with a knack for remembering the many people he met in his ministry.

“Father Stephen truly modeled his life after Jesus, accepting all and loving everyone. How he remembered so many names and details about each person’s life was beyond comprehension. Father Stephen, you are greatly missed,” Sarah Elizabeth Vogel commented on the prayer service video.

Rooney and Chiles were among 14 people, including nine adults and five children, aboard a boat being driven by Chiles that capsized Aug. 16 around 7:30 p.m. Nearby boaters helped pull the other passengers off the boat, who had been thrown into the river, to safety, the Detroit Free Press reported.

Authorities are still investigating the accident but preliminary reports indicated that speed may have been a factor, local news sources reported. After unsuccessful searches Sunday evening and Monday, the U.S. Coast Guard said the men were presumed to be dead, the Detroit Free Press reported.

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“It is with great sadness that we share that Father Stephen Rooney, pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Trenton is missing along with longtime parishioner Robert Chiles after a boat capsized yesterday evening in the Detroit River, off Stoney Island. Several others were rescued from the water by a Good Samaritan nearby. Let us unite together in prayer for the missing, for the rescued, and for first responders searching the waters today,” the Archdiocese of Detroit said in an Aug. 17 Facebook post.

Current and former parishioners told a local ABC affiliate that Rooney is fondly remembered for his “thick Irish brogue and personal stories of his large family.” Rooney was a native of Belfast, and was ordained a priest there in 1985 before coming to the Archdiocese of Detroit in 1990, The Monroe News reported. Numerous friends of Rooney’s from Belfast tuned in for the Monday prayer service and commented with their condolences and prayers.

LuDonna Wlodarski, once a parishioner of Rooney’s, told ABC Action News that the priest had helped her through some hard times in her life.

“He was one of my best friends, I would count on him all the time. I lost all of my family and he was always there for me and comforted me,” Wlodarski said.

Chiles, a resident of Grosse Ile, was a husband and father of three children and parishioner of Rooney’s. The body of his wife Christine Chiles was reportedly found in the Detroit River last year, in an apparent suicide, according to local sources.

It was a loss that Rooney was helping Chiles work through, according to the Detroit Free Press, and the priest had become close friends and a frequent dinner guest of the Chiles family since the death of Christine. It was a Chiles family party that the priest had been invited to on the boat on Sunday - even though, according to friends, the priest hated boats and being on the water.

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Monroe County Prosecutor Michael G. Roehrig, a former parishioner and a friend of Rooney’s, said he was “devastated” to learn of the priest’s death.

“He was a dear and constant friend for 25 years. As pastor of St. Michael the Archangel (and other parishes in the Detroit area), he was a model of Christian faith, humility and dedication,” Roehrig told The Monroe News.

“While it is a shock he was killed in a boating accident (because he hated boats), it is no surprise that he lost his life while helping others - his ordained mission in life was serving God’s people. The loss of our friend is incalculable, but we take some solace knowing he will continue to pray for us from his place in Heaven. May God give peace to the dead.”

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