By MARNIE McALLISTER, Record Editor
Retired Bishop John J. McRaith, the third Bishop of Owensboro, Ky., died the morning of March 19. He was 82.
Bishop McRaith, who led the Owensboro diocese for 26 years, is mourned by clergy, religious and lay people alike, whose official statements and tributes on social media portrayed him as a humble and tender leader who loved his people.
When he was named bishop in 1982, he was described as a “man of the land” with deep roots in rural life. He grew up on a farm in Hutchinson, Minn., a rural area about 50 miles west of Minneapolis.
In those formative years, the future bishop learned about “the sacredness of the land,” he said during a 1994 national teleconference. “I grew to love the land and to know that there’s life there, and if you abuse it, you’ll eventually pay the price.”
First as a priest and later as a bishop, he was an advocate for rural life, family farms and sustainable agricultural practices.
As a priest, he served as director of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference from 1972 to 1978 in Des Moines, Iowa.
His obituary, provided by the Diocese of Owensboro, said his “dedication to rural life fueled his desire to travel around the country and address rural issues, social justice and the importance of a rural ministry. Becoming a recognized authority on Catholic rural life, he spent these years giving conferences and workshops in many dioceses across America. Groups he encountered and worked with included the coal miners of Appalachia and the pulp workers of Louisiana.”
He continued this work — though in a different way — as a bishop. He led the Subcommittee on Food, Agriculture and Rural Concerns for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and in 1990 testified to a Senate committee about the importance of family farms.
In Owensboro, his love for the land and the people he served expressed itself in both the way he led and the way he interacted with his flock.
The bishop kept a tract of land, where he grew vegetables, hosted picnics and gave his visitors hayrides in a wagon he pulled with a tractor, said Rosanna Vessels, a theology teacher at St. Xavier High School who grew to know and love the bishop as a teenager in his diocese.
She said during an interview March 20 that she and her twin sister sang in the diocesan choir for his episcopal ordination and, the next day, they played music for a school Mass he attended.
“Afterwards, he came up and met us,” she said. “He connected with people instantly.
“He liked a good time. He always had a pipe, he loved riding his tractor, farming the land and he had people out for hayrides constantly,” she said. “He was a simple man and very humble and had a tender heart.”
Vessels and her sister also were among four lay people who were the first graduates of the Lay Ministry Formation Program at Brescia College (now university). The bishop oversaw the establishment of that program in 1985, the diocese’s obituary said.
He started a host of other programs, ministries and offices in the diocese, such as youth ministry, lay ministry, ecumenism, social concerns and vocations. He also established the diocesan newspaper, The Western Kentucky Catholic, in 1984.
In a 2009 interview with The Record about his retirement, the bishop described his years in Owensboro as the greatest of his life.
“I’ve been very happy and very comfortable here in Owensboro,” he said. “They’ve been great years here.”
In a statement released a day after the bishop’s death, Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz described the late bishop as exemplary.
“At all times he retained the heart of a pastor, always relishing the time that he spent with his priests and people. Bishop McRaith also was sought after for his teaching, witness and leadership in stewardship and how to give for the sake of others,” the archbishop said in his statement.
Bishop McRaith retired in 2009 and was succeeded by Bishop William F. Medley, a former priest of the Archdiocese of Louisville.
Bishop Medley said in a statement that Bishop McRaith “was a kind and noble man.”
“As people of faith, we claim joy even in our sorrow,” he said. “Bishop John now enters into the glory of God’s Kingdom won for him by Jesus Christ. Let us pray for one another.”
The Ursuline Sisters of Mount St. Joseph said in a statement released March 20 that Bishop McRaith was a strong supporter of the Ursuline Sisters. He became an Ursuline Associate in 1985.
Sister Amelia Stenger, congregational leader, said in the statement, “He was a good man, a great priest and a strong leader. He loved to be with people. He believed in the goodness of everyone.”
Father Michael Wimsatt, a young priest of the Archdiocese of Louisville and director of the Vocation Office here, grew up in the Owensboro Diocese and encountered Bishop McRaith the way thousands of others did — at confirmation.
“I always remember him as a kind and luminous presence — a very generous spirit,” said Father Wimsatt, who is administrator of the Cathedral of the Assumption. “You could feel the light that came from him. He was very present in that moment.”
Bishop McRaith attended Mount St. Bernard Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa, and was ordained to the priesthood on Feb. 21, 1960, in the Diocese of New Ulm, Minn. He served as a priest, vicar general and chancellor of that diocese.
He is survived by his sister Margaret Mary Madden and his nieces and nephews.
On March 23, a tractor-pulled wagon will process with the body of Bishop McRaith from Glenn Funeral Home, 900 Old Hartford Road, to St. Stephen Cathedral, 610 Locust St. in Owensboro.
Afterward, Mass will be celebrated at 12:05 p.m. Central Time at the Cathedral. Visitation will follow until 8 p.m. A wake service will be held at 6 p.m. at the Cathedral.
Visitation will continue on March 24 at the Cathedral from 8 a.m. to 10:45 a.m. The Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated at 11 a.m. Archbishop Kurtz will preside and Bishop Medley will concelebrate. Burial will follow at Mount St. Joseph in Maple Mount, Ky.
Expressions of sympathy may be made to the Diocese of Owensboro in support of charitable work across the diocese and to Catholic Relief Services.