Funeral an outpouring of love for ‘Father Mike’

October 21, 2016

Recording of Service for Father Michael Cronogue, SSE

“His heart failed him, but his heart did not fail us.”

With those words, Society of Saint Edmund Superior General Stephen Hornat remembered his immensely popular and generous-hearted brother priest, Rev. Michael Cronogue, SSE, during “Father Mike’s” funeral Mass Thursday afternoon in the Chapel of Saint Michael the Archangel, attended by more than 1,000 people — including overflow in McCarthy Arts Center, where the ceremony was live-streamed.

“Father Mike” died the previous Thursday from an apparent heart attack in his campus office at age 68, jarring a campus community that knew him for his big, warm and playfully quirky personality, small kindnesses and deep decades-long commitment to peace and social justice, as speakers Thursday recalled.

A steady line of those touched by Father Mike’s ministries – hundreds of alumni, community members, students, former and current faculty and staff –streamed into the Chapel from mid-morning for three hours to pass the late priest laid out in his plain metal open casket that was positioned in front of the main altar prior to the service. Several close faculty and alumni friends of Fr. Cronogue greeted the mourners.

The casket was closed 15 minutes before the 1 p.m. service, at which time a large entourage of about 20 Edmundites, diocesan priests and Burlington Bishop Christopher Coyne processed in solemn silence from the back of the chapel to the altar area, as a gentle rain began to fall outside. Rev. Brian Cummings, SSE, was master of ceremonies. Fr. Hornat, the principal celebrant, blessed the casket with holy water and placed a crucifix and copy of the SSE Constitutions atop the coffin as the pall was placed by family members of Father Mike and his dearest friends, the Jenny and Art Cernosia family.

Words from Father Hornat

As the Edmundite superior general, Very Rev. Hornat spoke first preceding the actual liturgy — telling those packing all three main Chapel wings, the back altar space and the balcony that  Cronogue’s priesthood “was his gift to you.” He thanked everybody for their presence during “a sacred time for the community,” reminding them of the Gospel words, “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” since the foundation of Father Mike’s life was faith. “Our hearts are sad, but not troubled, breaking but not broken,” he said, thanks to the sureness of faith.

Fr. Hornat said many who knew Father Mike might have thought he “was too big to fail,” both in his imposing physical stature – “a guy who wore out two Fit Bits” and drank a wide assortment of nutritious concoctions from his blender – and in his bigger-than-life personality. So it was all the more stunning last week “when God whispered ‘Good job, good and faithful servant’” to Cronogue. Hornat especially singled out for thanks Saint Michael’s Fire and Rescue members, some of whom responded last week to Father Mike’s emergency. Scores of SMFR members formed an honor guard in dress uniforms at the funeral. “He always praised your labor of love,” Hornat said, inspiring sustained applause from the congregation.

Father Mike was “a messenger of peace and justice on campus,” Hornat said, willing “to go to the fringes and bring the message of God’s love to all people” regardless of race, sexual orientation of background. He founded MOVE (Mobilization of Volunteer Efforts) in Campus Ministry because he wanted student volunteers “to discover the depth of God’s love in every one of us.” Hornat remembered how last week, before the superior general left on a business road trip, Father Mike’s last words to him were, “Steve, have a safe journey.”

During the Mass liturgy that followed, President Jack Neuhauser read an at-first profoundly mournful, yet ultimately hopeful passage from Lamentations; Mary Beth Doyle of the Education faculty read the epistle from Thessalonians, and Edmundite Fr. Marcel Rainville read in the Gospel about Lazarus being raised from the dead, including Jesus’s words “I am the Resurrection and the Life.”

Homilist: “Embraced by love”

Rev. David Theroux, SSE, local superior for the Society, offered the homily. He spoke of how each person present was dealing in his or her own way with the loss in recent days. “Michael was a man of prayer,” Theroux reminded, “so we have him praying for us as we pray for him” in the past week. He poignantly recounted carrying a bag of clothes from the hospital last Thursday after Father Mike died, reflecting on the fleeting utility of earthly things. Fr. Theroux said Cronogue was “a wonderful and gifted person,” always caring for others more than for himself, “a serious Christian, a presence, and often a force of nature.”

In the diocese, Theroux said, Cronogue was known for his professionalism and commitment to caring, which came through as he helped at parishes and in a hundred other small ways. “We already miss his antics, which bordered on the bizarre sometimes,” Theroux shared to knowing chuckles. But the homilist urged all to avoid the tendency to speak about “the Michael who was rather than is … When his heart stopped, he did not cease to be … truth be told, Michael is fine … with family, friends, and reunited with Brother Edmundites,” he said.

“As Michael would say in his preaching, I’m coming to the end here,” Theroux said to some laughs. He concluded by evoking the Edmundite devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and reminding that Cronogue was joined “in a mystery of love that survives even death” – leaving an enduring legacy —  “loved much and often” and “embraced now by love in heaven as he continues to love us.”

Edmundite Brother Frank Hagerty read the Prayers of the Faithful. The Cernosias brought forward the gifts. Close to a thousand came forward for Communion at multiple stations.

Words from the Bishop

Bishop Coyne stood to speak before the recessional, sharing words about a priest he had come to enjoy and respect in his short time leading the diocese.

“Mike was a person who liked to stir the soup,” he said, telling about how the first time they met, they playfully needled each other back and forth, until Fr. Mike said “I think we’re going to get along just fine bishop!” Cronogue was “a person of encouragement,” the bishop said, as when, after Coyle made a terrible golf shot during a round together once, Father Mike said “those are nice golf clubs you have bishop.”

When he returned to Vermont from a conference last week  after hearing the news about Fr. Cronogue, he discovered atop his stack of mail on his desk a note from Father Mike,  sending support and thoughts on the death of Bishop Angell the week before. Those expressions of love in ‘little ways,’ evoking St. Therese the Little Flower, are as valid as other things that may seem larger, he suggested.

After the bishop spoke, the 20 or so priests gathered in a semi-circle at the altar facing the coffin as in unison they chanted, in Latin, Salve Regina (Hail Holy Queen), as is traditional. Many commented after Mass on the moving poignancy of that moment in particular. The full Liturgical Choir and instrumental ensemble led by Campus Music Minister Jerome Monachino, with College Organist Susan Summerfield playing the chapel’s Casavant organ, performed the recessional hymn, “Sing with All the Saints in Glory.”

Among those in attendance in the front rows were many trustees and Vermont’s U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy ’61, and his wife, Marcelle; also, members of the cabinet, Alumni Association leader Annie Sanner Rosello; and longtime close faculty friends of Father Mike, including David Landers and Sue Kuntz from psychology. Before the service, Landers spoke quietly of a 40-year friendship marked for him by Father Mike’s loving openness to each person, no matter that person’s background and circumstances.

Fire and Rescue members stood at attention on the Chapel steps as the pallbearers – Mark Cronogue, Brian Donahue ’88, Michael Fucigna ’87, Patrick Gallivan ’89, Shaun Griswold ’18, Leslie Lindquist ’05, Steve Shover ’75 and Thomas Van Dzura ’89 – escorted the coffin in procession with clergy and College leaders out of the chapel, then along the sidewalk, by Alliot Hall where Father Mike’s office had been, to the hearse in the Hoehl parking lot on the north side of the Chapel.

Hundreds walked behind, across Route 15 as Campus Security stopped traffic momentarily, to Merrill Cemetery. The rain began falling more steadily. Edmundites and diocesan priests formed lines on either side as the coffin was carried to the place of burial, beside a Society of Saint Edmund marker; umbrellas came out, held over the Bishop and Father Hornat as they offered final committal prayers. Mourners gathered along the small cemetery’s wrought iron rail. Many gathered after in Dion Family Student Center’s Roy Room for food and fellowship.

A New England Cable News report the next morning included a short Thursday interview with the social-media savvy  Bishop Coyne, who noted how more than 100,000 Facebook signatures were on Father Mike’s bereavement page. Bishop Coyne described talking the day before with President Neuhauser, who told him “I didn’t realize how many lives he touched till people began calling and talking about it.”

One woman passing the College along Route 15 on the Thursday morning of Father Mike’s funeral posted a photo online documenting what several others also reported viewing shortly after a dramatic sunrise peeked through sporadic rain clouds in Colchester – a rainbow directly over campus.

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