Northfield, Williamstown Welcome New Priest
This past Sunday the bells of St. Johns and St. Edwards Catholic Church ushered in a new chapter in the lives of two Roman Catholic priests. Fr Kevin Rooney retired from his duties after serving as pastor for the past seventeen years. Stepping into Fr. Rooney’s role is Fr. Dwight Baker who has just celebrated his 34th birthday. While interviewing both men, I became aware of the similarities and differences between these very special individuals. Fr. Rooney who stand 5’6” is dwarfed by the 6’ tall Fr. Baker. While Fr. Rooney is ending his duties as a priest, Fr. Baker is beginning his first pastoral assignment. Both men enjoy playing golf but it is Fr. Baker who unpacked the skis and talked about growing up in the outdoors of the Northeast Kingdom. Fr. Rooney, who grew up in Brooklyn, NY, is avid sports fan from the bleachers.
Fr Rooney, who turned seventyfive years old this spring and celebrated his Golden Jubilee, will be leaving Northfield to his retirement home in Rutland, VT. Sitting among the piled high boxes of personal items and books, I asked him to share some of the memorable events of the past fifty years as a priest.
Born into an Irish Catholic family, he was one of three children. His mother was a school teacher and his father a lawyer. He attended catholic school and after graduating from high school he entered the seminary in preparation for the priesthood.
Ordained in 1962, Fr. Rooney entered the priesthood during one of the most exciting and turbulent times in modern day Church’s history. Vatican II which had convened four years earlier was coming to its close. Pope John XXIII announced that Vatican II was to be the spiritual renewal of the Catholic Church in the modern world. One of the announced aims of the conference was to consider reform of the liturgy, primarily to bring the layman into closer participation in the church services and therefore to encourage some diversity in language and practices. In this time of great reform Fr. Rooney would be forever influenced by the new changes in the church.
I was curious to know how Fr. Rooney had found his way to rural Vermont. Now normally Fr. would shy away from talking about himself. But this question sparked an immediate response. A smile quickly came over him and he said “Well, that’s quite a story” As a young child his family vacationed in the Adirondacks and later he himself began vacationing on Lake Bomoseen near the Rutland area. The peacefulness, the natural beauty and his new found friends on the golf course kept bringing him back each summer. Realizing the special connection he had for VT he petitioned the Bishop in 1988 to allow him a transfer to the Green MT state. The request was granted but with the option that he could return if he ever found that he missed the NY City life. He packed his belongings and said a farewell to Brooklyn and the City. He never looked back or had regrets for moving on to this great state. Over the past twenty four years his parish assignments included the communities of Barre, Waitsfields, Graniteville, and Waterbury. In 1995 his last assignment would bring him to St. Johns and St. Edwards parish.
While interviewing some of Fr. Rooney closets colleagues and friends, each shared with me some of their special memories of the man who so much loved the Northfield area. He was truly a man of great faith and belief. He was humble and grateful to serve the people of these two communities. He shared his knowledge and the meanings of the gospels at each Sunday Mass. But there was also another side to Fr. Rooney. He had a wonderful sense of humor. Marguerite Moore recalled when he was hospitalized and was waiting for the test results, his physician came into his room and Fr. Rooney looked up and asked, “Just tell me one thing, should renew my magazine subscriptions?”
Father Rooney welcomed the families who came to Mass each Sunday. He always had a smile and friendly word for the youngest children. I never saw him frown or become upset by a crying baby or the toddlers who wandered down the aisles. He believed that keeping the young people part of the church community was very important. He once told me that some neighbors were upset that he’d allow the high school students to park their cars in the church parking lot. “They’re doing no harm to anyone by parking here and besides, it’s getting them closer to God than they might otherwise be”
Supporting the community was a top priority for Fr. Rooney. Anyone from the Veterans’ Place will tell you how he welcomed them as his new neighbors. He encouraged the congregation to support the veterans whether it was for their fundraisers, or their community service work. He truly believed it was important to give these men and women the honor and respect they so truly deserved.
There were countless other events that Fr. Rooney supported in town: The 9-11 Memorial Services; the Ecumenical Celebrations with the other churches at Christmas and Easter; the Labor Day Festivities and of course the famous T-shirt and Sock Sale each November.
Stephanie Oaks who has served as director of religious education and is a special friend to Fr. Rooney best described him in these words: “When I think of Father, his genuine concern for people is at the top of the list. He always puts others before himself - personally, this is one of the qualities that makes him a true leader of our faith. The next thing I think of is his sense of humor. He combines his great intellect and wit and can always make me laugh.”
Fr. Dwight Baker who celebrated his first Mass at St. Johns last Saturday evening comes to Northfield with sincere and dedicated spirit to serve the faithful of this parish. When learning of his first pastoral assignment early this spring, a friend called and told him that “Northfield is one of the most wonderful places to live in all of VT.”
Fr Baker grew up in Newport VT with his parents and two brothers. Although he is a middle child, he doesn’t believe he displays typical middle child behavior. He loves outdoor activities and played basketball in his early teen years. He was educated by the Sisters of Charity while attending elementary and high school. He believes he has been blessed with great faith that began in his later teens when he attended a Youth Conference at Stubenville University in Ohio. After graduating from high school he attended St. Francis University and where he majored in theology. As a young seminarian he spent five years working in youth ministry in Atlanta GA. It was there that he witnessed the power of faith among old and young alike.
He was educated by the Sisters of Charity while attending elementary school. He believes he was blessed with great faith that began when he attended a Youth Conference in Stubenville Ohio in his early teens. Several years after graduating from high school he attended St. Francis University where he majored in philosophy. As a young seminarian he spent five years working with young adults in youth ministry in GA. It was there that he witnessed the power of faith among the old and young alike.
When asked about the challenges of being a priest during these turbulent times in the Catholic Church, he believes strongly that the church is currently undergoing a conversion. “It is an exciting time. “ Like the darkness of early spring before the seeds are planted. Faith will grow and be nurtured because we can see that people are starving to connect with God. It is an opportunity that is calling us to find God once again.
Fr. Baker hopes to spend this first year at St. Johns and St. Edwards getting to know the people of this Northfield community. “Bringing us together is one the greatest gifts we can share with each other.”
As the community of St. Johns and St. Edwards, send their wishes of gratitude to Fr. Rooney, it welcomes Fr Baker to his new home in Northfield.