NORTH RIDGEVILLE — For years, the scenario for an aging priest was akin to that of an old cowboy.
“They died with their boots on,” the Rev. Richard Gonser said with a smile.
The longtime priest and founding pastor of St. Julie Billiart Church won’t be among them.
Even though Gonser, whose vitality belies his 75 years, is officially retiring this weekend after 35 years heading up the 750-family parish, he has no intention of slowing down.
“I won’t come to a dead stop,” Gonser said. “I’m a Type-A person.”
A member of the priesthood for 50 years, Gonser will preside over his final Mass at 10:30 a.m. today, which will be followed by an afternoon retirement party.
Gonser’s decision to step down wasn’t a quick one.
“I’ve been discerning this for two years,” he said while seated at a small table in a kitchen area of the church office.
The office is a short distance from the church, which is connected to the office by a winding path that makes its way through a tranquil wooded area that is part of the parish’s 13-acre property off Lear-Nagle Road.
“It’s hard to believe it’s almost here,” Gonser said. “God has given me wonderful friends.”
Tom Lamoda, who has known Gonser since 1985, is among them.
“Thirty percent of our parishioners live outside the boundaries of the church, and that speaks volumes about him,” Lamoda said. “We have people who drive from Medina, Strongsville and Parma just to come here.”
Lamoda, who is organizing today’s farewell party, has always been struck by Gonser’s caring attitude toward children.
“When folks come to communion, he makes it a point to bless the children also,” Lamoda said. “We’ve told him many times he has a knack for that. It’s just super.”
Extremely well-organized, Gonser has initiated a number of programs in the church, including one that provides free housing for homeless mothers and children a week at a time.
“He’s been a very good friend of ours,” Lamoda said.
Ordained as a priest May 19, 1962, Gonser was one of only three men in a class of 55 who were ordained after their seminary days at St. Gregory’s Seminary in Cincinnati, followed by time at Borromeo College in Wickliffe, and St. Mary Seminary in Cleveland.
“Many of my classmates left the seminary,” Gonser wrote in an article for the winter 2012 edition of the Borromeo Seminary magazine. “This was a source of pain and sadness as I wondered why God was choosing me over so many other men that I thought were better qualified.”
Encouraged to stick it out, Gonser persevered through self-doubt and worries he wouldn’t make a good priest.
“I learned by listening … and trying to serve God’s will instead of mine,” Gonser wrote.
After serving churches in Barberton, Cleveland and Brecksville, Gonser was appointed the founding pastor of St. Julie Billiart parish on Aug. 15, 1978.
Over the years the church has grown from 200 families to 745 households and routinely sees 1,000-plus attending its Masses.
And in that time, Gonser has weathered his own trials, including a bout with cancer and blood clots.
“I watch my weight and my diet, and I exercise,” Gonser said.
His daily regimen includes 30 minutes of walking each morning, and getting on the links whenever he has the chance.
Gonser will be succeeded by the Rev. George Vrabel, 58, a former dentist who joined the priesthood and served at St. Mary’s Church in Berea.
Gonser will be moving a short distance from North Ridgeville to Elyria where he will be senior priest-in-residence at St. Jude parish.
“I won’t have to deal with meetings and other things,” Gonser said, relishing a less-demanding schedule. “I’ll be able to help with Masses. They call me the runner priest. I’ll be available for spiritual support.”
He’ll also be able to take a seat among parishioners for a change.
And he’ll have lots more time for his sporting passion — golf. A 12-handicap golfer, Gonser has taken part in numerous clergy tournaments, of which he’s won a few.
Asked about the tremendously painful issue of priests accused or found guilty of sexual misconduct, Gonser said the problem was a “human issue” reaching beyond the Roman Catholic Church.
“It’s not just priests,” Gonser said. “Most of those types of crimes have been committed by men who are married.”
On the whole, the highly charged issue has been handled properly by the church, Gonser said.
“We are all wounded healers,” Gonser said. “The church has been made stronger for this.”
On the subject of married priests, Gonser noted that there are dioceses in which married clergy have petitioned to be ordained, although the Cleveland Diocese is not yet among them.
“I’m not against that,” Gonser said, even as he expressed the belief that the demands of marriage and a family would naturally put a strain on a priest.
“When a man is married, his wife and kids come first, and that can take time away from devotion to the cause,” Gonser said.
Ultimately, the question “will be up to the next pope,” Gonser said.
Through all of these travails, “the people are resilient, and the church is, too,” Gonser said.
That resiliency has made itself felt in many ways, such as the parish’s open acceptance of all faiths into its services and community.
“We’ve got Baptists, Mormons and Presbyterians,” Gonser said. “Atheists are welcome, too. It’s an opportunity to explore their faith.”
“We’re Catholics but we’re not traditional Catholics,” Gonser said.
Contact Steve Fogarty at 329-7146 or firstname.lastname@example.org.