Jeanne Sager | Democrat
FATHER GUS RICHARDSON gets an appreciative hug from one of his "kids," Farrah Flynn of Obernbug, at his retirement party.
Beloved priest goes off into retirement
By Jeanne Sager
OBERNBURG May 13, 2008 The lights went out at the manse in Obernburg last week, but residents are trying to smile through the tears.
After 12 years as pastor of St. Mary’s Church and more than 50 as a priest, Father Gus Richardson retired last week to the home for Franciscan friars in Butler, N.J.
His departure wasn’t unexpected after all, “Gus” turned 80 in March but illness fast-tracked the inevitable.
Gathered for a small goodbye party quickly put together by the parish on Thursday, residents were overcome by emotion.
They’re losing a beloved priest. And they’re questioning the future of St. Mary’s.
The county’s oldest Roman Catholic church, St. Mary’s celebrated its 150th year in 2004 with a visit from Cardinal Edward Egan and a group from Obernburg, Germany.
Situated on the county route that runs right through town, the church is a meeting place for residents. Its hall plays host to much of the hamlet’s events, and its lawn has benefited from the efforts of Sullivan Renaissance volunteers.
For decades, the church has been run by priests of the Franciscan order a tradition borne out of the location of St. Joseph’s Seraphic Seminary just over the hill in Callicoon.
Raised in Elmira, John Richardson entered the seminary in Callicoon in the 1950s.
It’s where he picked up his nickname, where he met fellow Franciscan Father Ignatius Smith, O.F.M., who has been covering Mass at St. Mary’s during Richardson’s illness.
With the seminary closed since the 1970s and the number of young men answering the call to the priesthood dropping, Sullivan County’s seen a dip in the number of brown-robed friars manning the pulpit.
Richardson, Smith, Father William Scully of St. Francis Xavier in Narrowsburg and Father Anthony Moore of Yulan’s St. Anthony of Padua were the last in the county as of last week now it’s down to the latter three.
Thursday, the focus was on Richardson, who sat one last time in the hall while the teenagers from the Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) flocked around, showering him with hugs and filling his plate with food.
“He was so good with the kids,” said Barbara Schultz, a CYO mom who’s been working with the organization since the mid-‘90s. “We’ll have a lot of fond memories besides church itself.
“He’d sit down with the kids, and he giggled along with them, just like one of the kids,” she said with a grin. “He took them every year to the fair in Honesdale and I think he enjoyed it more than they did.”
“I think he’s a little kid at heart,” Mary Flynn, mom to three of Father Gus’ “kids,” said with a laugh.
“He never says ‘no’ to things for them,” added Sunday School instructor Julie Bauer. “He always comes up with money for things.”
Then of course there are the ice cream sundaes youth activities weren’t complete without a trip for ice cream, Richardson’s treat.
With his sometimes gruff demeanor, Richardson made his mark on parishioners, ending each sermon with his instructions “smile, because God loves you very much.”
They’re words that brought Bette and Tom Bisig back into the church, and along with them Bette’s 93-year-old mother.
Living just down Obernburg Road from the church, the family found their way back into religion after living as lapsed Catholics, drawn by a priest who would greet you at the door on the way into Mass and on the way out.
“There are priests and there are priests,” said Dorothy McMurrer with a smile.
Richardson was one of the good ones, she explained, a priest who took to heart what it means to be a Roman Catholic and brought it out in the parishioners of St. Mary’s.
“After somebody’s gone, that’s when you realize what you had,” McMurrer said. “We’re going to miss him.”
Missing him already is Deacon Larry Knack, who has worked side-by-side with Richardson all 12 years of the priest’s tenure in Obernburg.
“He had a vision, and he was not afraid to follow his vision,” Knack said. “He was a dynamic individual who touched everyone some more positively than others!”
His quick tongue worked to make him a popular figure with the youth, and a sometimes frustrating figure for the adults.
But, Schultz said, “We’re his family, who else was he going to yell at?”
Richardson made his apologies Thursday evening for his gruff days to laughter from the crowd.
“I want to thank you all for putting up with me,” he told them.
He spoke of his eagerness to get to Butler, to once again live with his brothers the friars, but of his reluctance to leave the church’s unofficial mascots his Yorkies, Muffin and Katie, who were known on more than one occasion to slip through an open door into Mass and bring a little levity to the ceremony.
Richardson asked the parishioners working to find a home for the dogs not to split them up.
“I’m gonna surprise you,” he warned the parish.
“One of these days you’ll see me walk into Sunday Mass and give my hour homily,” he said, eliciting more laughter from a crowd that’s become accustomed to his quick but heartfelt sermons.
“He subscribes to the theory of reverently rapid,” Knack said with a laugh.
Regardless of speed or intensity, his Masses and his style have pulled together not just a church but a community in the past 12 years.
“What hasn’t Father done?” asked Rachael Kolakowski, a former CYO member who chose to begin attending Mass eight years ago. “He was behind every one of the CYO members, every one of the church members.
“He was kind and friendly, and it was a good transition from not going to church for a long time to attending regularly,” she recalled.
Whoever comes next will have big shoes to fill.
“I’m hoping that it’s someone who is as kind but who can still press us to be more,” Kolakowski said.