Saturday, June 30, 2001

Beloved priest gets fond farewell

By Randy McNutt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        READING — As church bells echoed three times across the old working-class neighborhood Friday afternoon, two lines of people winding into SS Peter & Paul Catholic Church here suddenly stopped.

        It was as if time — and reality — had been suspended for them. Their faces filled with pain as they watched pallbearers carry the Rev. Jim Willig's casket into the 19th century sandstone church that he loved so dearly.

[photo] The Rev. Mike Pucke asks everyone at SS Peter & Paul Catholic Church in Reading to join hands during Friday's service for Father Jim Willig.
(Ernest Coleman photos)
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        For what seemed like hours the parishioners stood there frozen, still in disbelief. How could he be gone?

        Father Willig died Sunday at his parents' home in Covedale. He was 50.

        He left this world as he entered it — filled with love, faith and promise. On Friday, hundreds of parish members, friends and family gathered at SS Peter & Paul to remember the priest who cared enough about church members to tell them he loved them.

        “He was the closest thing on this earth to Jesus,” said Louise Smith, who came from Covedale to attend the vigil. “He was so inspiring.”

        The church is giving him the long farewell this weekend because “he really was a well-known priest,” said Rita Riley of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. “He had such a following.”

        Some members followed him from church to church as his career — if his higher calling must be defined by a name — took him around the area. As usual, he reacted humbly to the compliment of a following.

        An all-night prayer vigil began at 11 p.m. Friday and was to end at 6:30 a.m. today. The vigil resumes at 9:30 a.m. today at the church. Later, a procession will move to St. Peter in Chains Cathedral downtown for the funeral at 11 a.m. He will be buried at Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Montgomery.

        Church members are confident that Father Willig's worldly mission was accomplished.

        “He inspired kids to walk with the Lord,” said Bonnie Rack, a member of the parish council. “Love and peace radiated from his eyes — from his whole being.”

[photo] Donna Hensley (left), a cousin of Father Jim Willig, and Father Willig's parents, Alice and Ed, talk with friends and family at SS Peter & Paul Church on Friday.
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        Since he was diagnosed with renal-cell cancer two years ago, changes have occurred at Vine and Church streets. Members of SS Peter and Paul pray more. They come to daily Mass — at least 100 a day now, instead of the previous 20.

        Though weary with illness, Father Willig set three goals: Love God more, help others love God more and love people more.

        Somehow he found the time to write a book, Lessons from the School of Suffering: A Young Priest with Cancer Teaches Us How to Live, written with parishioner Tammy Bundy and published by St. Anthony's Messenger Press. In the book, Father Willig explained what the disease had taught him.

        Meanwhile, he prayed and fought to survive. He received treatments — chemotherapy, immunotherapy, thalidomide. Nothing stopped the disease. He underwent operations to remove a tumor and his kidney and to replace his right hip and 5 inches of his femur.

        Parish members prayed for a miracle but always accepted the possibility that God might not choose to heal Father Willig. The priest knew that, too. While he suffered, his empathy grew for others suffering pain.

[photo] The casket of Father Willig is walked into SS Peter & Paul Catholic Church
(Ernest Coleman photos)
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        “I had colon cancer,” said Jerome Kreiner of Reading, “and Father Jim talked to me and helped me get through it. Thankfully, I'm OK now. When I talked to him, I knew I was in the presence of a holy man. He always had a kind word, whether you were Catholic or not. I'll never meet another man in my lifetime like Father Jim.”

        Kim Stall of Reading wasn't even a Roman Catholic when she met Father Willig. She stopped by the church one Wednesday night to attend a Bible study group with her mother-in-law, and she felt at home.

        “He made us feel special,” she said. “He cared.”

        Deacon Jim Sunderman of Bridgetown said Jim Willig had been that kind of man ever since the two met 20-some years ago.

        “I did his first Mass. He was always very friendly and caring,” Mr. Sunderman said.

        Anne Frick of Colerain Township cared enough about Father Willig to compose a poem and bring it to Friday's vigil. “My heart is full of grief but only for those who miss him,” she wrote. “My heart is overflowing with joy for the knowing that he is at peace.”

        Reading Mayor Earl Schmidt said Father Willig made a huge impact on the community in the three years he served at the church.

        “I've never met a priest like him,” he said. “He went beyond Catholicism. It has been a privilege to know him. He touched every life he came into contact with. It's beyond words.”

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