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 (December 8, 1998)

 

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The Fighter with a Heart Celebrates His Ninetieth Birthday

By: Fr. Sinclair Oubre, J.C.L.

Nobember 27, 1998

Over four hundred labor leaders, parishioners and Pittsburgh community leaders gathered in Duquesne University Ball Room on the 21st of November 1998 to sing happy birthday, and formally say thanks to one of America's great labor priests. Msgr. Charles Owen Rice, born in New York of Irish immigrant parents, attended seminary in Pittsburgh. After his ordination in 1934, he became increasingly involved in social action. 

In 1937, he was one of the founders of the Catholic Radical Alliance and the St. Joseph's House of Hospitality. This same year he joined his first picket line at the Heinz plant.

Msgr. Rice's life was lived at the great turning points in our country's social history.  In 1938, Msgr. Rice delivered the invocation at the founding Convention of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), he marched with Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Spring Mobilization for Peace in New York in 1967, he protested against America's involvement in Vietnam in 1969 and stood with worker in the Pittsburgh area as they lost their jobs and lively hood with the shut down of the steel plants in the 1980's.

All through this time, Msgr. Rice wrote a weekly column in the Pittsburgh Catholic newspaper.  This column articulated over and over again the fundamentals of Catholic social teaching, and the importance of putting those principles at the center of one's life.

In his remarks at the beginning of the dinner, Bishop Donald Wuerl, bishop of Pittsburgh, joked that he also writes a column in the diocesan newspaper.  However, most of the mail that he gets is complaints about what Msgr. Rice writes in his. Archbishop Wuerl went on to say, though, that Msgr. Rice was a consistent defender of his Church and her teachings especially as those teachings apply to the poor, weak and oppressed.  

Msgr. Rice, though, was not a social activist who happened to be a priest. Rather, he was a pastor of souls who profoundly cared about the well being of the people he was called minister.  He did not limit himself only to the "spiritual" side of his parishioners, but recognized that it was the whole human person who needed Christ's ministry.  

Mrs. Gerrie Mullooly,  Msgr. Rice's secretary at St. Anne's Catholic Church,  poignantly expressed his pastoral nature.  She stressed to all in attendance, the impact that he has had in her life as a Catholic, and the wonderful things that she has seen him do in building a community of Christ in her parish.  

Msgr. George Higgins, the nationally renowned labor priest and columnist, summed up the sense of the evening by pointing out that Msgr. Rice was one of the greatest columnists in our country, and that his book, Fighter With a Heart, should be required reading for all seminarians.  Sadly, Msgr. Higgins lamented, there seems to be very little interest among young priests to take up the trail laid out by Msgr. Rice.

The driving spirit of Msgr. Rice can best be summarized by his own words. In a speech given on June 6, 1937 during the "Little Steel" strikers in Youngstown, Ohio, Msgr. Rice told the strikers:

     "Because I have come here at this moment I shall be accused of injecting religion into the labor issue, and I reply: It is about time that religion was introduced into that issue. The reason we have labor strife today, the reason we have had it for generations, the reason six men lost their live in Illinois last week is that religion and religious principles have been kept out of the labor question. Because religion was forgotten, no not forgotten bu deliberately thrown aside, too many industrialists have conducted their affairs as if Christ had never lived and died, as if there were not just god in heaven, and have tried to rule like the absolute Pagan Emperors of old, forgetting that they were dealing with human beings, endowed with human rights by the God who made them."

At the end of the evening, after all the words had been spoken, and tributes paid, this writer, with many others were left with a spirit of awe. This priest truly had seen the Kingdom of God as it is proclaimed by our Church. He had poured out his life to allow others to experience the new age, and now at the end of his own life, hundreds of brothers and sisters were saying thanks for what he had done for them. 
 



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