Local Religious life

The wit and witness of an Irish sage


by Joe Bollig

TOPEKA — In the era that Father John Francis Rossiter grew up in, it wasn’t unusual for boys to consider a vocation to the priesthood at a very young age and enter the seminary after high school.

Not Father Rossiter. After graduating from Hayden High School in 1951, he headed off to Marquette University in Milwaukee.

After his first year at Marquette, he surprised nearly everyone in his family by entering St. Thomas Seminary in Denver. He hadn’t expressed an interest in the priesthood while growing up.

But one person wasn’t surprised.

“We had an aunt, Sister Agnes Eugenia Finn, a Sister of Charity of Leavenworth,” said his younger sister, Jeanne Renfro, a member of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Wichita. “She prayed every day since he was born that he would have a vocation to the priesthood.”

Father Rossiter is remembered for exercising his 51 years of priestly ministry with wit, charm, humor, intelligence, generosity, compassion and faithfulness. He died from cancer on June 27.

Teacher and pastor

“He was a great teacher, a great philosopher, and a great theologian,” said Msgr. Raymond Burger, archdiocesan vice chancellor. “He was very knowledgeable in all areas that he spoke of, and he was an avid reader. He was humble in that he underestimated his effect on his people.”

He was considered an intellectual, possessing possibly the finest mind of all the priests in the archdiocese. Nevertheless, he had the common touch.

“He was a people person,” said Father Thomas Kearns, a retired priest. “People liked John. I think he was able to put them at ease.”

Sister Corita Conlan, SCL, had known Father Rossiter since he came to Assumption Parish; she was principal of the parish school.

“He was wonderful,” said Sister Corita, who now runs a ministry to the poor. “He let me run the school. He believed in what I could do, and he was a man of integrity. He always supported me well in many kinds of situations.”

He was generous and he was kind, she said. After the weekly Friday Mass for the kindergartners and first-graders, he’d give every child a hug.

“The kids loved him,” she said, “and the faculty admired and respected him, too.”

Compassion and caring

Father Rossiter had great compassion for alcoholics and was very open about being a recovering alcoholic himself. He gave space at the rectory for three separate Alcoholics Anonymous groups to meet.

He was very approachable, and a troubled person could always get a pastoral hearing from him, said Jean Smith, a Matter Dei parishioner and former secretary.

“He tried to help everyone out,” said Smith. “If you had problems, you could go to him, and he would listen and try to help out.”

His understanding matched his very considerable wit and intellect, said Father Jon Hullinger, pastor of Mater Dei Parish.

“A number of people mentioned to me how he helped them at a particularly difficult point in their lives and brought them back into the church,” said Father Hullinger.

Fellow Topeka native Father Frank Krische, now retired, remembered that he and Father Rossiter were the first native Topekans to be ordained and return as pastors.

Father Rossiter was charitable and  supported his staff, Father Krische said. He was generous with his assistance, and wholeheartedly supported the sandwich/sack lunch ministry of the parish.

He was an intellectual who could talk over “your, my and everybody’s head,” said Father Krische, but he was good with people — especially people who were hurting — and could preach a great homily.

Fun and leisure

He loved watching sports; his favorite college teams were the University of Kansas and Notre Dame, and his favorite pros were the Chiefs, the Royals, and the Boston Celtics.

He was proud of his Irish heritage and  was a fixture at the annual St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in Topeka. Indeed, he kicked off the yearly celebration by tapping his genuine Irish shillelagh on the altar at the start of the annual Celtic Mass. According to his last wishes, he was buried with this shillelagh.

Father Rossiter was famous for his sense of humor, and his parish bulletins became well-known and widely read because of the entertaining items he posted in them.

He loved to travel and loved musical theater. He would even head to New York or London to see performances.

“He saw ‘Les Miserables’ 13 times, and I don’t know how many times [he saw] ‘The Phantom of the Opera,’” said Sister Corita. “He would quote them in his homilies.”

Last gift of love

Father Rossiter was pastor at Assumption for 20 years, retiring in 2006. Just before his retirement, he led his parish through the regional pastoral planning process. Although Assumption and Holy Name parishes merged to form Mater Dei Parish after his retirement, his continued presence helped bring the two communities together and ease the transition. He stayed in residence at Assumption after he retired because he loved the people.

His last gift was a witness of a peaceful death, said Sister Corita. Sister Corita and Sister Marjorie Cushing, SCL, prayed with him at the end. They chose Scriptures that he liked, among them: “Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (Jn 14:27); “In my Father’s house are many mansions” (Jn 14:2); and “The Lord is my light and my salvation” (Ps 27).

“Those seemed to be what he wanted to hear,” said Sister Corita. “It was a beautiful, peaceful death. It was a privilege to be there.”

About the author

Joe Bollig

Joe has been with The Leaven since 1993. He has a bachelor’s degree in communications and a master’s degree in journalism. Before entering print journalism he worked in commercial radio. He has worked for the St. Joseph (Mo.) News-Press and Sun Publications in Overland Park. During his journalistic career he has covered beats including police, fire, business, features, general assignment and religion. While at The Leaven he has been a writer, photographer and videographer. He has won or shared several Catholic Press Association awards, as well as Archbishop Edward T. O’Meara awards for mission coverage. He graduated with a certification in catechesis from a two-year distance learning program offered by the Maryvale Institute for Catechesis, Theology, Philosophy and Religious Education at Old Oscott, Great Barr, in Birmingham, England.

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