Northern Ireland news

Missing Belfast priest Fr Stephen Rooney was 'glue which held his family together'

Fr Stephen Rooney, pictured with his late mother, Catherine, often said Mass at his home parish church of St Matthews in Belfast. Picture courtesy of the Rooney Family
Seamus McKinney

A BELFAST-born priest who is missing following a boating accident in the United States, was the “glue which held his family together,” his brother Pilib has said.

Despite spending his 30 year ministry in the US, Fr Rooney, whose family are from the Short Strand area, came back to Belfast often.

As well as visiting friends and family in the city he was also known to have visited the Maze and Portlaoise Prison to say Mass where some of his brothers were republican prisoners.

One of his brothers Gerald was a close friend of Bobby Sands.

He is pictured in an iconic 1975 photograph taken in the Long Kesh cages along with the 1981 Hunger Strike leader. The photograph also featured murdered former senior Sinn Féin figure, Denis Donaldson as well as fellow republican prisoner, Tomboy Loudon.

Searches in Detroit are continuing after Fr Rooney (66) and parishioner, Robert Chiles (52) who were reported missing presumed dead after the boat they were on capsized on the Detroit River on Sunday. A number of others were rescued.

Fr Rooney served as pastor at St Joseph’s church, Trenton in the Archdiocese of Detroit since 2018.

Read More: Fr Rooney was a 'beautiful, beautiful priest' - bishop

A community vigil for the Rooney family took place in the Short Strand last night to offer support.

It also emerged yesterday that the boat owner Mr Chiles was coping with the loss of his wife Christine who died by suicide last September.

Fr Rooney became close to Mr Chile’s and his three children as he helped them cope with the tragedy, his brother Pilib Rooney said.

Mr Rooney said his brother was one of 13 children and never forgot his Belfast home.

“He came back and said Mass in the H Blocks when we were in there and in Portlaoise and would say Mass at St Matthew's when he was home.

“He never forgot where he came from and felt it was a badge of honour to come from, as he called it, Ballymacarrett,” Mr Rooney said.

In return, the people of Ballymacarrett and the Short Strand loved Fr Rooney, he said.

“The people here were very proud of him. They felt they had ownership of him and were glad that one of their own had become a priest and had done so well because he came from Anderson Street, one of the poorest parts of the area.”

Mr Rooney said his brother was the central figure in his family after his parents.

“We were blessed to have a mother (Catherine) who really was the centre piece of the family. After that, it was Stephen. He was the seventh of 13 and he was very much the glue which held the family together.

“Despite being in the US, he always called on birthdays and knew all the grandchildren, great grandchildren and great, great grandchildren and where they were at school and things like that,” he said.

In a social media post, Fr Rooney’s niece, Michele Devlin, the well-known director of the Belfast Film Festival said her family had been struck by the “most terrible tragedy”.

Ms Devlin said: “Sunday night I was chatting by text to my uncle (Fr Rooney) and three hours later, he was in a horrific boating accident. The search for his body and that of his friend continues today.”

Fr Rooney’s family has asked for prayers that his body and that of Mr Chiles are recovered.

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe now to get full access

Northern Ireland news