Father Roark recalled as marvelous priest, loyal friend

Humble, approachable, he could make people glow with joy

By Tom Maguire

Associate editor

He had a knack for building up his fellow priests and never letting a wedding party down.

   Father John Luke Roark, who died at the age of 87 on Feb. 24, one time felt unable to honor a request to officiate at the wedding of a bridge buddy’s daughter. But “when she came down the aisle and saw that indeed John was present sitting at the altar, she glowed with joy,” according to a remembrance at Father Roark’s funeral Mass on March 2 at St. Ann Church on Onondaga Boulevard in Syracuse.

   Ordained a priest for the Diocese of Syracuse on Feb. 2, 1956, Father Roark served in more than a half-dozen parishes. A great reader, he lived by this quote: “But as it is written: ‘What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him,’ this God has revealed to us through the Spirit” (1 Corinthians 2:9-10).

   From 1977 to 1983 Father Roark was the Episcopal Vicar for the Western Region of the diocese.

   In that role, he “often gave new life to pastors, building them up, reminding them of their significant accomplishments and listening to and responding to their thoughts and ideas,” said his longtime friend Jack Balinsky, president of Catholic Charities of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester.

   Balinsky met Father Roark in the early 1970s through their joint work in senior housing and at a community center in Mattydale. He could not attend the funeral because of the snowstorm that day, during which he received a Catholic Charities award in Rochester. He delivered his words of remembrance through his friend Minch Lewis, a classmate from the University of Notre Dame and an adjunct professor at Syracuse University. Lewis also knew Father Roark, through Balinsky.

   Balinsky praised Father Roark for his warmth, constant availability, self-effacing humility, and ability to plan strategically. He said Father Roark helped him in many ways: “father/brother, mentor, listener, counselor, and cheerleader. He provided this same support to literally thousands of people to whom he ministered in his remarkable career.”

   In a regular bridge game, Father Roark partnered with Balinsky “against the formidable team of [Father] Dan DeLorme and Jack McCrea.” It was McCrea’s daughter Lisa whom Father Roark pleasantly surprised by showing up, after all, for her wedding.

   Father Roark also preached at the wedding of his friend of more than 40 years, John J. Kenney, Ph.D., chief of Aging and Disability Services for the Montgomery County, Md., Department of Health and Human Services. Father Roark was the godfather for Dr. Kenney’s daughter, Brigit.

   “Father John was a wonderful priest to many in the Central New York area,” Dr. Kenney said. “His loving acceptance, genuine positive regard for all people, non-judgmental attitude, and generosity of spirit endeared him to many and added to his effectiveness as a priest. He will be very much missed by so many.”

   The priest who officiated at the wedding of Dr. John and Nancie Kenney  was Father Douglas A. Morrison of Rockville, Md. He was a classmate of Father Roark’s at St. Bernard’s Seminary in Rochester. They were friends for 68 years.

   Father Morrison remembers Father Roark as a “very loving priest and a very faithful priest … wonderful human being, approachable.”

   Asked what the buddies did together, Father Morrison said, “Everything, everything, everything. He was the most comfortable person to be with. He talked theology, the current theology, changes in the Church, in the practice.” They used to go on retreats together a few times a year. At the age of 87, Father Morrison still uses his three professional licenses. In his home office, he dispenses pro- bono non-emergency psychotherapy and spiritual-discernment services. He also works 10 hours on Wednesdays at Unity Health Care in Washington, D.C., and serves as a parish assistant at St. Mary’s Church in Rockville.   

   Father Joseph H. Phillips, of Skaneateles, knew Father Roark for almost 50 years. “He would be most proud of his being recognized as a beloved pastor,” Father Phillips said. He noted that his friend was a marvelous priest who once had a team ministry at St. Margaret Church in Mattydale. He remembers his buddy as a great bridge player; season-ticket-holder of Syracuse Stage; traveler (Rome, Italy, was a favorite place); well-organized planner; chairperson for a major-anniversary diocesan dinner held in the Carrier Dome; and gourmet cook who was so good he could have worked in a restaurant. Father Roark fixed different dishes such as fish and potato soup. “Whatever it was, vegetable, whatever, it was just done gourmet style,” Father Phillips recalled.

   He added: “He was very enjoyable to be with,” and dinnertime always meant interesting conversation because Father Roark stayed very current and was very well read.

   Father DeLorme, who lives at The Nottingham in Jamesville, agreed that Father Roark was a “fantastic host. One marvelous cook, he really was. Just an outstanding human being. Even toward the end here, he was very friendly and very cheerful.”

   Father Roark believed in “rather short homilies,” and he was very well prepared, Father DeLorme said. “He knew enough not to talk too long.”

   Retired Auxiliary Bishop Thomas J. Costello served as celebrant for Father Roark’s funeral Mass. The principal concelebrants were Father Phillips and Father Morrison; assisting was Deacon David G. Losito.

   Bishop Costello asked God to reward Father Roark for his labors and to give him the fullness of life. “May choirs of angels welcome you,” the bishop said in his final prayers.

   In his passionate homily, Father Morrison asked the congregation what the gospel says when one is in a dilemma and cannot even find God. “It says do not look to the right or left, don’t look high, don’t look low. You will find God in the person next to you. … Is there good news in death? No! Because there is no death!” With Jesus, he said, there is only life.

   He concluded: “I speak for John, my friend. Sixty-eight years. He speaks to us from his new life. … This is the good news of Jesus Christ.”