Legends of the Beach:
Father Richard Raney
Father Richard Raney, the beloved and respected chaplain for the sisters cloistered at the San Damiano Monastery on the grounds of the Church of the Ascension, has come a long way from his modest beginnings in Peoria, Illinois.
One day, a first-grader on his way to school, Raney heard the newsboys on every street corner hollering, 'Extra! Extra! The Kaiser has surrendered!' "We didn't have a radio in those days, so we didn't know about it until the paper came out.” When he got to school, he walked in and announced to the teacher and his classmates that the Kaiser had surrendered. His teacher took him around to all the classes and had him make the same announcement. "I got a big hand every time!” Raney recalls with amusement.
It was while Richard was attending Brothers of Mary high school that he got the first inkling about his ultimate vocation, and spoke with one of the Brothers about it. But his father made his wishes known.
"He said, 'No, wait until you've finished high school before you make that decision. Then, you can do what you want.' My father was a smart man.”
Ascension parishioner Jim Stevens, who has enjoyed a great friendship with Father Raney over the years, tells a story about the priest's high school years. "He was on the football team at Brothers of Mary, and one day his coach brought some of the boys to a game at Notre Dame, where they were introduced to the famous Knute Rockne. Well,” Jim says with a chuckle, "Knute shook Richard's hand, and he hasn't washed that hand since.” That Father Raney met Rockne is most definitely true; the rest is Stevens' humor.
After completing his post-graduate degree at Kenrick Seminary in St. Louis, Raney was ordained in 1938. His first assignment, as an assistant priest, took him to Bloomington, Illinois. "The church was huge, and we had no microphones, so Mass had to be said loud enough to reach the back pews.” This, he says, is where he developed his resonant voice. The parish high school needed an athletic director, and the job went to him. When World War II broke out, all the young men were being drafted, and the school lost all of its coaches. Father Raney stepped into that role as well. "It wasn't my real calling, but it needed to be done.”
Father Raney was in Bloomington until 1946, when he was assigned his own parish for the first time. "It was in Ottawa, Illinois. They were turning their high school into a coed, so they came to me to start their athletic program.” Five years later, doing something he had never done before, Father Raney asked for a specific parish. "My father had died, and I took my mother in to live with me. So I asked for a small parish and they gave me Chatsworth, Illinois.”
Father Raney says this was a good assignment for him, in this small town of 1,000 souls. "They had a small parish school. I was there twenty years. I knew everybody there. Then the bishop died, and the new one who took his place asked me one day, 'Do you want to stay in Chatsworth or do you want to go to work?'” This Raney relates with a wry chuckle. "The right answer was 'go to work'. We built Saints Peter and Paul Church and school, convent, and rectory. The Lord kept me humble. Every roof leaked!” Father Raney spent twenty years building the parish. But then, the largest parish in the diocese was open, and the bishop couldn't get anyone to take it. "So I took it. We didn't have to build anything, but we still had to raise funds.” After five years there, Father Raney says he was tired. "I was nearly 70 years old, and I wanted to retire.”
Former Illinois parishioner Jim Baldwin – a big baseball fan who was first drawn to our area so that he could go to the spring training games - and his wife Chris bought a place on Fort Myers Beach and in 1960, invited Father Raney to come for a visit.
On my first trip down, we stopped in a St. Xavier Church on McGregor Boulevard. There was no Catholic church on the beach at the time, and I wanted to offer Mass. The priest who answered the door at St. Xavier's was an old professor of mine! Of all the people in the world who could have come to the door...”.
One of Father Raney's earliest memories of those initial days on the beach is a ride in Jim Baldwin's boat. "Their house was quite close to the bridge, on the bay side. Jim gassed up the boat and instead of going back to his house; he went all the way around the island to get home. It was a beautiful trip, but I got sunburned.”
After twenty years of regular visits, Father Raney was invited to come live with the Baldwin's permanently, which he did. "Leonard Santini practically owned the island then,” Father Raney says, "and when he started subdividing his land, he donated the property where the Church of the Ascension is now. Mr. Santini built a home for retired priests, but that didn't work out.” By then, Bishop Nevins saw there was an empty building on the property. "He always said he wanted a house of prayer in his diocese, so he went to the east coast and invited the Poor Clare Sisters to come live here.”
In 1988, the first sisters came to take up residence at the San Damiano Monastery – in the building originally built to house retired priests. Sister Emmanuelle (who actually established the monastery and who passed away last year), Sister Mary Frances, Sister Mary Paschal and Sister Mary Seraphim were the first to arrive. Four more Sisters have come to live at the monastery since then – Sisters Marra, Anunciacion, Pilar and Esperanza.
"God sent Father Raney to us,” Sister Mary Frances says with quiet confidence. "When we first arrived, we had a priest on the east coast who was set to be our chaplain,” but he first had to make a trip to Ireland. "One day, Father Raney came to the monastery and asked if there was anything he could do for us, so we asked him if he would say Mass for us until our chaplain arrived, which he was happy to do.” But the priest slated for the job never contacted the Sisters again, and Father Raney became their chaplain, at the tender age of 75, the year he celebrated the 50th anniversary of his ordination into the priesthood. That was 25 years ago.
When the Baldwin's passed away, they left their beach home on the north end of the island to Father Raney. "Every day I would drive up Estero Boulevard to come see the nuns.” But in May of last year, Father Raney moved into the monastery. "This is my home, here with the nuns.”
Sister Mary Frances says he still serves Mass for them every day, but he has needed some assistance from time to time. She says at 99 years old, soon to be 100, Father Raney has outlasted so many of his friends here. Says Father Raney, "Getting old is not for sissies.” Father now has a personal caregiver, Debbie Hashek, who comes to help him with meals and errands. "I just do what needs to be done,” she says with a smile.
Today, friends and family will gather to show Father Raney their love and support in celebration of this very special man as he begins his 100th year of life on earth. Bishop Frank Dewane will say Mass, and then those who have come together on this special day will treat their beloved priest and friend to an old-fashioned birthday party.
Happy Birthday Father Raney!