In August, the congregation of St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Holiday paid tribute to their parish priest, the Rev. Edward Stapleton, on the 50th anniversary of his ordination.
They had a celebration dinner at the Seven Springs Country Club. "Quite a party,'' recalled his dear friend and fellow priest, the Rev. Mike Arkins. "Ed loved to party.''
On the same altar where Father Ed inspired and comforted so many with his words, his fellow priests tried to do the same during a Mass on Friday morning. Any sadness — and there were plenty of tears — stemmed from the suddenness of his departure. His flock had not been able to say goodbye.
But when the Rev. Tom Fitzgerald turned from prayer and song to testimonial of this special man, laughter filled the air.
"Wherever he went,'' the priest said, "he was funny. He was always telling jokes.''
The men and women who filled the pews knew that, and they smiled at the thought of the round-faced Irishman getting off a punch line. Rev. Fitzgerald told them something else they knew — that Father Ed earned his place in heaven. And they smiled again.
Clearly Rev. Stapleton had health issues. His back hurt so much that he had to grip a railing and inch his way to the microphone. He never complained, or stopped telling jokes. And when he left six weeks ago for Cleveland, most church members had no reason to suspect he wouldn't be back.
In a typical act of selflessness, he left because he didn't want to be a burden. A 77-year-old diabetic with one kidney, Rev. Stapleton knew he needed specialized care. If he stayed in Holiday, where he had lived in the parsonage the past seven years, friends would have to drive him for treatments. In Cleveland, U.S. headquarters for the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament, he could get that care on site.
As it turned out, he needed dialysis. But after the first treatment, he said enough.
Rev. Arkins' voice cracked as he quoted his friend: "It's been a great ride.'' He died at 12:10 a.m. on Feb. 4 — the 200th birthday of the French priest who founded the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament in 1856, Saint Peter Julian Eymard.
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Rev. Stapleton liked to joke that he became a priest because he got off at the wrong trolley stop. He had just graduated high school and traveled from his home near Philadelphia to Cleveland to visit his grandmother. He got off the trolley on Euclid Avenue and noticed a massive set of steps leading to a fascinating building. Curious, he hiked up the steps — and into the seminary.
Rev. Arkins loves to tell that story. "The steps intrigued him,'' Rev. Arkins said. "But as a student, they didn't intrigue him anymore when he had to shovel snow. Now they were 'damn steps.' ''
The more complex reasons for young Edward to join the priesthood were lost over his long career that began in the Philippines, where he served until 1976. He became provincial treasurer of the congregation in Cleveland until moving to Holiday. "He much preferred the warm weather,'' Rev. Arkins said.
Rev. Stapleton had no formal training in accounting. He taught himself, and he created accounts and streamlined collection efforts to benefit education programs. He set up medical insurance for priests who had always depended on the generosity of parishioners.
Important work, but those who honored him on Friday remembered him mainly for his humanity. He had a sixth sense, the priests said, that attracted him to troubled people. And he was not the least bit shy about engaging them. He loved to talk, but he knew when to listen.
Loretta Madsen, who has been a member of St. Vincent de Paul since 1973 (about the same time it opened), set up the altar at the Sunshine Christian Home every Thursday when Rev. Stapleton would minister to the shut-ins. She marveled at his kindness and humor and said she would miss her "birthday pal.''
"We shared the same birthday,'' she said. "We went to every restaurant. Didn't matter. He loved to eat. He really loved the cookies at rummage sales. He was smart, caring and fun — just a good man in every way.''