July 30, 1922 – September 11, 1985
Fr. John Maronic, OMI, John Maronic grew up in International Falls, Minnesota, with his sister, Josie, and his brother, Joseph. His parents were both from Austria (the name was originally Marohnic), and his youth was fairly typical; but John Maronic took God very seriously. It was no surprise that he joined as soon as possible the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI).
During his years of study with the Oblates, his religious superior summed up the young man: “Excellent Religious, a model student. A man of the future – up and coming. He needs moderation because he works too hard.”
When Father John’s ordination picture was published in an OMI bulletin, it caught the attention of a reader named Catherine who had spent the greater part of her life in suffering. She felt inspired to write to the young priest: “Father, I saw your picture in the magazine and read about your ordination. As I looked at it, it seemed Our Lord was asking me to offer my sufferings for you and your work. I am therefore taking this whole lifetime of love and suffering and placing it in God’s hands for you and your work. It is my prayer that every soul you meet be blessed by God.” Throughout his ministry Father John remembered this letter from a woman who knew suffering.
Whenever people asked, “Father, how did you get interested in the handicapped?” he would always respond with another question: “How did the handicapped ever get interested in me?”
Early in his ministry, Father John experienced a handicapping condition himself; he was basically losing his voice. His superior knew that he needed some rest and relaxation, and for some reason thought he would find that needed rest if he were assigned to teach high school! While teaching history and literature at an OMI preparatory high school, he met a young student who had developed a stammer. When informed that his own voice would probably never return to its full vibrancy, Fr. John continued seeing the speech pathologist – to learn how to help the student. To Father John it was simple: “Well, I won’t be able to preach again, but in the future, whenever you preach, that will be like me continuing to preach.”
When Father John received approval from the OMI leadership to begin some sort of spiritual support group for persons with handicaps, he began searching for persons who could benefit. “And we keep searching,” he said. “We search the hospitals where chronically disabled people are hidden in the hurried routine of daily care. We go into private homes where incapacitated people are all but forgotten. We dig into schools, orphanages, convents, and nursing homes. We seek people of all religions and of all races and ages. And we bring them out – the maimed, the blind, the retarded, the sick of body and mind.”
“The message we give them over and over again,” he emphasized, “is that they must not hide in the shadows of moodiness, bitterness and self-hate. They must make their lives worthwhile, not only for themselves but in relation to their families and friends and to God who gave them life.” When the first weekend retreat for persons with disabilities was offered at the Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows in Belleville, Illinois, it was no surprise that the theme was “God’s Tremendous Love and Concern for Each One of Us.” Ready to receive and return this love were the twenty or so retreatants, including four from the New Orleans Chapter who spent twenty hours driving straight through to join the group.
At the first conference, Fr. John described three qualities of an “Easter People” – love, joy and peace – which all revolve around love: “Love is the main-spring. Joy is the spontaneous outburst of a heart full of love. Peace is the inner calm which comes from the possession of love.” About love, he expanded: “Love knows no end …total love knows no limits. It consumes itself in sacrifice and giving. At the same time it constantly re-creates us and renews us and energizes our whole being.” Clearly visible was Father John’s love for all persons, especially those who had disabilities. One of those persons described him as “the most loving person I have ever known,” and parents of a child who was disabled said, “We didn’t live until we met John Maronic!” When the Victorious Missionaries celebrated twenty years, the program carried a full-page photograph of Father John with the description, “20 Years of Love with the Victorious Missionaries.”
His spirit of love was contagious, touching everyone whom he touched. He described the loving concern at an early gathering: “One sight was especially moving: to have a blind girl pushing a young man in a wheelchair into the chapel. He did the steering; she supplied the motor power. Then to watch that same blind girl read one of the lessons during the Liturgy with the use of a Braille card.” One time, Father John commented, “I have seen more ‘love in action’ among our lovely handicapped people than I have seen anywhere else in my many years of priestly work. To watch a mother taking care of a paralyzed daughter for thirty years, and never hear them complain either to God or others about their lot; to see the virtuous face of another woman who told me that she had spent fifty years in a wheelchair, and behold the deep love of God written there. When I meet such people, I shake my head in amazement and ponder within myself how God can bring such total love out of the human heart.”
“Another thing which is a constant wonder to me,” he continued,” is how the handicapped reach out to the poor in their neighborhoods, take time out for the sick, and even contact those in jails and prisons. We have many stories in our files of this kind of ‘love in action.’ And you know, most of the time they don’t even have to say, ‘I love you’. . . it is proven in the very act of giving and caring.
“Father John could not pass up the comparison: “Doesn’t this sound so much like the love of Jesus in action? He was always reaching out for the poor, searching out the blind and lame, granting pardon to the sinner. Very seldom did Jesus say to a given person, ‘I love you.’ He didn’t have to say it. They saw it in his divine gaze, in his tender touch, in his power of healing. His very presence to everyone he met was proof that God had indeed come into the world, a love was real and human and touchable.”
When keynoting a Victorious Missionary Conference, Fr. John began with the story of a young girl of sixteen who lay dying: “She had been an elder child in a large motherless family and had spent her childhood bearing the burdens of the home. She was literally tired to death, dying of an advanced case of TB. When a visitor asked her if she had gone to church regularly, she answered simply, ‘No.’ Abruptly the visitor asked, ‘What will you do when you die and have tell that to God?’ The young woman pulled from under the covers her thin hands, stained and twisted with work, and said, ‘I will show God my hands.’ This girl,” he concluded, “knew the meaning of real love, and that is the only coin that will get us anywhere with God.”
According to Karl (Korky) Buhr, who later served as director of the Victorious Missionaries, Father John really sought out persons with disabilities. “They used to say that Father John had a sixth sense and if anybody with a disability drove on the Shrine grounds be it by car, bus, or whatever – he would sniff them out. He would find them or they would find him. That is how some of the chapters got started. One group came from Omaha and he met a lady from there; another group came from New York and he connected with those people.”
When stopping by Ireland during a pilgrimage, Fr. John met a woman with a disability, Ada Power. She got so enthusiastic that she started a Victorious Missionary Chapter in Ireland.
When traveling, Father John never phoned before dropping in. On one occasion, he wanted to meet Anna Marie Sopko (who would later become administrator of CUSA, An Apostolate of the Sick or Disabled). In her words, “All I remember is that one evening, about 8 p.m., I was already in my pajamas, the door bell rang, and my dad let in this ‘strange’ priest.” That evening’s conversation began the networking of CUSA and the Victorious Missionaries.
Fr. John often called the people with whom he worked “the Lord’s specials,” and he would do anything to share opportunities with them. This story offers a graphic example of “anything”: Shirley Kopecky, confined to a hospital-style gurney, was one of the early leaders of the Victorious Missionary movement. Father John wanted to take Shirley and her mother out for supper, but he couldn’t find a station wagon or van that was long enough to hold her gurney. So he borrowed a hearse from a funeral home, picked up his guests, drove to a suburban restaurant, parked in front, pulled the gurney with Shirley out of the back of the hearse, and rolled it into the restaurant!
He regularly borrowed a vehicle from the same funeral home so that he or a volunteer could transport his “horizontal members” (Shirley Kopecky and Connie Watson) from their homes to the Shrine for Victorious Missionary gatherings. He went to great lengths as he practiced one of his favorite sayings, “Only by loving and helping others do we complete ourselves.”
For years Father John had quietly shared suffering with the persons whom he served. Eventually he admitted that he had “been bothered with migraines for about 20 years,” but he immediately downplayed the difficulty, “They come only once a year and last only a couple of weeks.”
Later he learned that he was living with Myelo Fibrosis. “A couple of years ago, the doctors diagnosed me as having a rare blood disease. I had suspected something was wrong for some months. It seems I was always fighting to regain my strength in line with the many things I wanted to do.”
Despite the disease, he determined, “I will continue to work here at the Shrine, with the Victorious Missionaries and other projects as long as I am able. I will remain on the Board, hope to attend some staff meetings here at the Center, will keep informed about various things going on and attend the Days of Renewal whenever I can; finally, I want to continue to write Crossroads, at least for the time being. Perhaps the greatest contribution I can make is to help with the spiritual growth of the movement, which I consider extremely vital.”
Ultimately, Fr. John became a foremost witness to what he preached as his illnesses intensified and became disabling. The affliction with his voice led often to personal frustration. The blood disease brought pain; it forced him to continually let go of what he wanted to do and severely restricted what he could do. For years Fr. John had valued suffering because it developed the capacity to love. “We also have a deeper awareness of love. Trials have a way of stripping us of phoniness. Reaching out for others who need us can help to expand our own capacity for love. The mercy and compassion coming from those who love us humbles us into loving even more. An occasional glance at the Christ of the Cross gives us the picture of a man who loved unto folly.”
He could now use his own disabilities to learn more about love. “I read a story some years ago about a woman who was struck blind in her mid-years. She had a long adjustment to make. When she finally made it, she said: ‘I try now to think of all people as handsome or beautiful. This is a pretty good way to look at the world, isn’t it?’ Without her handicap, that woman would never have gotten this profound insight into real love.”
Sr. Myron Corder, who worked daily with him, described him with great appreciation: “Father John’s ardent concern for those in need, his compassion for the poor and handicapped, his concern for justice for the oppressed, his reaching out to give hope to the troubled and courage to those in doubt, his spirit of prayer, his true friendship, especially with those with whom he worked – when things went well and when they didn’t go well – all these are a litany of praise and thanks.”
When writing a Christmas column, Father John had commented that “God’s love is outpouring and overwhelming, ours is so self seeking and stingy.” He added, “It is a good thing that God does not think and act as we do!” Many persons, particularly “the Lord’s specials,” would disagree. To them, the love of Father John reflects well the love of God.
Fr. John Maronic, O.M.I., Future Oblate Saint?
An Oblate who was born in the “nation’s icebox,” International Falls, MN, was known during his life on this earth as a totally warm and kind person, radiating the ardor of Christ’s love to those whom he met.
Fr. John Maronic, O.M.I., (1922-1985), is the subject of a preliminary investigation to determine whether to proceed with presenting his name to the Vatican for future beatification and canonization as a saint in the Catholic Church.
Brother Francis Sullivan, O.M.I., with the permission of Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, IL, has begun to gather documents and testimony about the virtues and holy life lived by Fr. John who is known especially as the Founder of the Victorious Missionaries.
In the early 1960’s, while serving as Director of Pilgrimages at the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows in Belleville, IL, Fr. John saw the opportunity to offer to person with disabilities a spiritual support community centered at the Shrine.
He himself had encountered disabilities in his own life, particularly with a throat and voice condition that made it difficult for him, a member of a preaching community, to preach the Gospel with ease. He accepted this cross, but used it in his own missionary outreach to other gifted persons with disabilities.
Thus, in 1964, the Victim Missionaries took shape at the Belleville Shrine, but soon thereafter, opened chapters in other locales. Today, it is a thriving international organization, still faithful to the charism of Fr. John Maronic. In 1985, shortly before Fr. John died, the VM’s changed their name to Victorious Missionaries.