Detroit — When Msgr. Thomas G. Rice gave the OK to send this issue of The Michigan Catholic to the printer Tuesday afternoon, he also brought to a close his 13-year tenure as the newspaper’s editor-in-chief/associate publisher.
Under his leadership, the newspaper covered the life of the Church, both locally and in the wider world, reporting about everything from parish events to the clergy sex abuse scandal, and twice won best-in-the-nation honors from the Catholic Press Association.
“I hope it has been a paper people have looked forward to receiving, and that it has both strengthened their faith and made them more aware of the work of the Church in the world,” Msgr. Rice, 61, said in an interview during his final weeks with the newspaper.
Recent years have seen The Michigan Catholic attempting to adjust to the new technology of producing an Internet version of the paper while also continuing to maintain its newsprint edition, a process Msgr. Rice said he expects would continue under the leadership of Patricia Maldonado, director of digital media for the Archdiocese of Detroit.
“The paper is a product of the past in many ways, but is positioning itself to move into the future,” he said.
Just because The Michigan Catholic is seeking a greater Internet presence does not necessarily mean the print edition is on its way out, however: “It’s like radio and television — it’s not a case of either/or. When television came along, radio had to adapt, which it eventually did.”
But while The Michigan Catholic is striving to perform its function in new ways, the essence of its work transcends changes in technology, he continued.
“The task of the Church is always communication. The mission of The Michigan Catholic is the mission of the Church — to follow Christ in preaching the Gospel,” Msgr. Rice said.
It was his longtime interest and commitment to communication that prompted Msgr. John Zenz to recommend him for the position back in 1999.
“When the position opened up, I naturally thought of my classmate, Msgr. Rice,” said Msgr. Zenz, pastor of Holy Name Parish, Birmingham, who was moderator of the archdiocesan Curia during most of the past 13 years.
“I recalled that he had a great devotion to one of the legendary early editors of The Michigan Catholic, Msgr. Hubert Maino, who was his pastor at St. Frances Cabrini Parish in Allen Park,” Msgr. Zenz said.
He also remembered how his classmate had been editor of their college yearbook at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit.
“I thought it would be a good opportunity for him, and that he would bring a very balanced perspective to the position of editor,” Msgr. Zenz continued.
Cardinal Adam Maida concurred, and Msgr. Rice agreed to take on the new duties, in addition to being pastor of St. Louise de Marillac Parish in Warren, for three years.
That turned into a 13-year run, during which Msgr. Rice’s leadership proved to be “creative and practical, helping readers from all different backgrounds appreciate their faith and how to apply it in daily life,” Msgr. Zenz added.
Cardinal Maida, who retired as archbishop of Detroit in early 2009, praised Msgr. Rice’s balanced judgment in communicating the news.
“He always reflected pastoral sense in covering the news and is held in high esteem by his fellow priests and beloved by his grateful parishioners. May the Lord bless him with a fruitful harvest in his future ministry,” the cardinal said.
Msgr. Rice recalled how he, as a young teenager growing up in St. Frances Cabrini Parish, used to type up Msgr. Maino’s newspaper columns. Msgr. Maino, who had been editor of The Michigan Catholic from 1947-56, was in those days writing a weekly column for The Detroit News in addition to his pastoral duties.
But Msgr. Rice’s connection to Msgr. Maino goes back much further than that. He told how his mother had consulted Msgr. Maino back in 1949, telling him how she and his father had been hoping to have another child but had not had any luck.
“Msgr. Maino told her to make a novena to St. Gerard, and that when — not if, but when — the baby was born, she should include Gerard in his name or a feminine form of Gerard if it was a girl. Well, nine months later, I was born, and my parents named me Thomas Gerard,” he recounted.
Msgr. Rice said he has given the same advice to a number of couples who have experienced similar success.
Looking back over his time at the newspaper’s helm, Msgr. Rice said he felt blessed to have worked with a fine staff, and especially credited former managing editor Marylynn G. Hewitt for her influence in bringing about the redesign of the paper and encouraging high standards of journalistic professionalism.
He said he also valued the pastoral role he had with regard to the newspaper’s staff, which sometimes included presiding at their weddings and baptizing their babies.
One thing he never worried about, Msgr. Rice continued, was that there would not be enough news to fill the paper: “I figured that, if there are 1.5 million Catholics in the archdiocese, there are 1.5 million possible stories out there.”
Acknowledging the difficulty of having to report on the clergy sexual abuse crisis as it developed early in the last decade, he added, “Those stories are always difficult. My approach was that we should report the bad things, but also report what was being done to correct them.”
Ned McGrath, communications director for the Archdiocese of Detroit, said Msgr. Rice brought “a practical sense and pastoral sensibility to the paper” during a term as editor-in-chief that spanned several historic events in the life of the world and the local Church — the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, “the month of two popes” (April 2005), and the installation of a new archbishop.
“His leadership and insight during those occasions, and many, many others, was always a valuable asset to the staff of The Michigan Catholic and, by extension, to its loyal readers,” McGrath said.
Msgr. Rice’s knowledge of the Church and institutional memory of the archdiocese helped to resolve many questions and assure proper context for the paper’s coverage, and he also had a “good eye” in selecting images and artwork for the paper, McGrath continued.
“He also helped navigate us into the third millennium and position The Michigan Catholic to advance and continue as ‘The’ archdiocesan news source — second to none,” McGrath said.
Hewitt, who served as the paper’s managing editor from 2001-10, said the Catholic Press Association awards won by The Michigan Catholic “speaks volumes about the paper and the entire staff during Msgr. Rice’s time there.”
Hewitt echoed what others said about Msgr. Rice’s balanced approach to covering the news, but also pointed to his concern that the content of the paper be a help to readers in their observance of the Catholic faith.
And beyond that, she also cited his concern for the newspaper’s staff: “He cared about the people, as well as the product.”