A pilgrim’s journey home: Thousands mourn Shrine’s Msgr. Easton

Archbishop Allen Vigneron weeps in front of the casket of Msgr. William Easton before the Jan. 3 funeral Mass at the National Shrine of the Little Flower in Royal Oak. Msgr. Easton, the parish’s longtime pastor, died Dec. 29 after suffering a cardiac ailment Dec. 20.

Archbishop Allen Vigneron weeps in front of the casket of Msgr. William Easton before the Jan. 3 funeral Mass at the National Shrine of the Little Flower in Royal Oak. Msgr. Easton, the parish’s longtime pastor, died Dec. 29 after suffering a cardiac ailment Dec. 20.

Archbishop recalls the ‘many ways’ well-loved pastor touched countless lives

Royal Oak — Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron encouraged the faithful to understand the journey “from death to life as a kind of pilgrimage,” at the funeral Mass for Msgr. William H. Easton on Jan. 3.

“For all the years I’ve known Msgr. Easton, he loved to be on a pilgrimage,” said Archbishop Vigneron in his homily during the liturgy, which was held at the filled-to-capacity National Shrine of the Little Flower in Royal Oak, where Msgr. Easton had been pastor since 1996.

“He loved to have his passport, he loved to be going somewhere,” added the archbishop, which made the filled-to-capacity church chuckle gently. “From his years in the college seminary when I was in high school, I remember going along with him to Mexico to do pastoral work there. Going out always ready to find the grace God offered him over there … wherever ‘over there’ happened to be.”

Archbishop Vigneron, having once served as rector of Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, had worked alongside Msgr. Easton, who was vice rector at the time. The archbishop appeared visibly moved when reminding the faithful of “the many ways he’s touched your lives [and] the many ways he’s touched mine and helped me be a better priest.”

“He lived the life of a pilgrim, and he passed out of this life as a consummation of that pilgrimage,” said the archbishop.

Born in Detroit on June 18, 1944, to William and Shirley Easton, the oldest of six children, Msgr. Easton felt the call to the priesthood from a very young age and entered the seminary from eighth grade. Graduating from Sacred Heart Seminary and earning a Master of Divinity degree from St. John’s Provincial Seminary in Plymouth, Msgr. Easton was ordained to the priesthood on June 14, 1970.

A priest for 43 years, then-Fr. Easton began his ministry as associate pastor of St. Mary Parish in Royal Oak in 1970. He became co-pastor of that parish in 1972 before being assigned as pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Pontiac in 1975, where he served for 14 years. From 1986-89 he also served as administrator of nearby Shrine Parish of St. Joseph in Pontiac.

Msgr. William Easton is seen during a blessing of animals in this file photo. With him is his beloved Newfoundland, Lord Stanley, or “Stachu,” as he is known to the parishioners he often greeted with the animal-loving pastor at Shrine.

Msgr. William Easton is seen during a blessing of animals in this file photo. With him is his beloved Newfoundland, Lord Stanley, or “Stachu,” as he is known to the parishioners he often greeted with the animal-loving pastor at Shrine.

In 1988, Fr. Easton began a period of service at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, becoming its director of formation before moving into full-time service as vice rector in 1989. He became pastor of Shrine of the Little Flower in 1996, two years before its designation as a national shrine.

In addition to his pastoral duties, Msgr. Easton had served as a vicar and member of the archdiocesan Presbyteral Council; a member of the archdiocesan College of Consultors; coordinator for archdiocesan celebrations for consecration of new bishops, consistory and others; and a board of trustees member at both Madonna University and the Children’s Trust Fund of the State of Michigan. He also served as chaplain of the Royal Oak Police Department.

Msgr. Easton was also well-known for having served as the overall site director who organized Pope John Paul II’s Mass at the Pontiac Silverdome during the pontiff’s historic visit in 1987.

He was awarded the title of “monsignor” by Pope John Paul II in 1990, designated the more rare title of “honorary prelate” — the second of three ranks.

On Dec. 20, Msgr. Easton had suffered a cardiac ailment and subsequent fall and was rushed to the hospital. A little more than a week later, Dec. 29, he passed away at the age of 69. Burial is in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Southfield.

He is survived by his mother, Shirley; a brother, Karl (the late Deanna); two sisters, Theresa Naski (the late James) and Kathleen Wigmosta (Mark); his special aunt, Hester Abbott; and many nieces and nephews. He is preceded in death by his father, William; and two brothers, Robert and Donald.

Shrine associate pastor Fr. Joseph Lang said Msgr. Easton will be mourned by the numerous lives he touched.

“The world was his church,” said Fr. Lang. “After his accident there were emails from Japan and China, Mexico and Europe, of all of the people and contacts he had from visiting and serving those places.”

Fr. Lang said Msgr. Easton’s goal was to be another Christ in the flesh, “to be the eyes, ears and hands of Christ himself to those to whom he ministered.”

“I really appreciated the genuineness of his priesthood and the fact that he seemed to take a great interest in every individual with whom he came into contact,” said Fr. Lang, adding that Msgr. Easton had a special love for the schools at Shrine.

“At the beginning of every year he’d tell the teachers at the opening Mass that ‘it’s our job here and your job as teachers and administrators to help these kids get to heaven. If one doesn’t, we have failed in our job.’ He said that annually,” remembered Fr. Lang.

Msgr. Easton was known at Shrine and in the local community for his love of animals, said longtime parishioner Kathie Dorsch.

“Msgr. Easton loved his animals,” said Dorsch of his two dogs, Newfoundland Lord Stanley – or “Stachu” in Polish — and golden retriever Rosie, as well as his white cockatoo, Carlito.

“Monsignor would write about his animals every week in the Shrine Herald (parish bulletin),” she said. “The parishioners would love to read about the animals. He would take the animals over to the schools so that the children could see them.”

Another parishioner, Marylynn Hewitt, knew Msgr. Easton since his time at St. Vincent de Paul Parish. She also recalled his great love for God’s furry creatures.

“He received Rosie as one of the Shrine auction items years ago,” said Hewitt, who formerly served as The Michigan Catholic’s managing editor. “Most recently, he and Lord Stanley were involved with Great Lakes Newfoundland Club water dog training as they were working on being certified as a rescue team.”

She recalled his great sense of humor as he once shared on his Facebook page: “I took Lord Stanley to Pet Expo to encourage volunteers for pets visiting nursing homes. When we arrived there was a contest for dogs in Halloween costumes. One lady said, ‘your poor dog doesn’t have a costume.’ I said, ‘not so, this is a greyhound in a bear costume.’ He didn’t win.”

John LaCroix, director of RCIA and adult formation at Shrine, had known Msgr. Eason for 20 years. He described the pastor as “a big picture guy; he understood how to administer things. He said, ‘I don’t hire people so that I can do their job.’”

“He could oversee it all, he knew what was going all the time, but he never second-guessed or put himself in the way,” LaCroix said. “To have that ability made him a perfect fit at the Shrine.”

Msgr. Easton was known for having a special love for the Easter Vigil, when new Catholics entered the Church, said LaCroix. And parishioners greatly enjoyed his homilies: “I always told people we were missing the boat by not recording his homilies.”

“He never, ever shortened the Mass for any reason,” LaCroix said. “He followed the liturgy, used the correct prayers, didn’t make anything up. It was like he stepped into a different world at Mass: the altar was a special place, and everything else disappeared.”

Memorial tributes for Msgr. Easton

Memorial tributes may be made to any of the following:

• Sacred Heart Major Seminary, 2701 Chicago Blvd., Detroit, MI 48206

• American Cancer Society, 20450 Civic Center Drive, Southfield, MI 48076

• Or to any of the parishes he served.