Msgr. Kohler, a ‘champion of the needy,’ spent life working for less fortunate

Msgr. Russell Kohler

Msgr. Russell Kohler

DETROIT — Msgr. Russell Kohler, pastor of Ste. Anne de Detroit and Most Holy Trinity parishes in Detroit, was everybody’s best friend, and that isn’t much of an overstatement.

Msgr. Kohler, 72, who died Good Friday, March 25, leaves behind a pair of iconic Detroit parishes, hundreds of mourners and a legacy of service to the poor that won’t soon fade, said those who knew him.

“He was a champion of the needy. It didn’t matter if you were Catholic or where you came from,” said Mike Kelly, president of the United Irish Societies, who knew Msgr. Kohler as chaplain of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. “He worked so hard and was such a proponent of Corktown and the people of Most Holy Trinity.”

Msgr. Kohler had a heart for people’s struggles, often throwing himself into projects to help the less fortunate, said Sr. Mary Ellen Howard, RSM, former executive director of the St. Frances Cabrini Clinic, a ministry long supported by Msgr. Kohler and Most Holy Trinity.

In 1974, he founded the Pope John XXIII Hospitality House to serve as a temporary residence for cancer patients near the Detroit Medical Center, and served as director of the Special Day Camps for children with cancer for decades.

“It was pre-Ronald McDonald (House) days when Msgr. Kohler got involved,” Sr. Howard said. “He could see that people were coming from out of town for special cancer treatment, including children, and their families would come and they’d have no place to stay and couldn’t afford hotels. So he opened up this house, and really kept it open long term. He was a very generous person. He’d give you the shirt off his back.”

As an inner-city pastor, Msgr. Kohler felt the pain so often associated with kids growing up in high-risk situations. During his 40th jubilee celebration in 2013, Msgr. Kohler recounted how during his early days as a priest at Assumption (Grotto) Parish in Detroit, the parish was burying several young people each month as victims of heroin overdoses.

Msgr. Kohler told The Michigan Catholic he believed “the Lord gives each priest a specialty;” his might have been knowing how to minister to those who were hurting.

Moved by the struggles of inner-city families, in 1993 Msgr. Kohler helped create the Trinity Educational Foundation to provide scholarships for inner-city youths attending Most Holy Trinity School, and his work on the board of the Fr. Clement H. Kern Foundation helped continue the legacy of the “labor priest” through initiatives to help the poor and underserved in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood.

“He always talked about traditions and keeping the young people involved so they continued that work,” Kelly said, adding Msgr. Kohler was involved annually in the “Sharin’ of the Green” St. Patrick’s Day Mass at Most Holy Trinity, which helped raise money for the Cabrini Clinic and other ministries.

Like most pastors, Msgr. Kohler was often called to minister to grieving families, but unlike most, his background growing up in a family of funeral directors in Monroe County helped dispose him to the graces of the ministry. In 2013, he organized the St. Joseph of Arimathea Guild for Catholic funeral directors in order to encourage those who care for the living and the dead to see their vocations as a ministry.

While Msgr. Kohler was serious about his commitment to the less fortunate, his sense of humor could lighten any situation, Sr. Howard said.

“He had nicknames for people. He called me ‘the nun.’ He’d say, ‘Get over here, nun.’ And I’d roll my eyes and say ‘What am I going to do with this man?’” Sr. Howard laughed. “But that’s just the way he was. He was a big tease.”

When he wasn’t at his parish, Msgr. Kohler enjoyed a wide range of hobbies, from hunting, fishing, antiquing, boating, collecting automobiles, listening to music and watching the Detroit Tigers.

“The whole parish is in mourning right now. They’re in the same shape I’m in,” Sr. Howard said. “We’re going to miss him terribly.”

Msgr. Kohler was born in Monroe and ordained April 15, 1973. He attended Sacred Heart Seminary, St. John Provincial Seminary and the University of Detroit.

Msgr. Kohler served as associate pastor of Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Grotto) Parish, Detroit (1973-74), and then of St. Aloysius Parish, Detroit (1974-76). He was made temporary administrator of St. Patrick Parish, White Lake, in 1976, before being named pastor of St. Aloysius, Detroit, from 1977-80. He was administrator of St. Joseph Parish from 1980-81, while at same time pastor of St. David of Wales Parish, both in Detroit. The following year, he was administrator of St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Newport.

In 1982, Msgr. Kohler began a decade-long period of service as chaplain to DMC Sinai-Grace Hospital in Detroit, before he was appointed pastor of Most Holy Trinity Parish in Detroit in 1991. In 2012, the pastorate of St. Anne de Detroit, the city’s oldest parish, was also entrusted to him. Later that year, Pope Benedict XVI bestowed on him the honorary title “monsignor.”

Msgr. Kohler was chaplain to the Apostleship of the Sea, Detroit Yacht Club and the Detroit Police Department, among many other ministries.

Msgr. Kohler is survived by siblings Jacquelyn Miller, Polly (Douglas) Lovell, and Barney Kohler; a sister-in-law, Denise Kohler; and nieces and nephews. He is predeceased by his parents, Vernon and Mary, an infant sister, Susan, and a brother-in-law, Alan Miller.

Msgr. Kohler was to lie in repose at Ste. Anne de Detroit from 2 p.m. March 31 until 6 p.m., when Auxiliary Bishop Donald Hanchon will celebrate Mass. On April 1, Msgr. Kohler will lie in repose at Most Holy Trinity from 2 p.m. until his funeral Mass is celebrated at 6:30 p.m. by Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron. Interment will be at St. Charles Cemetery, Newport.