The Rev. John Jeremiah McRaith, bishop emeritus of the Catholic Diocese of Owensboro, Ky., was towed to his rest behind a tractor, on a dusty flatbed between bales of hay. It was a tribute to the native Minnesotan's lifetime affinity for the world of farming.
"He was buried 15 miles outside of town at a convent cemetery," said his successor, Bishop William Francis Medley, "and all along the way, farmers parked their tractors and farm equipment along the road and stood there in silent salute. It was one of the most moving things I have ever seen."
McRaith served as bishop of Owensboro from December 1982 until ill health cut his career short in January 2009. He died March 19 at the age of 82.
"It was corn and beans country, beef and pork, a bit of tobacco but less and less, so he would have felt right at home here, coming from a farm in rural Minnesota," Medley said.
McRaith's sister, Margaret Mary Madden, said she felt a powerful blast of grateful warmth from the community in Kentucky when she traveled there for the funeral mass. The Owensboro diocese covers 32 counties in the western third of the state.
"I feel like I was sucked up into the eye of a tornado," she said. "I found there such love, peace and togetherness. I'm an introvert and I have never been so energized. I've got to hand it to them."
There was humor as well, she said. "During one of the homilies it was stated that 'When we found out our new bishop was from New Ulm, Minn., people were all like, Where is that?' And you know what people from Minnesota were saying: 'Where is this Owensboro?' "
Recognized advocate on farming and rural issues
McRaith was born in Hutchinson, Minn., to a family with three siblings. He attended grade school in a one-room schoolhouse and high school at St. John's Prep in Collegeville. He later studied at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa, and Mount St. Bernard Seminary in Dubuque, and did postgraduate work at what was then Mankato State University.
After he was ordained in 1960, he was associate pastor of St. Mary's Church in Sleepy Eye, Minn., and pastor of St. Michael's Church in Milroy, Minn., and St. Leo's Church in St. Leo, Minn. He returned to Sleepy Eye in 1968 as administrator at St. Mary's and superintendent of St. Mary's High School.
McRaith jumped to the national stage in 1972 when he became director of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, headquartered in Des Moines. He became known as an advocate on farming and rural issues, which Medley said was a factor in his becoming a bishop at a comparatively young age.
From 1978 to 1982 McRaith was vicar general and chancellor for the Diocese of New Ulm. When Owensboro Bishop Henry Soenneker resigned in 1982, McRaith was named by Pope John Paul II to take his place.
Responded to growing diversity
As bishop, McRaith "was on the cutting edge in welcoming international priests from India and Africa and the like," said Medley, a native Kentuckian. "And when people would say, 'They talk funny,' the Minnesotan in him would say, 'What do you mean, you people have an accent!' "
Added Medley: "We in Kentucky feel a debt of gratitude to Minnesota to have sent us one of your finest to spend his life with us. He never picked up much of an accent here, but he became a native son."
McRaith's tenure saw the founding in 1993 of an Office of African-American Ministries, later renamed the Office of Black Catholic Ministry; that same year the diocese bought four properties to house the homeless. In 1997 he established an Office of Hispanic Ministry.
In 2015, as part of the diocesan celebration of McRaith's 80th birthday, Medley renamed the Catholic Pastoral Center in Owensboro after him.
Besides his sister, McRaith is survived by eight nieces and nephews.
On March 23, a tractor-pulled wagon carried his body from Glenn Funeral Home to St. Stephen Cathedral in Owensboro for his funeral.
Christy Taylor Chaney, an official with the funeral home, said it didn't surprise her to see people lining the streets. "He was a wonderful man, friendly to everyone, everyone loved him," she said.