Father Hilary Rodgers loved being around people, loved taking part in the liturgy and was honored to be a priest.
“He would always say ‘I’m thrilled to be a priest,’” said his friend, Father Charles Dillingham, pastor of St. Mary of the Assumption Church in Hockessin.
“He was so enthusiastic and full of energy about the liturgy. He was full of enthusiasm for whatever he did.”
Father Rodgers, 75, a retired Diocese of Wilmington priest who lived at Jeanne Jugan Residence in Newark, died April 1 as a result of coronavirus and underlying illnesses, according to the Little Sisters of the Poor. He was ordained to the priesthood in 2004 and had been retired since 2015. Among his appointments in the diocese, Father Rodgers had been pastor of Holy Spirit Church, New Castle, and St. Benedict Church in Ridgely, Md., and its mission church, St. Elizabeth in Denton, Md. He also served as associate pastor at St. Helena and St. Mary Magdalen churches in Wilmington.
A native of New Windsor, N.Y., Father Rodgers served for 35 years as a Capuchin Franciscan Friar, in Delaware, New Jersey, New York and Virginia before his priesthood.
“Father Hilary was a warm and caring priest. He was dearly loved by the people he served over his many years of ministry as a priest and religious brother,” said Bishop Malooly. “We send our condolences to his brother, Richard, and pledge our continued prayers to the Little Sisters and residents of Jeanne Jugan during this sad and difficult time.”
The coronavirus in the last week has contributed to the death of five residents of the Little Sisters of the Poor Jeanne Jugan Residence in Newark. All of the victims had underlying medical conditions.
Father Dillingham said he was assigned to St. Elizabeth’s parish in Wilmington in the 1990s when he came to know Father Rodgers, who was then a brother and director of House of Joseph, an emergency shelter for homeless men in the city.
“I got to know him when he asked me to do a 7 a.m. Mass at the shelter,” Father Dillingham said. “A 7 a.m. Mass you kind of expect people to be rubbing their eyes. Not Father Hilary. I got there and he had a full liturgy planned with music, holy water, he was so happy that we could do it.”
“I got to know him very well through that and we kept in touch. He came to me at one point and said he had discerned he wanted to be a priest for the Diocese of Wilmington and wanted to know what I thought. I said ‘Wow, it’s a great idea.’”
The only potential obstacle was at the time the diocese was reluctant to accept candidates for priestly vocation who were over 50 years old because it would not leave them a lot of time to serve in the priesthood.
“But Father Hilary was always young at heart, and praise be to God, the bishop made an exception.”
In 2000, Father Rodgers was accepted into priestly formation for Diocese of Wilmington and began theological studies at Blessed John XXIII National Seminary in Weston, Mass.
He was ordained in 2004 by Bishop Michael A. Saltarelli.
Deacon Harold Jopp Jr. served with Father Rodgers during the five years of his pastorate at St. Benedict/St. Elizabeth. He said the priest was prayerful, humble, inspiring and authentic.
“Just a loving, generous, gentle person,” Jopp said. “He was just a joy to be with. He had a beautiful voice and he loved to sing. He had a beard and I used to joke that he was a cross between Burl Ives and Santa Claus.
“He’s at the top of my list of priests that I’ve admired in my 40 years of being a deacon. And I mean every word of that.”
Father Dillingham said he was part of a support group for priests that included Father Rodgers.
“He would have an annual Christmas party. He enjoyed having people around. He was always delightful. After he went to Little Sisters, we asked Mother if we could have one of our support group meetings there and she said yes.”
“It’s a true loss for the Diocese of Wilmington and his brother priests, and I’m sure the Little Sisters appreciated him too.”
The Little Sisters of the Poor Jeanne Jugan Residence serves 66 low-income elderly residents in three levels of care, including intermediate care/skilled, residential rest and independent apartments. There are 11 Little Sisters of the Poor and 123 staff members at the residence. They have been hit especially hard during the coronavirus pandemic. Those wishing to help the sisters and residents, can make an online donation at www.littlesistersofthepoordelaware.org.