Father William J. Lawler had a gift for relating to people, using humor and his own life experiences to minister during his 48 years as a priest of the Diocese of Wilmington, according to friends and parishioners. The Wilmington native died April 30 in Ocean Pines, Md. He was 73 and had been suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
By all accounts, Father Lawler was an exceptional preacher with a welcoming personality. He also had a great sense of humor, even when diagnosed with the disease that would take his life.
Father Greg Corrigan, a retired priest of the diocese, shared an email Father Lawler sent to friends last November after hearing the news that he had ALS.
The email read, “Not everyday is a good day! Yesterday, I got the diagnosis. There is no easy way to say this, so let me do it in typical Bill Lawler fashion:
“QUESTION: What is the difference between Bill Lawler and Lou Gehrig?
“ANSWER: Lou Gehrig did not have Bill Lawler’s disease. However, I do.”
Father Lawler wrote that he had ministered to other people with ALS, and it is not the disease he would have chosen. Then he reverted to his humor once more.
“The worst part is that Gehrig was a damn Yankee and I am a Phillies’ fan,” he mused. “Why didn’t I get Ryan Howard’s disease?’ He tore his Achilles’ tendon. I could have handled that!”
Father Corrigan said he was “blown away” by the note.
“Bill Lawler is an inspiration. He sees it as it is,” Father Corrigan wrote. “Despite all the brokenness in the world, Bill is grounded in trust, even gratitude. He challenges us to be thankful for the brokenness. This is the Way of Jesus. Through Christ we can learn to love even the brokenness in our world.”
Father Bruce Byrolly, who preceded Father Lawler as pastor at St. Mary Refuge of Sinners in Cambridge, Md., said they used to eat at a diner across the street from the church, and no one was a stranger to Father Lawler.
“Bill was able to meet anybody and relate to them with no barriers. We used to have a small diner across the street from church,” said Father Byrolly, who still lives in Cambridge. “He was able to use his sense of humor to draw people out.”
One of Father Lawler’s closest friends, Father Ed Aigner, said the two traveled and did a lot of things together. They met as seminarians and were ordained a week apart. He said Father Lawler spent six months in France after retiring, fulfilling a longtime dream.
“He always wanted to see the places he studied about” in the seminary, said Father Aigner, who visited him twice in France.
Father Lawler attended Christ Our King School in Wilmington before going to St. Charles Minor Seminary in Catonsville, Md. He completed his studies at St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore, and was ordained at Holy Rosary Church in Claymont.
Holy Rosary was also his first appointment as associate pastor. He also served as an associate at St. Helena’s, Bellefonte, and Immaculate Conception, Elkton, Md. He was named pastor of Immaculate Conception in 1983. In 1990, Father Lawler became the director of the diocesan office for parish renewal, later the Office for Parish Renewal and Evangelization.
He spent a year as associate pastor at St. Catherine of Siena in Wilmington before becoming the pastor of Our Mother of Sorrows, Centreville, Md. His last pastorate was at St. Mary Refuge of Sinners in Cambridge, Md., where he ministered from 2004 until his retirement in 2017.
Rosemary Robbins, the director of religious education at St. Mary Refuge of Sinners, said Father Lawler was a very popular priest who delivered great homilies.
“Most of the people talk about what a great homilist he was. He shared a lesson. He made it personal in his homilies,” Robbins said. “He was relatable to people.”
St. Mary’s parishioners have been submitting remembrances of Father Lawler to the parish, which shared a few with The Dialog. Pat and Jenny Nugent wrote about his homilies.
“His homilies were original and meaningful,” the Nugents wrote. “He usually came down to the congregation to give his homilies, even dancing on the altar steps from time to time. He truly shared himself, personally, in his homilies.”
They recalled that the priest once said a weekday Mass barefoot because the Scripture that day was about God telling Moses to take his shoes off because he was on holy ground.
His pet cat, Señor Gato, was a mainstay at St. Mary’s and even had a column in the bulletin, “The Cat’s Corner.” Robbins remembers Señor Gato making his way into the church on occasion. Father Lawler also had a soft spot for children.
“He loved the children, and they loved him, too. We had the children make up cards for him, and he absolutely loved it. Any opportunity he could bring the children up to the altar, he would,” Robbins said.
During his tenure in Cambridge, the parish celebrated 125 years of Catholicism in Cambridge. He was very supportive of the Hispanic community, Robbins said, and thanks to Father Lawler, the parish now has its own cemetery.
Parishioner Lisa Flynn recalled how open Father Lawler was about his alcoholism. He would have marked 16 years of sobriety this year and was always willing to help others who were struggling.
“Sometimes people would be shocked when he shared his alcoholic history, but he turned it into a ministry,” Flynn wrote. “Many people didn’t realize how many folks he helped by providing recovery resources, sober support, and even money out of his own pocket to other alcoholics who were still sick and suffering.”
Toward the end of his life, she continued, he used Facebook to minister to people despite his own health issues. Father Aigner said those posts continued until Father Lawler was physically unable to continue.
“Even his Facebook posts from when he was in the nursing home, they were so inspirational. People would often say they would be published,” said Father Aigner, who lives in Salisbury, Md.
In addition to his parish work, Father Lawler served on the Priests’ Senate and the Spiritual and Intellectual Life Committee, and as the diocesan liaison for evangelization. He was the diocesan director of RENEW, a parish renewal process, and was the regional representative for the National Council for Catholic Evangelization. After retiring, he moved to Ocean City, Md., and continued to help out at local parishes. Father Byrolly said he also belonged to a priests’ support group in the diocese.
He will be buried at the cemetery at St. Mary Refuge of Sinners, although the date has not been finalized. Updates will be posted as they become available. Father Corrigan said the funeral will be “minimal, like so many others” during the coronavirus pandemic, but that is not unprecedented.
“I have reminded families at such graveside services that the burial of Jesus was minimal, even disregarded. What matters more is our confidence in the promises of God,” he wrote.
He is survived by a brother, Howard J. (Mary) of Omaha, Neb., and a sister, Mary Anne Dorsey, of Dunnellon, Fla., and nieces and nephews.
Father Aigner said his friend wanted his memorial service, whenever it is held, to be bilingual because he was inspired by his work with the Hispanic community in Cambridge.
“Life will really be different without him. He was a great friend and a great support,” Father Aigner said.