Msgr. Stanley J. Russell was ordained to the priesthood before the start of the Second Vatican Council, and today, more than 60 years later, he is still serving the Diocese of Wilmington as its oldest active priest. He was honored recently at a gathering at St. Helena’s Parish in Bellefonte, where he has been the pastor since 1994.
“The years go by fast,” Msgr. Russell said recently from the rectory at St. Helena’s. “I was ordained May 27, 1961. They put off the (anniversary) party here because of COVID.”
Msgr. Russell was ordained at St. Peter’s Cathedral by Oblate of St. Francis de Sales Bishop Edward Schlotterbach because Bishop Michael Hyle of Wilmington had suffered a heart attack and was not available. Since then, he has been the consummate parish priest, but he also played a key role in implementing the reforms of Vatican II in the Diocese of Wilmington and beyond.
Although he has spent most of his priesthood in New Castle County, his first assignment was in Rehoboth Beach at St. Edmond’s Parish.
“They often used to send newly ordained priests to the beach parishes because they weren’t busy then,” he said.
He was diagnosed with an ear infection about a month before his ordination, and his doctor warned him to stay out of the water for a year, he said. In March 1962, he was transferred to the St. Peter’s Cathedral briefly before going to St. Ann’s in Wilmington. That transfer occurred in the same week as the Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962, which pounded the mid-Atlantic coast from March 5-9.
“Rehoboth lost me, the beach and the boardwalk in the same week,” Msgr. Russell joked.
Over the next few years, Msgr. Russell would serve as an associate at Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Brandywine Hundred before assuming his first pastorate in 1972 at Holy Rosary Parish in Claymont, where he stayed 12 years. During the late 1960s and early ’70s, he also did a lot of work related to Vatican II.
He was a member of the first Council of Priests and the first diocesan Personnel Committee, serving as its secretary for five years. Part of that included a trip to Chicago for a meeting of priests from all over the country to discuss a federation of priests’ councils. There, he was selected to represent the Baltimore province when the National Federation of Priests’ Councils was formed and was chairman of the personnel committee.
He also was involved with pro-life activities in the Diocese of Wilmington and was director of the diocesan Family Life Bureau, a part-time position assigned to him by the late Bishop Thomas Mardaga. He was in that role when Roe v. Wade was decided, so he witnessed the founding of Birthright of Delaware and Delaware Right to Life. He was also active in the annual March for Life and decided to travel around the diocese to drum up interest in the march.
“That was the only time I’ve been in some of the parishes in our diocese,” he said.
A native of Brooklyn, N.Y., Msgr. Russell attended St. John’s University, where he knew John O’Brien and Philip Siry, two other New Yorkers who ended up becoming priests for the Diocese of Wilmington. Msgr. Russell said his mother, Adelaide, had a subscription to Extension magazine, and he would read about areas of the country without as many Catholics as New York. His family also used to travel, so he saw how other dioceses operated, and he decided he wanted to serve somewhere besides New York.
“Wilmington is close enough to New York, but not too close,” he said.
He has enjoyed his 60 years as a priest and doesn’t consider it to be a job. “I never realized how wonderful the life of a priest would be.”
He submitted his resignation 10 years ago when he turned 75, but Bishop Malooly asked if he could stay a few more years. Msgr. Russell was happy to do so.
“I’d be celebrating the Mass privately if I was retired, but I’m happy to continue doing it for the people in the parish,” he said.
His love for seeing other places has never waned. Recently, Msgr. Russell visited Europe, a trip delayed for a while. He said he was supposed to go in 2019, but 15 minutes before he was going to board the plane he heard his name being called. The airline needed to fly an additional pilot to Europe, and the airline was required to put the pilot in business class, for which Msgr. Russell had a ticket. They offered to put him in economy class, but he could not sit there for medical reasons. He rescheduled the trip for January 2020, but the coronavirus pandemic caused another delay. He finally got to go this past August.
He said when he arrived in Bucharest, the capital of Romania, he went on a cruise with 52 other people, about a third of the size of a regular cruise. The crew applauded the passengers because it was the first cruise they had been able to work in some time.
He has traveled all over the world and has celebrated Mass in some interesting places. He and the late Father Richard Reissmann said Mass at a side altar at St. Peter’s in Vatican City, and in 1976 he went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
“The priests agreed we would take turns being principal celebrants at the shrine in Jerusalem where Christ was buried and rose from the dead,” he said. “That was the greatest honor.”
Once, with his mother in Ars, France, he said Mass in the church where the remains of St. John Vianney are displayed. The chalice given to him for the Mass “was the one that the saint had used. I’ve been blessed in many ways.”
St. John Vianney is the patron saint of diocesan priests and parish priests, and that is where Msgr. Russell has done most of his ministry. After 12 years at Holy Rosary, he moved to Our Lady of Fatima Parish in New Castle, where he served another 12 years, followed in 1994 with a move to St. Helena’s. One thing all three of those parishes have in common is that they all still have carnivals each spring, and next year, Msgr. Russell will oversee his 50th carnival. The last two have been canceled because of COVID.
He recalled that one year at Holy Rosary, his associates, Fathers Charlie Brown and Gary Fry, thought it would be a good idea for the pastor to get in the dunk tank.
Another priest, Father John Hopkins, was the first to put him “in the drink,” Msgr. Russell said. After five or six trips into the water on a cool evening, “I figured I’d better get out of there before I caught pneumonia.”
Msgr. Russell remembered a phone call he received a few months ago from Msgr. Joseph Rebman, who was retiring, making Msgr. Russell the diocese’s oldest active priest. Msgr. Rebman died Oct. 3.
“Well, thanks, Joe,” Msgr. Russell said.
He will keep that title as long as he is able. “As long as the bishop is pleased, I will continue.”