Home Our Diocese Msgr. Stanley Russell retires after 63 years, but says he’ll stay active...

Msgr. Stanley Russell retires after 63 years, but says he’ll stay active because ‘we don’t retire from the priesthood’

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Msgr. Stanley Russell celebrates Mass at St. Helena Church in Wilmington on June 20. Msgr. Russell, pastor of the Bellefonte parish since 1994, retired June 26. Dialog photo/Mike Lang

More than six decades after his ordination for the Diocese of Wilmington, Msgr. Stanley Russell will retire from the active priesthood on June 26. An era might be coming to a close, but Msgr. Russell said he’s just entering another phase of his ministry, which has brought him great happiness in his life.

“I’m happy to serve the Lord,” he said recently. “It’s been a great life. I thank God every day.”

He has been the pastor at St. Helena Parish in Bellefonte since 1994, one of three parishes he led over 53 years as a pastor. His first was Holy Rosary in Claymont, where he spent 11 years, followed by 12 years at Our Lady of Fatima in New Castle. He came to St. Helena’s in 1994 because his mother was in her late 80s at that point, “and she was right around the block.”

Msgr. Russell submitted his letter of resignation to Bishop Francis Malooly when he turned 75, as is required by Canon Law, but the bishop asked him to stick around “a little bit longer, and that turned out to be 13 years. Thanks be to God for basically good health. I’ve had my issues along the way, but so far, so good.”

Msgr. Stanley J. Russell

He will continue to live in Bellefonte in retirement in the house his parents bought in 1971. His father died in 1977, his mother in 2000. Msgr. Russell spent part of June getting used to the idea of retirement, as well as cleaning out the rectory he has called home for 30 years.

“My major problem seems to be all the books I’ve collected over the years,” he said, adding that he will give as many of them away as possible.

He said he wouldn’t change anything about his vocation. The Catholic Church has seen many changes during his priesthood. When he was ordained, the Mass was celebrated in Latin, with the priest facing away from the congregation. While he was stationed at St. Ann’s Parish in Wilmington from 1962-67, the changes from Vatican II were being implemented, such as getting churchgoers to respond and sing. He also had to get used to the laity being more involved in parish affairs, something that is now commonplace.

Hummy Pennell, the director of religious education at St. Helena’s, has worked at the parish for 24 years. She is going to miss working with Msgr. Russell.

“I have worked with many priests. I never had one I appreciated working with more,” Pennell said. “He does not micromanage. All he asks is that there are no surprises.”

She said Msgr. Russell has a dry sense of humor, and he is “a good beggar.” He asked Pennell to help with the weekly bingo night about five years ago, and she told him she’d do it for the summer. She is still doing it. More than that, she said the priest “is an excellent listener. He is compassionate.”

Parish director of music Joe Louden has been impressed with Msgr. Russell’s deep conviction and dedication to the Mass. He said it was appropriate that the priest served so long at St. Helena’s because “he modeled St. Helena’s passion for the cross always reminding us of the need to embrace your own cross in your daily life and lift it high.”

Longtime St. Helena’s parishioner Frances Kelleher said one of the things she admires about Msgr. Russell was that he kept “so many of the beautiful traditions of the Catholic Church,” such as the Father’s Day Novena.

“I think a lot of people are really going to miss him,” Kelleher said after daily Mass on June 25.

Kelleher said she has known Msgr. Russell since his days at Holy Rosary, where she would occasionally attend Mass. She has seen a lot of priests come through St. Helena’s in more than six decades as a parishioner and sees the pros and cons of having them stay for a few years or for 30.

“It’s been wonderful to get to know many different priests,” she said. “But I really value having the priest stay for a long time. They really get to know their people, and vice versa. I think that’s a good thing.”

Louden appreciated the opportunity to get to know Msgr. Russell on a personal level; the priest presided over the sacraments of Louden’s four children and comforted the family when Louden’s mother received last rites. Louden said he has spoken to many families who have had the same experience. He also recalled Msgr. Russell’s sense of humor and affinity for history that he would share with the Loudens during car rides.

“If you have a chance to know Monsignor beyond the Mass, you come to realize he is a well-read historian always willing to share his knowledge,” Louden said. “He is just an all-around great guy answering his call to the priesthood doing the best he could in good and bad times.”

Msgr. Russell was on the diocesan council of priests and the Priests’ Senate a number of times, and he was involved with the formation of the National Federation of Priests’ Councils. He ended up being the chairman of the first personnel committee of the federation.

Back home, Bishop Thomas Mardaga tapped him to be the head of the Family Life Bureau while he was associate pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in north Wilmington and into his pastorate at Holy Rosary. After the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade that legalized abortion, his workload increased, he said. He helped with the formation of groups such as Delaware Respect Life and Birthright of Delaware, and the March for Life started in 1973. He traveled up and down the Diocese of Wilmington to meet with pastors to try to get them to convince parishioners to go to Washington.

“It’s the only time I’ve actually been in some of the parishes downstate,” Msgr. Russell said, which is ironic given his well-known travels across the country and overseas.

He’ll be right at home on July 10, when the parish will hold a dinner in Masci Hall in his honor. Pennell said at last count, more than 100 people have confirmed they will attend, but there is room for more. Those interested in going should contact the parish. Pennell said she will miss having him around.

“I can’t tell you how much I’ve appreciated working with him. What we will mostly miss is his spirituality. He’s a priest’s priest. It’s what you would expect from any priest,” she said.

Father Christopher P. Hanley

His successor at St. Helena’s, Father Chris Hanley, visited the parish to talk with Msgr. Russell and the staff and the various councils. Msgr. Russell may be able to visit the only state he hasn’t visited, Arkansas, but he’ll be around if St. Helena’s or other parishes need a helping hand.

Kelleher said Msgr. Russell told parishioners at Sunday Masses in late June that he expects to be at St. Helena’s once a week, and she believes he will have a fairly full schedule.

“Monsignor might end up being busier than ever,” she said.

Msgr. Russell did not disagree.

“I’m sure my priest brothers will find work for me to do,” he said. “As I said, we don’t retire from the priesthood. I’ll try to help as much as I can for as long as I can.”