DETROIT/GROSSE POINTES — Those who enter religious life say it’s a calling. When Monsignor Peter Lentine heard that calling, he responded by dedicating his life to serve.
Even as he battled kidney failure — which required him to undergo dialysis three days a week for the last three to four years — Lentine, 98, continued to minister, reaching out to fellow patients before his own treatment started for the day. The pastor of St. Philomena Parish in Detroit, across Mack Avenue from Grosse Pointe City, was the oldest serving pastor in the Archdiocese of Detroit and, with 67 years as a priest, one of the longest-serving priests in the archdiocese’s history when he died of kidney failure Aug. 1.
“He was kind and loving and thought about others,” recalled 27-year St. Philomena parishioner Patricia Kolojeski, of Grosse Pointe Farms, by email. “You could never say no when he asked you a favor. Two years ago, even while Father was undergoing dialysis three times a week, he made the effort to visit my husband, who was in hospice at home. This meant so much to Tom, who died three days later. As Detroiters, we are excited about our Father Solanus connection. At St. Philomena’s, we are proud of our Father Pete connection.”
Known simply as “Father Pete” at St. Philomena, Lentine was named a monsignor in 2005. He’s best known for his 50-year career at St. Philomena, but Lentine also served as associate pastor at St. Elizabeth Parish in Wyandotte, Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Grotto) Parish in Detroit, St. Matthew Parish in Detroit and St. Rita Parish in Detroit.
“He was there for a lot of people,” said Mary Beth Calandro, of Grosse Pointe Woods, who has been a member of St. Philomena for more than 20 years. “It didn’t matter what time it was — he would be there if they needed him.”
Calandro said she knew about the impact Father Pete had on her life, but as mourners gathered for visitations Aug. 3-4 at St. Philomena and then for the funeral Aug. 5, she heard countless accounts from others about how he touched their lives as well.
“He was a great listener,” she said. “He was kind. He was open. He loved the kids. He loved the old people. He loved people in general. ... He was a man for others.”
Monsignor Patrick Halfpenny, pastor of St. Paul on the Lake in Grosse Pointe Farms, echoed that sentiment.
“People love Monsignor Lentine,” he said in a prepared statement. “He is easy to love, because he loved so easily.”
So many mourners were expected for his funeral Mass Aug. 5 that it had to be relocated from St. Philomena to nearby St. Clare of Montefalco in Grosse Pointe Park. Archdiocese of Detroit spokesperson Ned McGrath said via email that Archbishop Allen Vigneron celebrated the Mass in front of a packed congregation at St. Clare that included 20 local priests and five Michigan bishops. In his homily, McGrath said the Rev. Don Worthy, a hospital chaplain who often celebrated Mass at St. Philomena when Lentine became ill, shared several endearing anecdotes about Lentine.
Among these, said McGrath, was the following: “‘If you went into a restaurant with him on Mack Avenue, it seemed like everyone in the place would come over to him for a hug or a handshake. It would take 15 to 20 minutes before you could sit down and order your food. And chances were pretty good the waitress would know him as well.’”
Lentine — who was taken to and from dialysis appointments Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays by volunteers from the church — continued to work at the parish office on Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends, Calandro said. As recently as June, he attended a Parish Council meeting, she said. Despite his illness, McGrath said Lentine “never retired.”
Calandro said Lentine would invite the children up to the altar to hold hands and say the “Our Father” with him at Mass. When Lentine was no longer able to celebrate Mass himself, she said he’d sit in the back, where parishioners would line up to greet him before and after services.
“I don’t think he was ever at a loss for anyone’s name,” Calandro said.
Years before female altar servers were allowed by church officials, St. Philomena parishioner Andy Cleek, of Grosse Pointe City, said Lentine had girls occupying the traditional altar boy roles; he said this happened circa the 1970s at St. Philomena. But to avoid raising the ire of church higher-ups, Cleek said Lentine would have the names of the altar servers listed in the weekly church bulletin by first initial and last name.
Calandro said St. Philomena was like a family. Cleek said Lentine started a tradition of recognizing the birthdays of parishioners at Mass circa the 1980s — one of the many ways he made everyone feel special and loved.
“Fr. Pete was a dear man who truly loved each parishioner like they were his only friend,” said parishioner Therese McGratty in an email. “He was a strong and loving shepherd. He will be missed every day.”
Lentine was also known for his quick wit.
“At a social gathering years ago, someone came up to him and introduced herself as being from St. Paul on the Lake,” recalled McGrath by email. “Without missing a beat, he came back with: ‘I’m Father Pete Lentine … from St. Philomena on the Rocks.’”
With its location on Lake Shore Road, across from Lake St. Clair, St. Paul on the Lake’s parishioners include a number of wealthy individuals, along with those of more modest means. Cleek recalls Lentine gently poking fun of that once.
“‘The reason so many from St. Paul started coming (to St. Philomena) was that they didn’t have to get dressed up so much,’” Cleek said, quoting Lentine.
Cleek said that when he was attending Catholic schools in the 1950s and 1960s, the priests and nuns were distant authority figures. Lentine was the exact opposite.
“He always solicited other people’s thoughts and ideas,” Cleek said. “He embraced Vatican II wholeheartedly and staffed the parish council with folks of like mind.”
Calandro likewise remembered Lentine as someone who was “very holy but very human,” a man who was “very funny” and also “very, very kind.”
Cleek, who has known Lentine since he joined the parish in 1969, said Lentine even traveled to Virginia to bury Cleek’s mother. Lentine “most definitely” went above and beyond as a priest, he said.
“His quiet love for St. Philomena Parish was evident,” the Rev. Tim Babcock, assistant director for International Priests/Mentoring and archdiocesan delegate for cemeteries, said in a prepared statement. “This prompted him to ask so many times for permission to stay on at his beloved St. Philomena. He’s one of a kind.”
Born Peter Lentine in Detroit on April 1, 1919, Lentine was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Detroit on May 20, 1950. He was predeceased by his parents, Emmanuel and Josephine Lentine, sisters Rose Crimando and Jenny Methric, and brothers William Lentine, Samuel Lentine, James Lentine, Anthony Lentine, Russell Lentine, Joseph Lentine and Manuel Lentine. He is survived by a number of nieces and nephews, along with their children.
With the loss of Lentine, the fate of his small but devoted and close-knit parish is uncertain, especially as a number of other parishes around metro Detroit have merged in recent years.
“In 2012, Archdiocesan pastoral planning called for an eventual/inevitable — after the demise of the pastor — cluster and possible merger with St. Clare of Montefalco,” McGrath said by email. “It’s far too soon before any definitive decisions can be made. Archbishop Vigneron totally understands and appreciates the devotion of St. Philomena parishioners to their pastor and their church and their community. He will work with that.”