WILKES-BARRE — Monsignor Joseph G. Rauscher, the pastor emeritus at St. Nicholas Roman Catholic Church, has died at the age of 78.
“He was dearly loved here,” said the Rev. Joseph Verespy, the current pastor at St. Nicholas. “When you thought of St. Nicholas, you thought of Monsignor (Rauscher).”
Rauscher was the pastor at St. Nicholas for 27 years, retiring in 2016.
Viewing will take place at St. Nicholas Church, 226 S. Washington St., Wilkes-Barre, from 3 to 7 p.m. Wednesday. Vesper service will be celebrated at 7 p.m. Wednesday.
A Pontifical Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated by Bishop Joseph C. Bambera of the Diocese of Scranton at 10 a.m. Thursday in St. Nicholas Church, with another viewing from 9 to 10 a.m. on Thursday prior to the Mass. Interment will be in St. Mary’s Cemetery, Hanover Township.
Verespy said Rauscher loved every aspect of being at St. Nick’s — the people, the children.
“He just loved being here and serving as the shepherd here at St. Nick’s,” Verespy said. “People talk about him fondly and they are thankful he was here, leaving his mark on so many.”
Attorney Carl Frank, a longtime member of St. Nick’s, said Rauscher was a genuine priest, an outstanding pastor and a very good friend to many.
“A lot of people considered him the unnamed bishop of Wyoming Valley.” Frank said. “When he turned 75 years old, it was very difficult for him to retire. He was a tireless worker. They really had to persuade him to take breaks or go on a vacation.”
Frank said Rauscher will be missed by a lot of people.
“He was loved by everyone who knew him,” Frank said.
Times Leader reporter Mary Therese Biebel, who is a member of Rauscher’s extended family, wrote a story about the priest three years ago when he was about to retire from active ministry.
“When I was interviewing ‘Father Joe’ and some of his long-time friends for that story,” Biebel said, “a picture started to emerge of dances back in the 1950s, when ‘Father Joe,’ was not yet a priest but simply a St. Nicholas High School student who loved to polka and jitterbug and do all sorts of dancing. One of his friends told me ‘Father Joe’ tried to make sure that not only the popular girls, but the wallflowers, too, got a chance to dance.
“I love that image,” Biebel said. “Especially because I know his health was not the best and in recent years he couldn’t be as active as he once was.
“My mom, Marion Rauscher Biebel, who is Monsignor Rauscher’s first cousin, recalls being a 9-year-old on her parents’ front porch in Wilkes-Barre, when a miner came along and told her — in German —that her father’s brother had been badly hurt in a mine cave-in,” Biebel continued.
“The injured miner was Father’s Joe’s dad, and he did not survive. ‘Father Joe,’ who was the youngest of seven children, was only 3 years old at the time and he told my mom later, as an adult, that he didn’t really have any memories of his father. We were both crying this morning, but Mom said now Father Joe will finally get to know his dad. And that’s another comforting thought.”
High school classmates
John Anstett was a high school classmate of Rauscher’s — St. Nick’s Class of 1959. Rauscher attended the 60th reunion of the class in August at Leggio’s.
“Monsignor was a good friend, a wonderful pastor and a wonderful priest,” Anstett said. “The last couple of years were difficult for him.”
Rauscher united Anstett and his wife, Carol, in marriage, and he baptized their two children. They remained close over the years.
“Monsignor called me the other day to wish me a happy birthday,” said Carol Anstett. “We’re just so sad. He and I would talk about college basketball, which he loved. We will miss him forever.”
Anstett said Rauscher was residing at Villa St. Joseph in Dunmore, a residence for retired priests, until his health declined.
Rabbi Larry Kaplan of Temple Israel said Rauscher was a pastor to everyone in the community.
“His smile greeted you whenever you walked into any place he was,” Kaplan said. “He was a very compassionate and understanding man — a wonderful friend and a great resource. He was greatly concerned abut the community.
Kaplan said Rauscher just wanted to make everybody’s life better.
“And he was one of the most courageous men I have ever known,” Kaplan said. “Throughout his illness, he was a real fighter.”
In a story that ran in the Times Leader when he retired, Rauscher admitted he couldn’t play basketball — he enjoyed watching from the bleachers — because a bout with polio as a child had damaged his leg. But, he said, he could still dance.
“Waltzes, jitterbugs, line dances, polkas,” he said with a smile. “I loved to dance.”
Anstett remembered those days, saying Rauscher was “a wonderful dancer.”
“That’s when I first noticed the kindness of him,” Anstett said in that story. “We would go to a dance in the auditorium and, typically, there were three or four girls everyone would concentrate on and, unfortunately, there would be a few wallflowers. He always made sure they danced, too.”
Some other comments
Here’s what others said about Rauscher in the retirement story:
• “He makes you feel like he’s known you all your life,” said Arline Mallis, of Hanover Township.
• “He made us feel very welcome when St. Therese closed,” said Mary Pat Brunner, of Wilkes-Barre. “And he took extra care with me when my husband died.”
Rauscher had to to cope with COPD, sleep apnea, diminished eyesight and hearing, along with balance issues and atrophied leg muscles from that long-ago bout with polio.
But he never complained.
“I’ve enjoyed helping people, working with people, all the ministries,” he said in his retirement speech.
Looking back on the path he believes God chose for him, Rauscher had this to say:
“I most appreciate how people trust in you, talking about their problems, their worries, their hopes. They trust you as someone who’s going to listen, but not spread it.”
Shortly before he retired in 2016 Monsignor Joseph Rauscher presided over a first communion celebration at St. Nicholas Church in Wilkes-Barre. Here, he accepts the offertory gifts from children who carried them to the altar during the Mass. The long-time pastor died Thursday evening.
In this 2016 file photo Monsignor Joseph Rauscher talks to youngsters who were receiving their First Holy Communion at St. Nicholas Church in Wilkes-Barre, shortly before he retired. He was well known for his sermons, long-time church member attorney Carl N. Frank said at the time. ‘He is not a fire and brimstone preacher. He is gentle and humble of heart.’
Monsignor Joseph Rauscher watches youngsters file into St. Nicholas Church in May 2016 for their First Holy Communion celebration. He was about to retire and it was the last First Communion Mass over which he presided as pastor.