Not too keen on Huntington to start, ‘Father Ron’ soon to end ‘brilliant’ 33 years here

Rev. Ron Rieder, seen seated in his office, has served as the pastor of SS. Peter and Paul Parish, in Huntington, since 1984. His 33-year tenure at the church will be coming to an end next year with his retirement.
Rev. Ron Rieder, seen seated in his office, has served as the pastor of SS. Peter and Paul Parish, in Huntington, since 1984. His 33-year tenure at the church will be coming to an end next year with his retirement. Photo by Steve Clark.

Originally published Dec. 26, 2016.

When Rev. Ron Rieder moved to Huntington in 1984, he did so begrudgingly.

After presiding over parishes in cities like Detroit, MI, and St. Paul, MN, he wasn’t thrilled that his new assignment happened to be in a small town.

When Rieder arrived at his new church, SS. Peter and Paul, his enthusiasm for the posting dipped even lower; the church and its accompanying school were in shambles.

“When I came here, to be honest with you, the pastor hadn’t touched the thing in 50 years… because the parish was broke,” says Rieder. “It was absolutely in the red, financially. They had poor money management for years and everything was falling apart.

“I’m not blaming anybody. But that’s the reality.”

Rieder may have been unenthusiastic about his posting, but he had a job to do. He began the process of building the neglected church and school back up. Along the way, he ended up building a life for himself in Huntington, too.

Now, 32 years later, “Father Ron” can’t imagine being anywhere else. He is aware, though, that his time in Huntington is nearing its end. Rieder, 81, will be retiring next year. He intends to step away from SS. Peter and Paul no later than June 1. After that, he’ll be relocating to a Catholic retirement home in Appleton, WI.

Above all else, Rieder is proud to be leaving the parish better than he found it. He believes the key to turning around its fortunes stemmed from a decision he made mere weeks after his arrival.

“I said even though we’re broke, I’m going to start giving 10 percent of our income away, right off the top,” he says, referring to the practice of tithing. “Because that is, I think, the religious thing to do. It takes trust in God.”

Rieder credits one of his friends in the priesthood with convincing him to take that action, which boggled his mind at the time.

“He said, ‘You trust more in money than you trust in God.’ And I never forgot that. It’s true.

“So, I said, ‘God, I trust you.’”

The following night, Rieder’s doorbell rang. The interaction that followed is one he’ll never forget.

“There was a man standing at the door. To this day, I don’t know who it was,” says Rieder. “But he said, ‘I’m not a Catholic, but I walk by this place every day on my way downtown to go to work. And I know it’s falling apart. I know you’re in horrible condition here and you’re brand new here. I just want to help you to get going a little bit.’”

The stranger handed him an envelope. Rieder gratefully accepted it and the man left.

“I went to my desk and opened up the envelope – and that was 33 years ago – opened up this envelope and there was a check made out to Saint Peter and Paul Catholic Church: $135,000.”

An astonished Rieder turned his gaze upward.

“I said, ‘Lord, your servant is listening.’”

Three days later, prior to mass, another man approached Rieder. He handed him $50,000. A week after that, another person came up to Rieder. He gave him $40,000.

“So, I had 225,000 bucks in cash, in my hand, within two weeks of deciding to tithe, and I went down to Steve Zahn, who I just met at First Federal, and I started a tithing account,” says Rieder. “I put (in) $22,500, 10 percent.

“And I’ve been doing it ever since.”

During his time at the parish, Rieder says he’s put $6 million into the church and school. Also, he formed a committee that watches over the parish’s finances, with the goal of safeguarding it from a situation like the one he walked into.

Consistently, Rieder has been awed by Huntington’s capacity for generosity. Whenever he’s needed parishioners to pitch in and help fund something – from repairs to the church to pay raises for the school’s teachers – they have done just that, he observes.

“You be a good money manager and you’re not wasting their money, they’ll help you,” says Rieder. “The money is out there. The money is available.

“There’s a lot of cornfields with cans full of money in Huntington.”

Something he doesn’t believe in, though, is asking for money when he’s at the pulpit.

“I never mention it in church,” he says. “I don’t believe in it. But I’ll collect it other ways. I’ll never mix money with religion. I hate it.”

Spearheading the never-ending appeal for funds to cover the parish’s many needs is something Rieder confesses he won’t miss in retirement. The same goes for the decision-making aspect of his job.

“I don’t enjoy making decisions,” he admits. “All the responsibilities of a school and a parish, making decisions regarding peoples’ lives all the time.”

Something Rieder will miss, though, is involvement in the community. He made it a point early on during his time in Huntington to not stay sequestered within the four walls of his church, as many priests of old often did.

“He stayed in his church and that’s about as far as he goes,” says Rieder. “I think the people enjoy when a priest or a minister gets involved in the city.”

To that end, Rieder joined numerous boards in Huntington, including those for Pathfinder Services, the YMCA and the Quayle Vice Presidential Learning Center.

“You really get to know what’s going on in Huntington,” he says. “You get to know everybody.”

Among those people have been politicians. Rieder notes that he’s been friends with many mayors in Huntington, including the current one, Brooks Fetters, with whom he meets for lunch every month.

“There’s no tension between religion and the city,” says Rieder of Huntington. “They work together, help each other.”

On the topic of helping people, doing so as a counselor has been one of Rieder’s favorite pastoral roles. He’s looked forward to guiding couples as they work through rough spots in their marriages, as well as people coping with the loss of loved ones.

What Rieder’s found especially fulfilling is helping people overcome drug and alcohol addiction. He’s always been able to relate to them. And it’s because he used to be one of them.

For 18 years, Rieder was addicted to alcohol and prescription drugs. His addiction grew so severe, that he was kicked out of the priesthood. After six miserable months wandering the streets of Detroit, Rieder got help at a sanitorium and started down the long road to recovery. Today, he looks back on the whole experience as an asset.

“It’s been a blessing for me that I went through all that hell, was able to overcome it with God’s help and now help hundreds and hundreds that I wouldn’t have been able to touch otherwise,” he muses.

Rieder keeps a memento from that period of time in his desk that reminds him of the rift that substance abuse created between him and his parish – a petition covered with names of people who wanted him gone.

“I had hundreds and hundreds of names on there of people who were fed up with me over the years as screwing up as pastor… I kept that whole raft of names just to remind me of what it used to be like 35, 40 years ago,” Rieder says.

Today, Rieder’s parishioners would be more likely to sign a petition entreating him to stay. Rieder says his mind is made up about retirement, though. The religious order he belongs to, Order of Friars Minor Capuchin, has a nurse that travels to its parishes, administering checkups to all of the older priests. Rieder says she paid him a visit a few months ago. Upon assessing him, she informed him that it was time to retire and depart Huntington.

“I could stay here, but the order itself, they have their own facilities and it’s a lot cheaper to send me there than to pay for me to stay down here on my own,” says Rieder, referring to the order’s retirement home in Wisconsin.

He doesn’t disagree with the nurse’s assessment of him. Rieder says he is in constant pain, much of it coming from his back. While he hopes to stay in Huntington until June, he notes that his health may necessitate him leaving sooner.

He isn’t worried about that, though. There’s no room for sadness, because all Rieder feels is gratitude.

“I know it’s time to go,” he says, at peace with the situation. “I’m not going to fight that. People are fighting to keep me here, I know that. It’s a thrill to be wanted.

It’s a thrill to be loved. And it’s going to be a very sad day when I leave. But life has to go on…

“I thank God for these 33 brilliant years in Huntington.”