The Rev. Michael Moroney was a young man in London when, one Sunday, the priest asked him to be that day’s altar server. Moroney replied that he’d never served Mass.
“You’ll learn,” the priest replied.
He did. Generations of Baton Rouge-area Catholics can attest.
June 12 marks 50 years since Moroney, 77, was ordained into the priesthood. He has spent virtually all of it in local churches, including his current parish, St. Alphonsus, where he has served since 2007. Before that, Moroney was pastor at St. Thomas More, Our Lady of Mercy and St. Isidore and associate pastor at St. Charles Borromeo and St. Mary’s in New Roads.
“He is very, very dedicated to his parishioners,” said Mary Jo Stein, who has worked on Moroney’s staff at his last four churches. “He will drop anything if they call him, especially in crisis when he needs to go immediately. He’s very good about that. His parishioners come first.”
Born and raised in County Limerick, Ireland, Moroney didn’t immediately set his mind on a religious vocation. After school, he joined an engineering company that was working on the London Underground and shared a flat with two friends. Moroney began volunteering at a halfway house for teens, and the priest asked if he ever thought about becoming a clergyman.
“I said, ‘No, I haven’t thought about that, and I’m not thinking about it now, either,’” Moroney recalled. “He did the same thing with my buddies. We talked. To make a long story short, all three of us became priests.”
Moroney got his bachelor’s degree from St. Patrick’s College in Ireland. While still in college, Bishop Robert Tracy, of the Baton Rouge diocese, came to St. Patrick’s to recruit priests. Tracy impressed Moroney so he decided to come here.
The parish in New Roads greeted him with boiled crawfish. His reaction: “What to do with these things, these big bugs?”
Just like serving at the altar, he learned.
He also quickly discovered how, though the accents, climate and terrain are much different, south Louisiana shares much in common with Ireland.
“Baton Rouge, to me, is a lot like home,” he said. “People are very friendly. They like to eat. They like to talk.”
And Moroney likes to talk with them.
When the 2016 flood, which caused $2.5 million in damages to his church and stranded him for three days, and when the COVID pandemic struck, Moroney's biggest concern was his limited ability to have face-to-face contact with his parishioners, said St. Alphonsus Deacon Robert Kusch.
“He really fits the role of shepherd so well," Kusch said. "His main concern is for the people.”
Moroney responded by increasing the church’s outreach ministries and televised Masses parishioners could access online.
“I’ve never, ever heard him say, ‘That’s a problem,’” Kusch said. “He will always address things like that as, ‘That’s our challenge today. We have challenges. We don’t have problems.’ That’s one thing that really stands out for me with him, the way he looks at life. Nothing’s too great, nothing’s too much to say it can’t be done.”
Moroney’s impact has extended beyond the parishes he served.
When he was pastor at Our Lady of Mercy from 1987-2001, church member Mary Ann Steintrager told him about ministries that provided prescription medicines for the indigent. He thought it was a natural fit for the St. Vincent de Paul ministry, which serves the poor and homeless.
Moroney encouraged the community to get behind the effort. The pharmacy opened in 1995 and now provides about $1 million a year in medicine to those who can’t afford it, said Michael Acaldo, director of St. Vincent de Paul.
“When we started, a lot of people were, ‘Oh, that’s going to be difficult to do, challenging to do,’ but Father Moroney were very involved in the founding and continues to be supportive,” Acaldo said. “Without Father Moroney, I don’t know that pharmacy would exist. He was critical.
“It’s hard to believe now he’s been a priest for 50 years, but he’s been such an inspirational leader, and St. Vincent de Paul has been very, very blessed to have him in our corner trying to fight and ensure that people have a place to get help.”
Moroney could have retired nine years ago, but his health is good and he wants to maintain his connections with people.
“The most satisfying thing is always working with people, getting to know them, working with them, trying to listen to their stories, especially when they’re sick,” said Moroney, who bicycles to maintain his vigor. “I’m basically a shy person, but what I enjoy most are the people I’ve served.
“There are such generous people out there. The generosity of people always amazes me. We always hear the negative side of stuff today, but there are so many good people I’ve met in my life. I’m blessed. They’ve given more to me than I’ve given to them.”