By Natalie Romano
In the wee hours of the night, with most of his parishioners in a deep sleep, Father Gerald DeLuney is wide awake and thinking about them.
After 52 years in the priesthood, the last 26 of those leading Corpus Christi parish in Corona, it’s time to retire and say goodbye.
Travel east along the I-10 to Palm Desert and another stalwart in our Diocese, Monsignor Howard Lincoln, organizes his office as he gets ready to retire as pastor of Sacred Heart Church. In the waning months of their active ministry, these two men of the cloth consider their life’s work and their final homilies. Their retirements are effective June 30.
“I was recently thinking about that at 3 a.m. It woke me up,” describes Fr. DeLuney, 81. “Being a leader for the [parishioners] and to bring them forth to what we’ve accomplished has been my deepest joy.”
Msgr. Lincoln also speaks of the pleasure he’s experienced during his 30 years as a priest, particularly the last 20 in the desert.
“I’ve honestly never had a bad day at our church,” he claims. “If God has lost 10,000 thousand angels, l know where to find them. They’re at Sacred Heart.”
Under Msgr. Lincoln’s leadership Sacred Heart has thrived; an Adoration Chapel was built, the parish school doubled in size and volunteerism increased. Most notably, however, are the vast sums of money the parish has raised only to give away. Sacred Heart, notes Lincoln, straddles two vastly different parts of the Coachella Valley: the more affluent Palm Desert, Indian Wells, and La Quinta, and the more economically challenged Mecca, Thermal, and Coachella. Msgr. Lincoln says his parish has a “moral obligation” to care for neighbors in need, so it has provided food, computers, and even new church buildings for local parishes. Msgr. Lincoln launched the campaign that raised $4 million for construction of the new church for the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Guadalupe parish in Mecca. A few years later Sacred Heart and its supporters contributed $2.3 million toward the new church for Our Lady of Soledad in Coachella.
“We’ve given away close to $20 million outside of our parish,” says Msgr. Lincoln. “This I am proud of but it’s more the parishioners than me. We have very, very generous parishioners that have great hearts.”
When Fr. DeLuney was first appointed pastor of Corpus Christi, the parish had around 200 families that worshipped inside a storefront rental. Six years later, more than 2,000 parishioners sat in the pews of their new church, a converted medical office building.
“We were able to build a new hall. Hopefully, it will be there for another 50 to 100 years,” says Fr. DeLuney. “More importantly, I think we built up a very loving, generous and caring community.”
To honor that community, Fr. DeLuney commissioned a massive mural of Our Lady of Guadalupe for the side of the church. The 35-foot-tall vibrant painting is now a point of pride among church goers and is often photographed by those just walking by. Fr. DeLuney paid for the $7,000 project with monies from a monthly collection but says if there’s one thing he’s learned, it’s that nothing is possible without the Lord.
“It’s through God’s grace that we get things done - not through our doing.”
Msgr. Lincoln knows his experience as a priest has taught him many lessons; chief among them how vital it is to give witness to the faith and to teach the faith.
“I’ve learned that people want to believe in God,” he explains. “It’s up to us to preach the truth of God and objectively prove God to them and, most importantly, prove Jesus Christ to them.”
Along those lines, the 74-year-old says if he had to do it all again, he would increase outreach to local youth. However, students at the parish school benefited greatly from his fundraising efforts. Once again, the master of raising money, Msgr. Lincoln has amassed millions for the school through an annual gala that has seen him interview high profile guests like President George W. Bush, L.A. Dodgers announcer Vin Scully and the correspondents from “60 Minutes.” If celebrities and presidents weren’t enough, Msgr. Lincoln has had audience with three popes; Pope Francis, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. He reveals these were deeply moving experiences but the encounter with Pope Benedict didn’t go exactly as planned.
“You get very little time with the Pope. The man in front of me...introduces me and that took 20 seconds, so I’m saying, ‘Your Holiness what an honor it is...’ and right away the Cardinal, who’s kind of a bodyguard, is gently taking my arm away and saying thanks. That’s my Pope picture...getting escorted away,” he laughs, “I’ve gotten over that.”
Another unexpected moment came in 2018 when he was conferred the Pontifical Honor of Chaplain to His Holiness, giving him the title of Monsignor. The Washington state native says he was especially stunned considering what he calls his “checkered past” that includes a marriage and divorce.
“I was very grateful,” says Msgr. Lincoln. “The fact that Howard Lincoln from a very Protestant family, went to a Protestant seminary for five years, worked at Monohan’s Irish Pub, then became a priest, and then a monsignor… well there’s no way that happens without divine intervention.”
Fr. DeLuney also took an unusual path to the priesthood. As a talented young performer, he left his native Minnesota with dreams of fame and fortune. But instead of singing hits, he ended up singing hymns.
“I came out here 63 years ago to be a Hollywood star,” admits Fr. DeLuney. “But I just heard a voice that said come follow me and I did and here we are.”
Fr. DeLuney hopes he will be remembered for “being there for the people” as well as passing on his vocation to former parishioner Ian Hollick, who will be ordained to the priesthood this May.
“It is a great privilege to have someone follow you,” says Fr. DeLuney. “We’ve been very close as friends.”
Hollick, now serving as a transitional deacon at Our Lady of Hope Parish, describes Fr. DeLuney as a mentor and father figure.
“I appreciate him for the love he’s shown me, the people and especially Christ,” says Deacon Hollick. “I love him as a son.”
As a soon-to-be priest, Hollick says he’s inspired by Fr. DeLuney’s ability to celebrate Mass without fear and to be fully in the spirit of the moment.
“I worry, ‘how did I come off or did I say that right?’ ” explains Deacon Hollick. “Father Gerry doesn’t stress. His life is very rooted in Christ and he allows Christ to come through him.”
Msgr. Lincoln hopes his is a legacy of kindness. Before he walks away, he wants to document all the charitable giving, continue to call parishioners just to say thanks, and honor the employees that helped him through it all. While he calls them “the best staff in California,” they call him a “dream boss.”
“The whole office just loves him to pieces,” says Sandra Susini, Sacred Heart Church secretary. “And not just the office but the entire congregation. He is the kindest, the gentlest, the most responsible man and he’s smart! God built this guy and threw away the mold for certain.”
Msgr. Lincoln points out that, ironically, Sacred Heart will be trading a once divorced priest for a married one. Succeeding him will be Father Gregory Elder, married when we was an Anglican priest, and later ordained a Catholic priest through a unique provision under Canon Law. He currently ministers at St. Martha in Murrieta. Father Fidel Rivero, already serving at Corpus Christi, will take over as pastor there.
Fr. DeLuney says he’s in no hurry to retire but knows a church benefits from different leadership. He’ll spend his newly found free time gardening and trying his hand at art. His parting message...
“I want it to be known that I thank God for the last 60 years that I prepared for priesthood and served as a priest.”
Msgr. Lincoln wishes his parishioners happiness and continued growth in their faith. He plans to work in the local community, travel to Italy, and enjoy his favorite pastime of golf. When asked if he has any regrets on committing his life to the priesthood...
“Oh goodness no,” exclaims Msgr. Lincoln. “It’s been a priceless treasure to be Pastor at Sacred Heart!”
Natalie Romano is a freelance writer and parishioner of The Holy Name of Jesus in Redlands.