Obituary — Father D. Craig Cower

Father D. Craig Cower, 90, of Rapid City, died Sunday, April 2, 2017 at Westhills Village Health Care.

Father D. Craig Cower

He was born March 2, 1927 in Roxbury, New York to Robert H. and Blanche (Hebert) Cower. During his senior year of high school, he went to St. Andrew’s Preparatory Seminary in Rochester, NY. Later he spent a year in what had been a Lutheran Seminary at Hartwick College in Oneonta, NY where his father was Superintendent of Campus Housing and Grounds. He then went on to St. Francis Seminary in Loretto, PA. He graduated from there and finished Theology at St. John’s University in Collegeville, MN.

He was ordained for the Diocese of Rapid City, in Albany, NY, with 29 other young men in 1954. His first assignment was the old Cathedral and then was assigned to Ardmore-Edgemont-Oelrichs, Buffalo-Camp Crook-Cox-Vessey-Ralph-Redig-Drew, Faith-Opal-Plainview-Pedro, Wall & Scenic and retired in 1987 serving the parishes of Hot Springs and Oelrichs.

In 1991, he was appointed to be Executive Secretary of the Priest Retirement and Aid Association and in 1993 Vicar for Retired Priests. He served on numerous boards, including Black Hills Chamber Music Society.

He was preceded in death by his parents and brother, Rod.

Christian Wake Service will be at 7:30 pm on Tuesday, April 4, at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Christian Funeral Mass will be offered at 11:00 a.m. on Wednesday, April 5, at the Cathedral with The Most Rev. Robert D. Gruss presiding. Burial will be in St. Patrick’s Cemetery (near Sioux Spiritual Center) near Plainview at 3:00 p.m.

(Fr. Cower’s Original Words….)

IT HAPPENED OVER THE MOUNTAIN FROM WHERE RIP VAN WINKLE SLEPT FOR 20 YEARS. IT HAPPENED IN ROXBURY-IN-THE-CATSKILLS OF NEW YORK STATE WHERE D. CRAIG COWER WAS BORN. Sunday Mass regularly lasted fifteen minutes, including the sermon—which was usually a tirade against Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) then President of the United States. And the priest bragged to the Protestants that he got his people out of church in fifteen minutes. Little seven-year-old Craig was hear to remark: “If I ever become a priest, Sunday Mass is not going to be like that!”

Rather a strange way for a vocation to begin. However, the idea continued through Public Grade School and High School. It wasn’t until his senior year that he went to St. Andrew’s Preparatory Seminary in Rochester, NY. Later he spent a year in what had been a Lutheran Seminary at Hartwick College in Onsonta, NY where his father was Superintendent of Campus Housing and Grounds- – a very interesting year. Next he went to St. Francis Seminary in Loretto, PA. The last five years saw him graduate from college and finish Theology at St. John’s University in Collegeville, MN.

He had been studying for the Vicariate Apostolic of the Bahamas, West Indies, and would have been the first diocesan priest of what is now the diocese of Nassau, Bahamas. After much prayer and discernment, as ordination approached, his concern at being alone and the first to set the precedent for the diocesan clergy led him to ask to be released by his bishop.

When asked how he came to the Diocese of Rapid City, Father Craig answers: “It was very much God’s will inasmuch as I knew nothing about the diocese or Western South Dakota.” The maps he looked at then noted that Western, SD was “semi-desert”. He had also heard of Wall Drug because they had advertised for college summer employees. When Cower had graduated from college, it was Joseph Busch, former Bishop of Lead, SD and the Bishop of St. Cloud, MN, who gave him his diploma. When Busch died, at his graveside, McCarty told the rector of the seminary that if he had any unattached men to send them out to him. The rector told Cower about this and he wrote to Bishop McCarty. McCarty answered promptly and told Cower to call for an appointment. Cower reached him by phone at Oelrichs, SD where he had presided at the funeral of the last resident pastor there. Cower came out and was adopted by the diocese. Bishop McCarty, when he heard where Cower had been born said: You certainly came from a God-forsaken place!” McCarty has been in that area during the disastrous flu epidemic of 1918.

Cower spent that summer of 1953 at Camp Columbus in the Black Hills and was ordained for the Diocese of Rapid City in Albany, NY, with 29 other young men in 1954. His first assignment was the old Cathedral, where he lived in the upstairs back porch of the rectory. Fr. Muldoon could look in one window, Fr. Plante another, Fr. Cowley through the window of the door and all the parishioners through the other windows. There were no shades or curtains.

Next he was assigned to Ardmore-Edgemont-Oelrichs (54’ to 56’), then to Buffalo-Camp Crook-Cox-Vessey-Ralph-Redig-Drew Missions (56’ to 58’), Faith-Opal-Plainview-Pedro Missions (58’ to 70’), Wall & Scenic (70’ to 80’) and finally Hot Springs-Oelrichs (80’-87’), from which he retired for health reasons in 1987.

During his ministry in the Buffalo Missions, he was very much involved in consolidating some of the missions, moving the Vessey church & hall to a more central location and the Ralph and Strool churches to a Reva location. On the trip to Ralph to Reva, he straddled the roof-ridge across the prairies, using a stick to hold up the electric and telephone lines, not informed the men working to block the Strool Church before moving it onto the foundation. As a result Cower and a parishioner, Stan Lesselyoung, were almost crushed to death as the church fell and slid down the hill.

At Faith in 1962, Father Craig’s parents: Robert and Blanche Cower joined him to: “help him out for a year.” They stayed with him for twenty five years until he retired. The rule in the rectory was based on St. Paul: “He who does not work, does not eat!” He told them it was the Catholic teaching that martyrs went straight to Heaven when they died and that if they stayed with him for 25 years that would be the same as martyrdom. His mother took care of the rectory and his father did a tremendous amount of work at Faith and its missions and at Wall and Scenic. On their 50th wedding anniversary they were the first in the diocese to receive the Papal award: “Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice” (For Church & Pope) from Pope Paul VI.

During Cower’s tenure at Wall, a new church was built and it was there that he gave his art collection spanning eleven centuries to the Diocese of Rapid City in the custody of St. Patrick’s Church. There are 121 pieces in the collection. He left his two thousand volume library in the church and Public libraries at Wall. The church library was later moved to the St. Thomas More Library in 1996.

Twice he almost died in blizzards: Once on route 20 between Prairie City and Bison and once on I-90 near Wicksville. At the latter time he sprained his ankle and was reduced to crawling in the snow and froze his fingers. He said: “I wasn’t afraid to die, but I could imagine people going past my coffin and saying: “How stupid he was to leave his car!” “I just couldn’t die stupid!”

In his early days, assistants, as they were called, received $50 a month — sometimes! When he was transferred from the Cathedral to Ardmore it was October 15th. Msgr. Roach told him that Msgr. Biever should pay him for the month and Biever told him Roach should pay—he never/did get his salary for that month. When he was transferred from Ardmore to Buffalo it was the 15th of January; Msgr. Biever told him Fr. Murray should pay him and Murray said Biever should pay. And you guessed it, neither never did. It was the beginning of many months of the year that he did not receive any salary. Mass offerings kept him going. They were long distances in the Buffalo missions and most of the roads hardly more than trails. A pair of fence plyers were an absolute necessity to let down fences and go across the prairie to get through. The worst road was South of route 20 on the way to Drew—it had crushed flintrock on it and ate up the rubber tires of that day and spit them out. One Sunday he went through three spares.

In 1987, he retired while in the Hot Springs parish and he and his parents moved to different abodes in Rapid City. His father, Robert, died in 1998 and his mother, Blanche, came to live with him. His retirement years have been busy ones. In the early years he substituted in parishes all over the diocese from one-half to three-quarters of the weekends of the year, driving further than active priests. He still does spiritual direction and counseling from his apartment. Because there are people who are unable to participate in regular R.C.I.A. classes because of jobs, sickness, age, etc., he instructs them on an individual basis. In 1991, he was appointed to be Executive Secretary of the Priest Retirement and on numerous boards including the Black Hills Chamber Music Society. As his mother’s health continued to worsen, he curtailed and finally eliminated all weekend and weekday substitution. Since December of 1996 he has been the primary caregiver of his bedridden mother. His brother, Rod, who lives in Rapid City has had a whole series of major operations and Cower tries to help him as much as possible.

Commenting on his present lifestyle, Cower says: “How does one respond to fifty years that Mom and Dad gave to the diocese and to me.” What I do is a small token for all that they did. Besides, Scriptures have some great things to say about children who care for their fathers and mothers!

In regard to South Dakota and the diocese, he has to break into song with music from “My Fair Lady” “There is no place else on earth that I would rather live.”

Asked about fifteen minute Masses, Fr. Craig says “… at least a half-hour for weekday Masses and an hour for Sunday Mass… and if I have the opportunity EVERY MASS with song.”