Monsignor Mark Deering, who led efforts to break down religious and racial barriers in his adopted hometown of Waco, died Friday at Providence Hospice Place. He was 94.
Mass of Christian burial will be at 10 a.m. Tuesday at St. Louis Catholic Church.
Deering was born Nov. 6, 1921, in Ballybit, Rathvilly, County Carlow, Ireland. He was appointed to Waco — his first and only assignment — as a newly ordained priest under Bishop Louis J. Reicher of the Diocese of Austin. He died at 9:07 a.m. Friday.
He arrived in Central Texas in July 1953, two months after Waco’s deadly May 11, 1953, tornado, and quickly discovered a change in climate from his native Ireland that blisteringly hot summer.
“I thought I was in hell,” he said during an interview in 2011. “I didn’t have any money or I would have left.”
But he soon found the weather wasn’t the biggest difference in his new parish.
“Waco was a tough spot for a guy like me,” he said. “Catholics and blacks and Jews were more or less treated on the same level. If I had one objective in my whole life here in Waco, it was to create a religious atmosphere where we could all get along together. I wanted to cut out all this ‘hate’ business.”
The city not only carried a streak of racial prejudice, but a religious one, largely expressed against Catholics and Jews. Some of the latter surfaced during the presidential campaign of 1960. John F. Kennedy was Catholic and at least one Baptist pulpit in town preached misgivings about a non-Protestant in the White House.
In addition to serving as president of the Waco Ministerial Alliance, Deering was a founding member of the Waco Conference of Christians and Jews with his longtime friend, the late Rabbi Mordecai Podet.
Wilton Lanning, a close friend of Deering, accepted his 50-year pin from the Waco Rotary Club with the monsignor, Podet and the late Paul Marable. Lanning said he offered condolences to Deering at the passing of his friend.
“Mark pointed upward and said, ‘Yes, I told him if you get there before I do, please put in a good word for me.’ I know he and the rabbi are having a wonderful reunion and a big party in heaven now,” Lanning said.
Marable served as president of the Waco Rotary Club after Podet and before Deering and was fond of saying that he felt “like a postscript between the Old Testament and the New Testament,” Lanning said.
“Mark came to Waco at a time when Waco was on its knees right after the tornado,” Lanning said. “It was just a time where we needed someone like Mark to lift us up, hold our hand and let us know that it was going to be OK. He wasn’t born here but he sure made Waco, Texas, his home.”
Deering was a masterful storyteller whose eyes twinkled as he mesmerized listeners. He also was an avid football fan, both for Baylor and the Dallas Cowboys. He was named an honorary Baylor alumnus by then-President Emeritus Herbert Reynolds.
For years his favorite trip was between Waco and Texas Stadium to watch the Dallas Cowboys play. A huge fan who attended a number of Super Bowls, he often would cut short Masses on Sunday to arrive in time for the opening kickoff.
Deering loved to tell the story about the time he was stopped by a highway patrolman as he raced for Dallas one Sunday. As the officer peered into the back seat and spotted a hefty supply of liquor, he asked the monsignor to explain.
Deering looked behind him and exclaimed, “Oh, Lord. It’s another miracle. When I left Waco, it was holy water.”
Deering served as priest of St. Mary’s Catholic Church of the Assumption for 10 years before the Diocese of Austin charged him with a new mission: start an independent living retirement home, the Christus Regis. He did that, establishing the Regis in downtown Waco in what is now the Roosevelt Hotel and serving as its director for a year before taking on the task of starting a new church.
That church, St. Louis Catholic Church, is located near Reicher Catholic High School and proved to be fertile ground for Deering’s persuasive persistence. Under his leadership, the church grew and prospered to its current membership of 1,200 families. Deering also oversaw details that added to the church’s appearance, from detailed wooden carvings from Italy to a set of 69 stained-glass windows from his native Ireland that illustrate scenes from the Bible.
Reicher Catholic High School expanded its facilities under his watch, and his influence led to a new activities center with gymnasium, reception hall and art and music studios being named in his honor in 2001.
During his Waco priesthood, Deering estimated he performed several hundred marriages and presided at more than 1,600 funerals, many of whom were non-Catholics but whose families had asked Deering to officiate. He also blessed the opening of many Waco businesses, including downtown Waco’s Irish-styled Barnett’s Pub, which he did on St. Patrick’s Day 2010.
Deering was named a monsignor on Dec. 28, 1976, by Pope Paul IV. After 47 years as pastor of St. Louis, he retired in October 2000, but continued to make his home in Waco.
In honor of Monsignor’s 50th Jubilee in the priesthood in 2003, many Wacoans traveled to Kilkenny, Ireland, to celebrate Mass with him and his Irish family at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where he had offered his first Mass after his ordination.
Deering served as president of the Waco Rotary Club from 1973 to 1974. He attended Rotary meetings all over the world and received his 50 years perfect attendance gold pin in May 2015.
“He made a pretty fine Texan for an Irishman,” Lanning said. “He just fit right in. He made you feel, no matter what denomination you might be, that you are OK, you are one of God’s people. He had such a zest for life and it is hard to quantify other than to say he was very special.”
Deering traveled extensively, visiting many places including India, Japan, China, Israel, Egypt, Hong Kong and Europe.
John Guzaldo, pastor of St. Louis Catholic Church, said Deering once advised him to get away as often as possible and to never pass up the opportunity to take time off to recharge his batteries.
Deering was the eighth of 10 children. He and his brothers and sisters were raised on the family’s dairy farm and attended elementary school in the village of Rathvilly.
After working at his uncle John Dowling’s general store in Rathvilly and a family friend’s store in County Wicklow, he enrolled at Mount St. Alphonus College in Limerick, Ireland. Upon graduation, he entered the Redemptorist College St. Mary’s, Galway, Ireland, to study for the priesthood. He was ordained to the priesthood at St. Kieran’s College in Kilkenny, Ireland on June 6, 1953.
Monsignor Mark Deering
Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated at 10 a.m. Tuesday at St. Louis Catholic Church, with Bishop Joe Vasquez and Bishop Danny Garcia as celebrants. Retired Bishop John McCarthy will deliver the homily.
Vigil/Rosary will be recited at 7 p.m. Monday at St. Louis Catholic Church.
Visitation will be from noon to 5 p.m. Sunday at OakCrest Funeral Home.
Burial will be at Holy Cross Cemetery.
OakCrest Funeral Home is in charge of arrangements.