By Laura Keener, Editor.
Father James Ryan, a beloved priest of the Diocese of Covington for 44 years, died Sept. 7. He was 75 years old.
Father Ryan was the oldest of four children — Barbara, Robert and Kathleen — of James and Lois (Vaught) Ryan. When he was six years old his parents died in a tragic accident. His father had touched a live wire while adjusting the TV antenna on the rooftop of their home. Mrs. Ryan ran to his assistance and grabbed the ladder — neither survived. The children went to live and attended school at St. Joseph Orphanage, Cold Spring, and their uncle, Father Robert Ryan, who was still in seminary at the time, became their legal guardian.
Following graduation from Covington Latin School, Father Ryan attended college at St. Pius X Seminary, Erlanger. After graduation Father Ryan went to Catholic University to continue his seminary studies. After a semester there he chose to take some time off and worked at the Enquirer for a year. He attended Xavier University, Cincinnati, and earned a master’s degree in education. He taught Latin and history for four years at St. Thomas High School, Ft. Thomas. He returned to the seminary at Mount St. Mary Seminary, Cincinnati, and in 1971 received a maser’s degree in theology.
Bishop Richard Ackerman ordained him a priest for the diocese May 17, 1975 at the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption, Covington.
His first assignment following ordination was teaching at Covington Latin School. He became headmaster of Covington Latin School in 1983. In the spring of 1987, Bishop William Hughes accepted his resignation from that position and he resumed teaching full-time at the school that Fall.
Mark Guilfoyle, partner, DBL Law and a former Covington Latin School student, said that Father Ryan was a favorite among the students.
“He was an academic but he also had a great sense of humor and he was great teacher. What he did a Latin School was really special, he impacted and changed a lot of lives and I count myself among those,” Mr. Guilfoyle said.
As headmaster, Father Ryan established the development office at Covington Latin School and the formation of a long-range planning group and expanded the Religious Formation and Fine Arts requirements.
“He was everything you want to see in a priest,” Mr. Guilfoyle said. “He was erudite but yet he could speak a common language that everyone could understand. He was a great homilist, very devoted to his vocation and a real model for people in how to live their lives.”
What was most impressive about Father Ryan, Mr. Guilfoyle said, was his depth of knowledge on almost any subject. “You could ask him about any subject and he would have a depth of knowledge that would take your breath away … He was just an extraordinary person who heard the call, answered the call and lived the call; that’s the kind of example Catholics need to have and he gave it to us in spades.”
In 1990 Father Ryan attended Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., and earned a master’s degree in canon law. In 1992 he served full-time as judge at the diocesan Tribunal Office; and a few years later part-time, after becoming pastor in 1994 at St. Philip Parish, Melbourne, taking up the pastorate from his late uncle, Father Robert Ryan.
Other pastorates included St. Joseph Parish, Camp Springs (1998–1999), and St. Henry Parish, Elsmere (1999–2015).
In 2002 Father Ryan was appointed to the Diocese of Covington College of Consultors.
He retired in 2015, taking up residence at Blessed Sacrament Parish, Ft. Mitchell, where Father Daniel Vogelpohl, also a member of the ordination class of 1975, is pastor.
“We were ordained together and have been close friends ever since. We taught high school together, we have traveled extensively together, and, in his retirement, we have ministered together at Blessed Sacrament,” Father Vogelpohl said.
Father Vogelpohl shared some of his fondest memories of Father Ryan in his parish bulletin the Sunday after Father Ryan’s death.
“Father Ryan was more intellectual than physical. On his first bicycle trip to Europe with the Latin School in 1977, it only took three days for him to shove his bicycle over a cliff and replace it with a moped,” Father Vogelpohl wrote.
“Father Ryan thoroughly enjoyed classical music. WGUC is the only station his car radio was ever tuned to. He subscribed to the Cincinnati Symphony for years … when listening to classical music on the radio he would often hum along with the score. He could identify nearly every musical piece in the standard classical repertoire,” he said.
“Father Ryan loved the Church,” Father Vogelpohl wrote. “He particularly loved the liturgy and ceremonies of the Church. When he celebrated Mass he was always attentive to what he was doing and had a deep appreciation of what the ritual meant … He always tried to engender that same appreciation for the liturgy in the hearts of all the participants. He particularly loved major liturgies of the Church. He thrived on ‘smells and bells’ and ‘pomp and circumstance.’”
In 2016 Father Ryan was appointed chaplain at St. Elizabeth Healthcare.
Over the years he was also chaplain to the Notre Dame Sisters, Covington, and the Benedictine Sisters of St. Walburg Monastery, Villa Hills. In a 2015 article celebrating his 40 years as a priest, Father Ryan said, “The happiest thing a priest does is celebrate the Mass … I’ve been very blessed to be able to do that at the places I’ve lived, but also, with the Sisters…”
In 2017 he returned part-time to the diocesan Tribunal, being appointed Judicial Vicar pro-tempore.
“When he came in he came in cheerful; he would stop at every door and greet everyone,” said Sister Margaret Stallmeyer, director, Tribunal Office.
Sister Margaret said that whenever she called Father Ryan she always found a welcome ear and she enjoyed his thoughtful and wise counsel.
“You knew he loved being a priest and doing what he did. When you think of all the different volunteer things that he did he never seemed overburdened. I feel very privileged that I have had these two years working with him. He was a good priest … He’s the kind of person that you think when I retire I want to do it like he did.”
Bishop Daniel Conlon, of the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois, a friend of Father Ryan’s, was the homilist at his funeral Mass, Sept. 17, at the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption, Covington.
“Father Ryan was a faithful priest, serving the Lord by serving his people. He was also authentic,” Bishop Conlon said. “His priestly ministry came from the heart. He truly enjoyed being with people. His beliefs coincided with those of the Church. He respected the bishops and pastors he served under.”
Father Ryan is survived by his sisters Barbara Gregory and Kathleen Ealy (Lee) and sister-in-law, Mary Beth Feldhake Ryan.
“Jim’s years of priestly service to the Diocese of Covington were marked with dedication and blessed with much success,” his sisters wrote. “What Jim wrote following our Uncle Father Bob Ryan’s funeral applies equally to him. ‘His fondest wish and most ardent prayer would be that the Church always be blessed with an abundance of dedicated priests and religious. To which we can only add Amen!’ Jim would say, whether it be to a religious, married or single life, your call is a gift. Thank you to him and to each of you who are called, chosen and faithful to your vocation. Don’t we all hope, when our time comes, to hear the voice of God say, ‘Alleluia, welcome home good and faithful servant!’”
Father Ryan is interred at St. Stephen Cemetery, Ft. Thomas.
“The death of Father James Ryan leaves a void in our presbyterate that will not soon be filled,” said Bishop Roger Foys. “Father Ryan was the consummate gentleman, exhibiting kindness and compassion toward all he met. Whether as teacher, administrator or pastor, he took up each assignment with enthusiasm and grace. His sharp mind and quick wit were obvious even in a casual conversation. He was a witness and example to all priests — young and old — of what a good priest should be. As we mourn his loss to us on earth we rejoice that he will be received now by the Lord he loved and served so well.”