Father Ron Stone, pastor of Holy Cross Parish, dies following recent illness
By Bill Brewer
Father Ron Stone, pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Pigeon Forge, whose compelling conversion story was an inspiration for many people, died on Dec. 8 following a brief illness from cancer. He was 69.
Archbishop Shelton J. Fabre was the main celebrant for the Dec. 12 funeral Mass at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, which was concelebrated by 25 priests. Ten diocesan deacons also attended the Mass, including Deacon David Anderson, who assisted as deacon of the altar, and Deacon Sean Smith, who served as deacon of the Word.
Father David Mary Engo, OFM, delivered the homily, and Father Mark Scholz, pastor of Shepherd of the Valley Parish in Dunlap and Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in South Pittsburg, gave a eulogy. Archbishop Fabre has appointed Father Engo parochial administrator pro tempore of Holy Cross Parish.
Attending the funeral Mass, in addition to people of the Diocese of Knoxville, were members of Holy Cross as well as friends of Father Stone who serve at the Signs of the Times Apostolate in Herndon, Va., where Father Stone worked as a volunteer before joining the priesthood.
“Rev. Archbishop and brother priests, deacons, the family, friends, and parishioners of Holy Cross Parish, I express my deepest condolences for the loss of our brother, our father, our teacher, an incredible pastor, and priest second to none. I express my condolences for the loss of such an incredible and gifted priest of Jesus Christ, and such a beautiful son of the Blessed Virgin Mary. He lived his life truly as a son of Our Lady, living each day seeking to reach the glory of that kingdom,” Father Engo said as he began his homily.
The Franciscan priest couldn’t resist the opportunity to poke a little fun at his close friend and himself.
“In honor of Father Ron, this homily will be 45 minutes long. Just kidding. I could never preach that long. I can only do 42,” Father Engo said. “Father Ron never did anything with half measures. If he was going to preach the truth, he was going to preach the truth. If it took him 45 minutes to explain the truth, he took the 45 minutes to explain the truth. He never did things in half measures. His whole life has been that way.”
Father Engo hearkened back to Father Stone’s pre-priesthood years, when he served in the U.S. Navy, as a bodybuilder, and even as a bouncer in a Washington, D.C.-area nightclub to offer examples of how the priest pushed himself following a troubled childhood and later a troubled early adulthood.
“When he gave himself to the Lord in the early years of his conversion, he gave himself 100 percent, holding back nothing of himself or for himself when he decided that he was going to live his Catholic faith,” Father Engo remarked. “And in truth, Father Ron, the Lord called him to something deeper, something more. And he moved on to seminary. And there in seminary, again giving himself completely to his studies because he knew that he was going to be the best priest that he could possibly be. He was going to be that man who was going to lead souls to Christ and help them grow in Christ.”
And just as the Gospel reading from Luke 12:42-49 illustrated Father Stone’s passion for Jesus Christ, the Blessed Mother, and the Church—“I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing”—so did the first and second readings from Wisdom and 2 Corinthians.
“The righteous one, though he die early, shall be at rest. For the age that is honorable comes not with the passing of time. Nor can it be measured in terms of years. Rather, understanding passes for gray hair, and an unsullied life is the attainment of old age.
“The one who pleased God was loved, living among sinners, was transported—snatched away, lest wickedness pervert his mind or deceit beguile his soul; For the witchery of paltry things obscures what is right, and the whirl of desire transforms the innocent mind.
“Having become perfect in a short while, he reached the fullness of a long career; for his soul was pleasing to the Lord, therefore he sped him out of the midst of wickedness. But the people saw and did not understand, nor did they take that consideration into account” Wisdom 4:7-15.
And…“Brothers and sisters, for God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’ has shone in our hearts to bring to light the knowledge of the glory of God on the face of [Jesus] Christ. But we hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us.
“We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body” 2 Corinthians 4:6-10.
“He wanted that Gospel read because he wanted that last line: ‘I’ve come to set the world on fire.’ I believe Father Ron saw himself as working with the Lord to set hearts and souls on fire. And truly he did for 22 beautiful years of his priesthood. And when he became a priest, he understood that the priesthood required of him everything. Everything! And when Father Ron entered into his priesthood, he understood the fact that the priesthood is the one gift given by God in the seven sacraments that’s not for the person who received it. We receive baptism for our salvation, right? We receive baptism according to the grace of God, and so many blessings we receive are for us. Holy Communion is for us to come into that deeper union with God. Confirmation, to be strengthened in the life of God, is for us,” Father Engo said.
“But the priesthood is the one gift that is given not for the person who receives it. His priesthood is for God’s people. He is to be the minister of the sacraments. He is to be the bridge between heaven and earth. In the Old Testament, when Moses was interceding for the people, he stood there, and there was a breach between him and God, and he pleaded for the people and received mercy for the people,” he added.
‘A beautiful vessel of God’s mercy’
Father Engo pointed out that when a priest reaches a breach that requires bridging, he lays himself down across the breach so that the priest bridges heaven and earth. “And it’s on the back of the priest that souls come to God, and God comes to souls.”
Father Engo then emphasized that a priest is called to administer the mercy of God.
He said Father Stone received that grace and knew it very well.
“One thing Father Ron knew in his life was the mercy of God. He experienced it so powerfully. He was at a point where he should have been lost. He was lost, and his life was at an end, really. When that day came, and Our Lady interceded in his life, everything turned around for him, and his whole life was then given to the Lord. So, he understood what mercy really was because he experienced mercy on the most intense levels of his life.
“And he became such a beautiful minister of that mercy. I see that at Holy Cross Parish because confessions are nonstop and are at any time and any hour. ‘Father, can I go to confession?’ ‘Father, can I go to confession?’ And there is never a ‘no.’ And never ‘I don’t have time.’ He was always this beautiful vessel of God’s mercy, this beautiful person through whom the mercy of God flowed upon so many souls. He really did come to set the earth on fire with our Lord because he wanted everyone to experience the love and the mercy that he himself had experienced in our Lord, Jesus Christ, particularly through the loving hands of the Immaculate. He was truly a priest of Jesus Christ. … When the Lord told us to love the Lord our God, He said to love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind. The key word there: All,” he explained.
Father Engo shared that when Father Stone responded to the love of Christ in his conversion and priesthood, he did so with full measure—no half measures—and with all his mind, all his soul, and all his strength.
“And he gave his all—both to the Lord in his personal life of prayer, to the beautiful truths of our faith, but truly loving his neighbor not as himself, but loving his neighbor as Christ loved us,” the Franciscan priest said.
“Father Ron understood the priesthood of our Lord, Jesus Christ, with such depth. It wasn’t for him like those days of bodybuilding…. It wasn’t like those days in the Navy…. It wasn’t like anything he was being attached to; it wasn’t some thing to give himself to. His priesthood wasn’t some thing. It was Jesus Christ,” Father Engo continued.
But as with all his endeavors, Father Stone gave his all in dying as he did in life and in his priesthood—through redemptive suffering.
“Father Ron never did anything small. Always he gave his all. And even in the dying process, he was giving his all to the Lord, giving his all for other souls, for other people. The last time he celebrated Mass in his room on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, I didn’t think he was actually paying attention because he was lying there, his breathing was very, very low. I came over to his side and said, ‘the body and blood of Christ.’ He turned and opened his eyes to receive, and then he went right back down. He knew our Lord was there. He was totally conscious of the fact that Mass was taking place in his room, and he was participating in offering himself with Christ,” Father Engo recalled.
Following Communion, Archbishop Fabre prayed for Father Stone, saying, “Having received the sacrament of salvation, we implore your kindness, O God, for Father Ron, your servant and priest, that as you made him a steward of your mysteries on earth, so You may bring him to be nourished by their truth and reality as unveiled in heaven through Christ, our Lord. Amen.”
A remarkable conversion
Father Scholz then delivered a eulogy, recalling their 27-year friendship that dated to their days in seminary at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Connecticut. He also recounted Father Stone’s tumultuous youth and equally chaotic young adulthood.
He described the university for aspiring priests as a faith-based center for mostly middle-aged men who already had jobs and careers out in the world and later they decided they wanted to become priests.
“We had people from all walks of life. One man was a colonel who was a pilot in the Vietnam War who later became an astrophysicist before he became a priest. Another was an airborne Ranger; another was a commercial airline pilot. And we had an FBI psychologist who was a criminal profiler. It was amazing to see that all these men changed their lives and decided to become priests for Jesus Christ,” Father Scholz recalled.
“Father Ron was born in Germany, and his early life was spent in foster homes. He was severely abused in these foster homes when he was a youngster. So, when he reached his teenage years, I think he was about 13 or 14, he came over with his older sister to America. He eventually became a bouncer for one of the largest bars just outside of Washington, D.C. He became entangled in nightlife and got into drugs. He became a cocaine addict. He used to make trips down to Florida to buy drugs, cocaine, from the cartels down there,” he added.
That addiction led to a death-defying ordeal for the young man who would be ordained to the priesthood.
“He became so addicted to cocaine that it almost killed him. His friend just happened to stop by his residence and found him collapsed on the floor one day. And he rushed him to the hospital, and Father Ron asked Jesus Christ to have mercy on him. And, of course, He did, and saved his life,” said Father Scholz in further explaining how God’s grace, a belief in Jesus Christ, and faith in the Blessed Mother stripped away the chains of addiction and led Father Stone on a path of recovery and reconciliation.
“As you know, there’s no such thing as coincidences. Jesus Christ saved Father Ron through this near-death experience because He wanted him to have a conversion. And he did. He had a great conversion. He wanted him to be with His priests. That day, he met Jesus Christ face to face, and it changed his life completely. And from that moment on, he had a great love for Jesus, and for His mother, Mary, and for all the saints. In fact, from that moment on, he had a great love for all things Catholic,” Father Scholz said.
That remarkable conversion led Father Stone to the seminary and even a personal meeting with Pope St. John Paul II during a visit to the Vatican, which had a profound impact on the priest-in-training.
Father Scholz then shared some recent history about Father Stone’s spiritual journey to East Tennessee. Father Stone was ordained to the priesthood in June 2001 and has been serving in the Diocese of Knoxville since 2014. In addition to Holy Cross, he has served at the Handmaids of the Precious Blood monastery and at St. Jude Parish in Helenwood.
“Father Ron spent the first part of his priesthood serving in the Santa Fe Archdiocese in New Mexico. He later transferred to our diocese when the Handmaids of the Precious Blood moved from New Mexico (to East Tennessee). Father Ron was their spiritual director. So, I was reunited with my buddy. We had many of the same interests. He loved fast cars. I love fast cars. He had Corvettes when he was younger, Harley-Davidsons. Now, I have a Camry so I don’t get into trouble. We were both Steelers fans. He was a great Pittsburgh Steelers fan. In the seminary, we often played basketball together. That’s really how we got to know each other very well,” Father Scholz remembered.
He shared that when Father Stone had become very sick and believed death was near, he told Father Scholz he would accept his sufferings and offer them to Jesus Christ.
“Jesus Christ wants us to be a part of His family so much, that He even allows us to share in His suffering as He redeems us. And when we share our sufferings with Christ, it makes our suffering more bearable. It gives our suffering its true meaning. And it adds to the treasure chest of the Church that all others are brought from. A priest offering his suffering to Christ has a special significance because he is conformed to Christ in a special way. He is another Christ. It’s a mystery we can’t understand, but we can offer our suffering to Jesus, and it helps other people. Isn’t that wonderful?” Father Scholz said.
Archbishop Fabre thanked the congregation for attending Father Stone’s funeral Mass, with special acknowledgment for those Holy Cross members who were in attendance.
“You know, a priest cannot authentically live the priesthood unless he allows himself to be loved appropriately by others. He can’t live his priesthood if he does not appropriately love others and allow in appropriate ways others to love him. So, I thank you, sincerely, for loving Father Ron. I know that your love strengthened him in his priesthood. I thank you, the faithful here in the Diocese of Knoxville, in a particular way the faithful of Pigeon Forge, where Father Ron served. Thank you for loving him and strengthening him in his priesthood,” the archbishop said.
Archbishop Fabre told the congregation that he had spoken to Archbishop John C. Wester of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe and expressed great gratitude to the Church in Santa Fe, Archbishop Wester, priests, deacons, and religious and faithful in Santa Fe for sharing Father Stone with the Diocese of Knoxville.
“Archbishop Wester sends his sincere sympathies to the Diocese of Knoxville, to the faithful of Pigeon Forge, and to all who love Father Ron,” Archbishop Fabre said.
The archbishop said Father Stone’s body was returned to Santa Fe, where the faithful there celebrated a Mass to remember Father Stone and commended the priest to God.
Deacon Anderson has served with Father Stone since his ordination to the permanent diaconate in June 2022. And in that time, his appreciation and respect for the priest has continually grown.
“(Father Stone) started out being my spiritual director for formation. Then he was my pastor. We moved from St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Townsend to be there because I wanted to have more experience of being a deacon. Then he became my boss. His degree of expertise and detail at the altar was amazing. I remember the first time I placed the purificator as I was purifying the vessels. After Mass was over, we went into the sacristy, and he told me it was off by a quarter of an inch. He said, ‘You’re getting closer to a 16th.’ He wanted his altar looking very, very proper. And I realize now that it meant everything,” Deacon Anderson said, citing as an example Father Stone’s passion for the faith.
“He was beloved and will be greatly missed,” the deacon continued.
Holy Cross parishioner Sheila Johns helped care for Father Stone during his illness. She agrees with Deacon Anderson that their pastor will be greatly missed by the Holy Cross community.
“He was our pastor for nearly seven years. We absolutely loved him. He made you grow closer and closer to God,” Ms. Johns said.
Ms. Johns was among the Holy Cross members who participated in Father Stone’s Bible studies, and she was inspired by his passion for the Gospel.
“He would give long homilies, but he wanted you to learn something as you left Mass,” she said. “He wanted you to get to heaven and be closer to God.”
Jim O’Rourke, Maureen Flynn, Ann Bolmarcich, and Kathy Schofield were among the apostolate group from Virginia attending the funeral Mass. They fondly recalled Father Stone and the time he spent with Signs of the Times.
“When we first met (Father Stone) when he came to the apostolate, a woman who saw Ron at church could tell he had gone through something very powerful. She said, ‘I know this man, and I told him to come because you need volunteers.’ And I said, ‘yes.’ When he walked in, he had these snakeskin cowboy boots on. He had the longer kind of hair. He looked like a biker. But oh, he had great spirit,” Ms. Flynn recalled.
“He worked as a volunteer for several years, and then he discerned a call to the priesthood. Then he used to always come back once or twice a year and visit with all of us. We have a magazine called ‘Signs and Wonders for Our Times’ in which we write about conversions and miracles and healings. My husband and I have said (Father Stone) is a walking divine mercy. The Lord has touched his life so beautifully that now he is able to reach out to so many people who are going through suffering. And he is able to reach out to these young kids who were thinking of doing drugs. He would talk to them about what happened to him when he was a cocaine addict for many years. We wrote a story about his conversion for our magazine. He has touched so many lives all over the place,” she added.
Ms. Schofield also has fond memories of a younger Ron Stone relating to youth in such a spiritually enriching way.
“In the early years before he became a priest, he was our St. Joseph. He had a devotion to young people. He helped me with my son from age 12 to 17. I had other children, and he prayed for them all the time. … He was always there for us every day. If you needed anything as a single parent, he did it. And he was fun. He was a lot of fun,” she shared.
Ms. Schofield credited Father Stone for influencing her children to grow into faith-based adult lives.
Mr. O’Rourke remembers then-Ron Stone as one of the apostolate’s first volunteers and noted that he and Father Stone at one time were roommates who shared an apartment in Herndon, Va. At the time, both men were discerning calls to the priesthood, with Mr. O’Rourke choosing marriage as his vocation.
“He was quite a guy. He was very caring. He cared about people, which is one of the things that brought him into the priesthood. He had a tremendous conversion story. He understood how people struggle with things. He was able to help a lot of people out because he could really relate. Also, he had tremendous piety,” Mr. O’Rourke said.
Ms. Bolmarcich said it’s the first time in her life of 68 years that experiencing the death of someone so close is complete joy.
“I had the opportunity to meet this person. God placed this person in my path for the salvation of my soul, literally. I knew he was going to pass away, but I was just joyous because he is in heaven, and he is with our Lord and Our Lady and interceding for us here on earth. He’ll do more work in heaven than he did here,” she said.