Donnybrook: Fr. Don Cozzens
By John Myers
Walks of Life
The Irish American Archives Society (IAAS), based in Cleveland, Ohio, sponsors the “Walks of Life” (WOL) award dinner each year, usually on the last Thursday of February. I find the title of the award very fitting; the Irish American community has been enriched by all different walks of life in our American home, in both profound and ordinary ways; from pipefitters to presidents, from doctors to publicans. This year, again due to the pandemic, the Trustees have voted to push the 2022 celebration back to May, with the promise and hope of a healthier atmosphere.
The 2022 honorees are: M. Colette Gibbons, distinguished business-bankruptcy attorney; Danny Chambers, President, Chambers Funeral Home; James Doyle, Principal of Hemingway Development; Ryan Marrie, President of Ohio Real Title; and Cheryl Hagan O’Malley, Chief Transformation Officer/V.P. Population Health at SouthWest General Health Center.
This month, I share some background on one of the 2009 WOL Awardees, Fr. Don Cozzens (RIP), who went home to God on December 9th, an accomplished Irish American in his chosen area of work.
I was a new kid on the block, about to start first grade from a new house at a new school and found myself with a couple of my brothers checking out the school blacktop, which included a basketball court. The court was occupied by two young men in a heated game of competitive b-ball.
When they took a break, they introduced themselves as Don and Paul. A few days later, I came to learn on the first day of school, that these hoopsters were Fr. Don Cozzens and Fr. Paul Plato, two of the priests working at our new parish. They had traded in their tennis shoes and gym shorts for Roman collars.
Both are gone now. Fr. Plato left the priesthood several years later, married and moved to Boston, dying in 2005 from cancer. Fr. Cozzens passed away, at the age of 82.
His sister, Maryellen Dombek, was quoted in the NY Times as saying, “the cause of death was complications of pneumonia brought on by COVID19. He had been vaccinated, and was healthy, still playing racquetball and riding his bike, when he succumbed to the virus in a hospital in a matter of days.”
Back when I was young, I continued to see Fr. Don Cozzens over the years at church, Irish, social and educational gatherings. Fr. Don, like many leaders in the American Catholic Church, was also a proud son of Ireland, very conscious of his family roots locally to Holy Name Parish and School as well as all the way back to the United Irishmen Pikemen uprising in 1798.
Don’s brother Jim, now deceased as well, was an active member in the Cleveland branch of Irish Northern Aid. After Jim’s death, INA remembered Jim with the “Annual Jim Cozzens Lake Erie Cruise.”
Fr. Don honored his brother’s memory by attending the annual social event when able. Perhaps one could say it was in Fr. Cozzens DNA to be a revolutionary, not with a pike or a gun, but with his courage to ask insightful questions of our Church with much needed candor and intellectual honesty.
In addition to being a parish priest, Fr. Cozzens was an internationally recognized academic, teaching at Ursuline College, St. John’s University in Collegeville, MN. as well as John Carroll University in Cleveland. He served The Church as President-Rector of Cleveland Diocese’s St. Mary Seminary, as well as the Vicar for Clergy and Religious in the Cleveland Diocese.
Fr. Don had entered Borromeo College Seminary in 1957, and obtained his Bachelor of Theology from Catholic University in D.C. He later received his Master of Divinity from St. Mary Seminary; his Master of Education from the University of Notre Dame; and his PhD. from Kent State University. In recent years, he was Writer in Residence at John Carroll University, as well as a professor in the Theology Department.
At his funeral mass, presided over by Cleveland Bishop the Most Rev. Edward Malesic at The Church of The Gesu (the parish church associated with John Carroll), his long-time friend, Fr. Tom Mahoney (2022 Hibernian of the Year), who he met on the first day at seminary, did the homily, which was greeted with sustained applause.
The Changing Face of the Priesthood
Fr. Mahoney spoke of Fr. Don’s great academics, his great contributions to the universal Church, as well as his great humanity. Fr. Cozzen’s published many books; “The Changing Face of the Priesthood” (2000) was likely the book which brought the most attention to his groundbreaking work; a work that called upon his many years of pastoral, academic and work with his fellow clergy and skillfully documented and examined many current strengths and notably, vulnerabilities of the modern priesthood.
Fr. Mahoney acknowledged the harsh response and cold distancing from many fellow clergy, and the heartache this caused Cozzens. His work was courageous to call out the clericalism that has crept into the clergy and Church hierarchy, which contributed greatly to the failure to respond to incidents of child sexual abuse within the Church.
In his obit in the New York Times, they characterized his work: “Despite his challenges to the Church’s teachings, Father Cozzens was not a rogue priest, but rather a loyalist who remained in good standing. He said his writings sprang from his love for the Church and a desire to make it healthier.”
Despite his great academic accomplishments and international notoriety, Fr. Mahoney reminded the funeral congregants of Fr. Don’s great humanity as well. Fr. Mahoney shared that the two had taken in the Irish movie, “Belfast,” at the Cedar-Lee theatre shortly before his death. Afterwards, they went next door for some supper, where Cozzen’s ordered a plate of ribs.
Mahoney mentioned it is hard to eat ribs in a formal manner without getting covered in sauce; Cozzens was no exception. Mahoney shared he will always have that last image of him with sauce on his face, with a smile and happy. This fully alive picture painted by Mahoney was a great book end to my initial image of Fr. Don in a lively game of basketball as a ‘walk of life’ to be remembered and celebrated.