Sister of famed Bishop Thomas Gumbleton remembers her brother fondly

When Irene Gumbleton left the hospital after her brother Thomas had died, a rainbow appeared in the sky. 

For the sister of the famed bishop, who left a mark on Michigan and on those who he preached to, it was a sign. He was saying something to her.

"‘here I am, I’m okay,'" she said. "And he's still teaching us, I think. I think he's still teaching."

Thomas Gumbleton spent much of his life teaching. The retired auxiliary bishop from Detroit died April 4 at the age of 94. But before his last breath - one that Irene said came with "no struggle" - he was supposed to celebrate the liturgy on Easter. 

He was determined to do it, even though he couldn't stand.

It was the kind of work ethic that he had his entire life, Irene said.

"'Irene do you want to go ice skating? Oh yeah, that would be great' and so the two of us would go over to Belle isle and skate on the canals," she said.

Thomas Gumbleton, the youngest bishop at the age of 38, was also an activist. He was arrested in front of the White House during an anti-war protest, he visited hostages in Iran, helped people in Haiti, and advocated for women and the LGBTQ parishioners within the church.

And then there was Dan, the families brother. He was gay and Irene remembers her mom's conversation about it with Thomas.

"She said ‘Tom, is Dan going to go to Hell?’ and Tom said ‘no, that's the way God mad him,'" she said.

That's the way God made Thomas Gumbleton. His willingness to understand issues and break with the church where he felt it was his duty would become his undoing within the institution.

In 2007, he spoke out in support of extending the statute of limitations for cases of clergy sexual abuse. The Catholic church forced him to retire, evicting him from St. Leo's where he had been the pastor for decades.

Parishioners petitioned for him to stay, but to no avail.

"It was unnecessary. He was only telling the truth," Irene said.

It was a truth that gave many Catholics hope. 

"He was just an ordinary man who was willing to put his life on the line - and he did," she said. "He was so ordinary in life, but also so spiritual. He always made sure he said his prayers."

Visitation continues Friday at Verheyden Funeral Home in Grosse Pointe with a funeral mass scheduled for Saturday at the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament.

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Remembering Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, beloved Detroit priest and activist

This peace activist wasn't afraid to fight - to give voice to the voiceless - hope to the hopeless. For decades he served those in need at St. Leo's in Detroit.