When Edmund Szoka was growing up in Muskegon, his pastor took him to a seminary. The students competed in track-and-field that day, and Szoka was struck by how normal the future priests seemed.
Szoka would soon embark on his own 60-year journey with God that would be anything but normal.
Before his death Wednesday in Novi at 86, he became a cardinal, the confidant of a popular pope, ran Vatican City and straightened out the Byzantine finances of that city-state.
Earlier, as archbishop of the Archdiocese of Detroit, he convinced Pope John Paul II to visit the city in 1987 and, two years later, shepherded the city through the painful closing of 31 churches.
Not bad for the son of Polish immigrants whose first office as a bishop in Gaylord was in the athletic department of a Catholic school.
“We mourn the loss of a dedicated shepherd,” said Detroit Archbishop Allen Vigneron. “He has gone home to the Heavenly Father with our prayers.”
Vigneron, who was a priest under Szoka in the 1980s, extolled his former boss for giving himself so totally to the church for six decades.
Szoka didn’t suffer fools gladly as he became one of the most powerful figures in the Catholic Church.
As president of the Prefecture for the Economic Affairs of the Holy See, which is the Vatican’s financial administrator, he had no shortage of enemies.
For one thing, he was a rare American in the Italian-dominated administration. For another, he was changing the way finances had been conducted for decades.
By demanding strict financial accountability and requiring regular contributions from dioceses, he helped wipe out multimillion-dollar deficits, said Vatican watchers.
Under his stern hand, the Vatican’s $150 million budget was in the black by 1993, the first time in 23 years.
“He came out of the old generation of when the pastor said ‘jump,’ people said ‘how high?’ ” said Lawrence Cunningham, professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.
Szoka attributed his financial acumen to earlier tenures in Detroit and other Michigan dioceses.
“It helped me learn a lot of fundamental and basic things,” he once told The Detroit News.
Edmund Casimir Szoka, born in 1927 in Grand Rapids, attended seminaries in that city and Detroit.
Ordained in Marquette in 1954, his first assignment was associate pastor of a church in that Upper Peninsula city.
After pastorships in other U.P. outposts, Manistique and Ishpeming, he became the first bishop of the Diocese of Gaylord in northern lower Michigan.
In extending his condolences, Gov. Rick Snyder cited all of the Michigan dioceses touched by Szoka.
“(He) devoted his life to his church and to serving his fellow Catholics in Michigan and beyond. For that he will be remembered,” Snyder said in a statement.
Named Detroit archbishop in 1981, Szoka made it easier for church members to receive annulments, which allowed them to remarry in the church.
His nine-year reign in Detroit is probably best remembered for the closing of the 31 churches.
No other city had ever attempted so many closings at one time. Church members bitterly fought the move.
But Szoka, as he would later show at the Vatican, wasn’t worried about making friends.
A longtime exodus from the city had left the churches sparsely attended, he said. It didn’t make fiscal sense to keep them open.
“I did what I was convinced was the right thing to do,” he said.
Other cities would soon follow Detroit’s example.
When Pope John Paul II visited the U.S., focusing on southern and western states, Szoka coaxed him to come to Detroit.
The pontiff’s visit had something to do with the budding friendship between the two men.
Szoka, who spoke Polish fluently, would converse in that language with the Polish-born pope.
After John Paul II brought him to the Vatican in 1990, they sometimes ate together and celebrated Christmas and Easter dinners with one another.
When the pope was dying in 2005, Szoka prayed at his deathbed and led a rosary in St. Peter’s Square the night before his death.
Detroit resident Patricia McCreedy, 76, wasn’t happy with Szoka’s decision to close the churches but, because of her Polish heritage, was proud of how far he had ascended in the church.
“It does make me proud,” she said. “He did a lot in his life.”
After serving as financial administrator of the Vatican, Szoka became its governor in 1997, holding both executive and legislative power over 1,400 workers. He managed annual budgets and oversaw buildings and artwork.
Assuming the job at 70, he worried he might be too old. After a few days, he felt fine, energized by his new duties.
He oversaw a major renovation of the Vatican in 2000 and restorations of its museums and the Sistine Chapel.
“There’s not many priests who have all that experience,” he said in an interview.
Szoka resigned the day after his 79th birthday in 2006 and eventually returned to Michigan, spending his retirement in Northville.
He died of natural causes at Providence Park Hospital in Novi, the Archdiocese of Detroit said Thursday.
Szoka’s funeral will be at 11 a.m. Tuesday at the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament, 9844 Woodward, with Vigneron presiding.
Visitation will be at the cathedral from 2-9 p.m. Sunday, with a prayer service, the Office of the Dead, at 7 p.m. Visitation also is scheduled from 2-9 p.m. Monday at the cathedral, with a Rosary service at 3 p.m. and a vigil service at 7 p.m.
Szoka’s retirement didn’t end his time in the ministry, he said before his death.
“I continue to be a priest and will be until I die,” he said.