Priest, parishioner missing after boat capsizes share 'extraordinary' friendship

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Detroit — A Livonia executive and Trenton priest remain missing after the two were trapped under a boat when it capsized in the Detroit River on Sunday evening near Stony Island.

Rev. Stephen Rooney

The Rev. Stephen Rooney of St. Joseph Catholic Church and parishioner Rob Chiles were among 10 other passengers on board when the boat capsized about 7:36 p.m.

Grosse Ile Police and Fire Department said someone in a boat from Ontario helped rescue several of the people on board, including seven children.

Chiles, president of Livonia-based Alta Equipment Group Inc., went out on the river with his family in the afternoon — the same river where the body of his wife was found nearly a year ago. 

Chiles was involved "in the tragic boating accident on Sunday and his body has yet to be recovered," said Alta Construction Group spokesman Glenn Moore.

"Currently, the U.S. Coast Guard and other local authorities are conducting a search and recovery effort. We continue to pray for Rob and his three children and ask that everyone respect the privacy of the family during this time."

St. Joseph Church confirmed that Rooney was missing after the boat capsized.

Detroit Bishop Gerard William Battersby held a service for Rooney and Chiles on Monday in the parish parking lots, where people prayed for the rescue of the two men.

"We come together this evening with heavy hearts, but we do not come as people with no hope, we come together because even this moment is caught up in the resurrection in the truth that Jesus is Lord," Battersby said. 

Rooney became close to Chiles and his three children after the death of Chiles' wife, Christine Chiles, in September 2019. More than 100 volunteers searched for two days before Christine Chiles' body was found in the Detroit River near their Grosse Ile home. She drowned in the river.

Christine Chiles

A close friend, the Rev. Marc Gawronski of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Grosse Ile, spoke at the vigil Monday about the friendship Rooney and the Chiles family shared.

“When you welcome someone into your home … we give somebody a gift of hospitality, but at the same time, we receive so much from them," Gawronski said. "We know that Father Rooney and the Chiles family did this in an extraordinary way. Especially over the last year as they faced the loss of Christine.

“They shared meals together and time together, certainly at the Chiles home. Father Rooney was a guest many times … he was able to extend to them through his presence … the gift of Jesus himself. And the Chiles family blessed Father Rooney with friendship and love and the gift of Jesus himself." 

The church requested privacy for the families involved.

Rooney's favorite thing to say was that his home "was a place for play and pray," parishioners said at the vigil.

One, Sarah Elizabeth Vogel, said on Facebook: "Father Stephen truly modeled his life after Jesus, accepting all and loving everyone. How he remembered so many names and details about each person’s life was beyond comprehension. Father Stephen, you are greatly missed."

Twitter: @SarahRahal_