Monsignor Peter Lentine spent half a century serving St. Philomena Parish in Detroit. And throughout the many Masses, church celebrations and functions, he epitomized the giving nature of a spiritual leader devoted to helping others.

“He’s like a saint to all of us — small in stature and huge in heart,” said Steve Taflinger, who has attended the church for about 30 years. “He’s built a community here that has sustained and brought a lot of good.”

Monsignor Lentine, believed to be the oldest serving pastor in the Archdiocese of Detroit, died Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2017, church officials announced. He was 98.

Since Dec. 15, 1966, he had been pastor at St. Philomena on the city’s east side.

Over the next 50 years, the Detroit native transformed the church from one in debt to one with more inviting details, a food pantry and programs designed to help those in need, members say.

“He’s definitely the glue and practiced what he preached,” said Mary Beth Calandro, who has attended the church for more than 20 years with her family. “He worked to make it a viable parish and he was very proud of keeping it up.”

At one point, the pastor oversaw the addition of a large deck near the rectory that accommodated gatherings, and also wanted outdoor Masses to create a more communal feel, recalls Patrick McCuen, a longtime parishioner who produced “The Light of St. Philomena Parish,” a documentary about him. “He wanted everyone to be equal and know each other. He felt that created more of a sense of family.”

That approach also guided the monsignor’s interactions: inviting children to the altar, warmly greeting newcomers and asking others to join him in processions, even remembering congregants’ birthdays.

“He just welcomed everyone and made everybody want to be a part of that parish,” said Betsy Bernard, longtime parishioner. “He had an aura of peace around him all the time.”

The path to piety started early.

Born April 1, 1919, to Emmanuel and Josephine Lentine, the future pastor grew up in a large family on Detroit’s east side and attended Catholic school. As a youth, relatives urged him to seek priesthood, a notion that lingered even as he worked as a fruit peddler, McCuen said. “It’s something that weighed on him.”

He eventually attended Sacred Heart Major Seminary, completed studies in Maryland and was ordained a priest in the Archdiocese of Detroit on May 20, 1950.

Other roles included serving as associate pastor at St. Elizabeth Parish in Wyandotte and Detroit’s Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Grotto), St. Matthew and St. Rita parishes.

But he left his mark at St. Philomena. “He was the parish,” said Joanna Saady, its administrator. “That’s why people came here and stayed here.”

To honor his legacy, an education endowment in Lentine’s name was established in recent years, providing tuition assistance for students preparing to enter the priesthood at Sacred Heart.

In 2005, he was named a monsignor by the pope.

Survivors include his nephew, Norman Lentine, as well as many other nieces and nephews. He was predeceased by his sisters, Rose Crimando and Jenny Methric; and his brothers, William, Samuel, James, Anthony, Russell, Joseph and Manuel Lentine.

Visitation is 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday at St. Philomena, 4281 Marseilles, Detroit, with a Scripture service at 7 p.m.

Monsignor Lentine lies in repose from 10 a.m. until his funeral Mass 11 a.m. Saturday at St. Clare of Montefalco, 1401 Whittier.

A private interment takes place Monday at Resurrection Cemetery in Clinton Township.

Though he could have retired years ago as is expected of aging priests, Monsignor Lentine remained and still was a commanding presence at his parish despite recent health issues.

“For us he was a great example of unconditional dedication to his mission of being a shepherd after the example of Christ the Good Shepherd,” Archbishop Allen Vigneron said. “May the Lord reward him for his labors.”

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