By FR. GERRY KLEBA
Pastor, St. Cronan’s Catholic Church
Father Richard H. Creason, the Labor priest who embodied Catholic social teaching, died on March 31, 2020 of natural causes unrelated to the coronavirus. In the past six years, he endured through a variety of ailments rooted in suffering post-polio syndrome. As a priest for 53 years he had served mostly in economically stressed north St. Louis. He was 79 years old.
Rich Creason grew up the youngest of four children of Mildred and Hubert Creason who was a Quality Dairy Milk truck driver who could get all the milk his family wanted for free. Rich didn’t like milk and never drank it. Hubert began his milk delivery as a Teamster driving a horse drawn wagon. Rich, the milkman’s son on a milk-free diet, was feisty from an early age.
As a teenager, Rich followed in the footsteps of his older brother, Hubert, studying to be a priest at St. Louis Prep Seminary in distant Shrewsbury even though there was a Catholic High School at his Corpus Christi Parish in Jennings. In his sophomore summer, Rich contracted polio and was in an iron lung for three weeks at St. Anthony’s Hospital on Grand and Chippewa. Twenty years later, Edwin Eigel, MD, the polio doctor of St. Louis, told him, “You were the sickest child who lived that summer.”
GRIT AND DETERMINATION
Crippled, but feisty, Rich refused to be wheelchair bound and with steel spine determination opted to return to distant Prep Seminary rather than attend closer to home Corpus Christi. It was a five-block trek from the bus stop up the hill to the seminary campus but with Sherpa determination and grit he learned to walk again during his junior year of high school; first on crutches, then a walker, two canes, then one cane, and finally striding one wobbly step after another without assistance. In later life, his regular recreation was jogging in Forest Park.
At this time, before the ADA in government or in the Catholic Church, disabled men were excluded from priestly ordination.
Feisty and mobile Rich was ordained a priest in 1967 by Cardinal Joseph Ritter and served at St. Mark’s on Page and then Most Holy Rosary by Fairgrounds Park. There, his eyes were opened to the issues of poverty, racism, and the entire spectrum of crippling social justice issues.
This was the time when Dr. Martin Luther King sparked his thirst for justice and mercy and nudged him into solidarity with the people on the lower rungs of the ladder. That orange ember was fanned into flame by his involvement with Msgr. Jack Egan and the Catholic Committee on Urban Ministry, CCUM, at the University of Notre Dame. A key concern of the gathering was the struggle for power and economic justice through the vehicle of community organizing.
The visionary godfather of organizing was Saul Alinsky at the Industrial Areas Foundation in Chicago. Under their guidance, Rich became one of the founders of the St. Louis Association of Community Organizations, SLACO.
‘A SPICY GUMBO’
Along with his parish commitments, Rich was assigned to part-time work at the Archdiocesan Human Rights Office inspired by Msgr. John Shocklee who was the cleric leading the fight against union-killing “right-to-work” in Missouri.
The Human Rights Office put Rich into a spicy gumbo of eager, energetic, imaginative people who saw social issues painted on a much larger canvas beyond city and state to national issues of nuclear weapons, war spending, and environmental justice. Some of these topics flew in the face of a cautious church and were squelched because they threatened the profits of generous Catholic donors.
JUSTICE BASED ON CHANGE
Beyond his dedication as pastor and financier of a parochial school, Rich’s most lasting mark came in his founding of Metropolitan Congregations United, MCU, a faith-based Gamaliel Network organization for justice based on systemic change.
MCU united over 50 mosques, synagogues, and various denominations of Christian churches. Both MCU and SLACO were initially funded by grants from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.
In clergy circles, Rich became one of the founding fathers of the national Association of U. S. Catholic Priests, AUSCP.
EMBRACING THE DOWNTRODDEN
It would a glaring oversight not to mention that each of these endeavors were a natural outpouring of Rich’s profound unity with Christ Jesus who always embraced the downtrodden and marginalized to drive out the demons of sickness, poverty, and injustice.
Rich knew with every fiber of his being what he learned from his Irish Catholic family deeply ingrained by his Teamster Union dad that action on behalf of justice is a constitutive element of Gospel living. This flows from prayer and especially the power of the Mass. Sunday worship that does not spill from the sanctuary into the street is worthless.
CHERISHED LABOR EVENTS
The most important street event on Rich’s calendar was marching in the Labor Day Parade.
The time he was the Grand Marshall riding in the lead car was a cherished moment. In his mind he pictured his Teamster dad behind the steering wheel.
This photo op moment might have been eclipsed in a more recent time when Rich displayed his feistiness at a Fight for $15 rally in his wheelchair.
These headline events hardly capture 79 years devoted to the struggle.
Some speeches and actions in the public eye were not praised or successful. One time, police dogs ran his protest out of City Hall. On another occasion he was harangued by a rotund, boisterous Catholic bishop who only knew one-to-one charity, not empowering structural change. He told Rich to settle down and mend his scandalous ways. Rich said, “I was stomped on by the hippo hop.” Bruised and battered, he got up again just as he had in high school.
COMMON GOALS FOR COMMON GOOD
Family, faith, community organizing and Labor unions all share the same DNA in building God’s Reign on earth through respect, collaboration, and commitment to common goals for the common good.
At the end, Rich remained humble and almost invisibly hidden in a nursing home. In his final years of sickness, he always remained focused by his faith and by the feistiness factor.
At an appropriate time to be announced later there will be a Memorial Mass and a celebration of Rich’s life at Most Holy Trinity Church on 14th Street in Old North St. Louis.