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Rev. Omer Rethinger, 1928-2012: 'Bicycling priest' rode between parish sites

FREMONT -- The Rev. Omer Rethinger, called "the bicycling priest" as he pedaled between parishes in rural northwest Ohio, died Sunday in the Ursuline Center, Toledo, where he lived since October. He was 84.

His sister Alice Watson said he had congestive heart failure and severe rheumatoid arthritis.

Father Rethinger retired in the late 1990s after more than a decade as pastor of St. Mary Church of Millerville, Ohio, and of St. James Church of Kansas, Ohio.

Afterward, he helped out when asked by celebrating Mass at parishes around northwest Ohio and at nursing homes for several years. He later devoted himself to service at St. Bernardine Home in Fremont.

"He was a very good pastor," said Msgr. William Kubacki, vicar for priests in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Toledo. "People loved him. He was very much involved in people's lives."

Father Rethinger became pastor in 1975 of St. Ann Church in Fremont.

During that assignment, he began to ride a bicycle to get almost everywhere in the vicinity.

"He had all kinds of gizmos and gadgets on it," his sister said. A red flag on the bike made him visible to traffic.

The "bicycling priest" rode about 2,000 miles a year in his travels from Fremont to Tiffin, Millersville, and Green Springs to run errands or between parishes or hospital visits.

During his priesthood, he was adept at helping the faithful navigate change.

He was pastor of Our Mother of Sorrows parish of North Auburn, Ohio, when he oversaw the 1970 merger with St. Bernard of New Washington.

"That was a hard job," his sister said. "He was so kind to everybody and somehow got each side to give in a little bit. He liked both and didn't want to hurt either of them. He convinced them this would be for the best."

He was ordained in 1953, as was the Rev. James Steinle, who will be homilist at Father Rethinger's funeral.

"We made a lot of changes in our time," Father Steinle said, citing the reforms of Vatican II in particular. "He had a parish during that time. He had to go through those changes and bring people on board to help."

His kindness and care for people helped in that duty, Father Steinle said, as did another quality: "steadfastness. [He was] willing to do the job day after day."

He was born June 27, 1928, to Agnes and Hubert Rethinger and grew up on Belmar Avenue in West Toledo. He was a 1945 graduate of Central Catholic High School and attended St. Gregory and Mount St. Mary seminaries in Cincinnati.

After ordination, he was at Good Shepherd Church in East Toledo for 15 years and served as associate pastor. He taught religious education to high school students, who "remembered him for years after that," Monsignor Kubacki said.

Father Rethinger and his sister Alice traveled together -- to England twice; to the Holy Land in 1999.

They also attended the Toledo Symphony's Classics Series concerts at the Peristyle in the Toledo Museum of Art.

"He and I enjoyed many of the same kinds of things," she said.

Surviving are sisters Mary Welch and Alice Watson, and brother Paul Rethinger.

Visitation will be from 4 to 8 p.m. Thursday in St. Ann Church, Fremont, starting with vespers. The funeral Mass will be said at 11 a.m. Friday in the church, where visitation will begin at 9:30 a.m. Arrangements are by the Keller-Ochs-Koch-Mason Funeral Home, Fremont.

The family suggests tributes to the Ursuline Center, Toledo, or a charity of the donor's choice.

Contact Mark Zaborney at: mzaborney@theblade.com or 419-724-6182.

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