Archdiocese asks for prayers as authorities continue to search for
Fr. Stephen Rooney, Robert Chiles of St. Joseph Parish in Trenton

GROSSE ILE — A priest and parishioner from St. Joseph Parish in Trenton are missing after a boat they were aboard capsized Sunday evening on the Detroit River.

Authorities continue to search for Fr. Stephen Rooney, pastor of St. Joseph, and Robert Chiles, a longtime parishioner, who were among a presumed 14 people aboard a 39-foot, 2017 Nor-Tech Center Console that rolled off Stony Island near Grosse Ile.

According to Grosse Ile police, a passing boat from Ontario rescued many of the people on board, which included five youths and nine adults.

One of those pulled from the river was Msgr. Charles Kosanke, rector of the Basilica of Ste. Anne and pastor of Most Holy Trinity Parish, both in Detroit.

The Archdiocese of Detroit issued a statement Monday asking for prayers for all involved.

Fr. Stephen Rooney

“It is with great sadness that we share that Fr. Stephen Rooney, pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Trenton is missing along with longtime parishioner Robert Chiles after a boat capsized yesterday evening in the Detroit River, off Stony Island. We are grateful to God for the Good Samaritan who rescued several others from the water,” the statement said. “Let us unite in prayer for the missing, for the rescued, and for first responders searching the waters today.”

“At this time, we ask for privacy for the parish and the families of those involved. The Archdiocese will share more information as it becomes available.”

According a later update, the archdiocese said Msgr. Kosanke is “doing fine and is recovering with family.”

Auxiliary Bishop Gerard W. Battersby led a prayer vigil for Fr. Rooney, Chiles, survivors and their families Monday night at St. Joseph Parish, 2565 3rd St., Trenton.

Grosse Ile police received reports of a crash involving a boat traveling north about 7:36 p.m. Shortly after, authorities from the Wayne County Sheriff’s Department, Grosse Ile Police and Canadian and U.S. Coast Guards arrived on scene to conduct search efforts, including dive teams and a helicopter. 

Search efforts were called off after dark but resumed Monday morning.

Members of the Downriver Underwater Rescue Discovery Team were on site near Stony Island off Grosse Ile on Monday morning as crews continued to search for Fr. Stephen Rooney and Robert Chiles. (Dan Meloy | Detroit Catholic)

“We’re doing sight-scanning right now, which is above water, and we have divers as well,” Pageant B. Atterberry, a spokesperson with the Wayne County Sheriff, told Detroit Catholic on Monday morning.

Atterberry said authorities are still trying to confirm what caused the crash. It is possible the boat collided with something or flipped after hitting a wake at high speed, she said.

On Monday morning and afternoon, reporters observed five boats on the Detroit River performing a grid search for Fr. Rooney and Chiles. 

The Grosse Ile Police Department, Grosse Ile Fire Department and the Downriver Underwater Rescue Discovery Team were on the scene at Chiles’ residence on East River Road, just downriver of Stony Island.

Deborah White of Roseville stopped near the site of the accident when she heard what happened.

Authorities were on the scene Monday morning at the Grosse Ile home of Robert Chiles, a St. Joseph parishioner who is missing after a boating accident Sunday night on the Detroit River. (Dan Meloy | Detroit Catholic)

“He was a close friend of mine; I was sitting on my couch, watching the news, and I heard them say Fr. Stephen Rooney from Trenton, and I was devastated,” White told reporters, with her son, Christopher, by her side. “He was a wonderful person; a great sense of humor. He could connect with young and old, and he always fit right in with anybody.”

White isn’t Catholic, but said she had a close relationship with Fr. Rooney, who was always a reliable source for prayer and comfort for her family. 

“Just the other day I was texting with him, asking him to say a prayer for my aunt who has stage four spinal cancer, and he texted me back right away,” White said. “He said he would definitely pray for her and all of us. I responded back, we will pray for him.”

Fr. Rooney, 66, has served as pastor of St. Joseph since 2018, while Chiles, 52, is a longtime parishioner.

According to media reports, Chiles was operating the boat when it capsized. 

Tragically, reports also indicate Chiles’ wife, Christine, died in September 2019 also in the Detroit River. The couple has three children.

The Downriver Underwater Rescue Discovery Team performs a grid search along the Detroit River near Stony Island where the boat overturned Sunday night. (Dan Meloy | Detroit Catholic) 

A native of Belfast, Ireland, Fr. Rooney was ordained a priest for the Cistercian order in 1985 and was incardinated into the Archdiocese of Detroit in 1990.

Fr. Rooney served as associate pastor of St. Martin de Porres Parish, Warren (1987-89) and St. Alphonsus Parish, Dearborn (1989-90), and St. Patrick Parish, White Lake (1994-95).

He served as temporary administrator of St. Mary Parish in Monroe (2005), and as pastor of St. Michael the Archangel Parish, Monroe (1995-2008), Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Parish, Temperance (2008-13), and Our Lady on the River Parish, Marine City (2013-18), before becoming pastor of St. Joseph in Trenton in 2018.

In April, Fr. Rooney’s parishioners at St. Joseph surprised him with a “drive-by” parade during the height of the COVID-19 crisis. 

After the parish shared news of the crash on Facebook, parishioners flooded the page with prayers.

“Absolutely heartbroken and praying for Father Rooney, all involved in the crash and rescue and our parish family,” wrote Jackie Kisiel.

“My heart is breaking,” wrote Jessica Degroat. “We are praying. Fr. Rooney made a difference in so many’s lives especially mine personally. Prayers to all involved and everyone affected by this tragedy.”

Staff reporter Dan Meloy contributed to this story. This story will be updated.