BY TERRY DICKSON
BILOXI — Msgr. Michael Thornton, a native of Ireland who served in Mississippi and Mexico during his 54 years of priestly ministry, died on July 26 after a brief illness. He was 77.
Bishop Louis F. Kihneman III celebrated a Mass of Christian Burial for Msgr. Thornton on July 31 at Our Lady of Fatima Church in Biloxi.
Msgr. Thornton was a native of Headford, County Galway, Ireland, and attended St. Patrick Seminary in Carlow, Ireland, where he was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Natchez-Jackson on June 7, 1969.
He served as an associate pastor at Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Cathedral, Biloxi, and as pastor of Sacred Heart Parish, Pascagoula; Immaculate Conception Parish, Laurel; St. Bernadette Parish, Waynesboro; and Holy Trinity Mission, Leakesville. He was also administrator of St. Louis Parish, Biloxi. On the diocesan level, Msgr. Thornton served as Chancellor, Judicial Vicar, and was a member of numerous diocesan boards and committees. He received the Papal Honor of Domestic Prelate, or monsignor, in 1988.
Msgr. Thornton also served two stints in Saltillo Mexico from 1973 to 1977 and from 1997 to 2005.
In 2019, he retired to Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Biloxi and continued to do work for the tribunal as a judge and, for a brief period as Adjutant Judicial Vicar.
“Msgr. Thornton had a wonderful missionary spirit, first coming from Mississippi to Ireland and then from Mississippi to Saltillo where he spent 12 years serving in our mission first at Perpetual Help and now at St. Michael the Archangel Parish,” said Bishop Kihneman
“He was very tireless in his ministry to the people. He deeply loved the people that he served, both in the Diocese of Biloxi and the Saltillo Mission. He was a quiet man but one that was very, very bright. He was a good pastor and a very good priest. He will be deeply missed by all of us. We lift him up in prayer as we have been lifting him up in the last few weeks of illness. We can be assured of having (Msgr. Thornton) as another intercessor with the Lord. He was a man of deep faith, hope and trust in the Lord. His willingness to serve the Church is an example for all of us and it is also a call to have our youth and young adults consider religious life and the priesthood.”
Msgr. Thornton’s impact was far-reaching, touching the lives of his brother priests and the people who he served.
Fellow Irishman Father Louis Lohan, who was ordained in 1971, fondly remembers his early encounters with Msgr. Thornton.
“Some of us have had the great privilege of seeing Michael’s journey of faith, love and ministry for at least 58 years,” said Father Lohan.
“In St. Patrick’s College in Carlow in the 1960s, Mike was there to meet us neophytes. He was not jump-ing up and down with excitement. He was a constant gentle presence in our lives. He had a brilliant intellect, a very quiet and sharp wit.
“He was here again when we arrived in Mississippi in the early 1970s. We were as green as the pastures we left. Mike didn’t try to make us green or more red, white and blue. He was right there for us for the next 50 years to show us the way. We all admired him. His opinion was important to us; his advice, given only when asked for, was solid as a rock, insightful and wise as a sage.”
In Saltillo, Mexico, Father Lohan said, Msgr. Thornton was known as “Padre Miguelito” or Little Father Mike.
“He was so loved by people of all ages,” Father Lohan, who also served in the Saltillo mission from 1974 to 1978, said. “The children followed him like a pied piper. The teens and young adults traveled every day with him to the ranchos or villages. They admired him, watched out for him and reveled in his wit. Old men, struggling mothers, dying people all encountered Christ in him.”
Father Lohan said there are numerous adjectives one could use to describe Msgr. Thornton.
“He was gentle, generous, kind, wise, patient, and, most of all, he was holy,” Father Lohan said.
“There’ll never be the likes of him again.” Father Paddy Mockler agreed, referring to Msgr. Thornton as a “priest’s priest.”
“Mike was kind, humble and brilliant. He was a priest’s priest,” said Father Mockler, who served in Saltillo from 1986 to 1990. “He was like a walking computer. Instead of Googling you could ask Mike. He loved the mission in Saltillo. He did great work building homes for the poor. He did great ministry with the Hispanics in Laurel and Biloxi. Mike was an officer for the Association of Priests. He believed in keeping things simple and take the best possible care of the retired priests.”
Msgr. Michael Flannery, a retired priest of the Diocese of Jackson who also served in Saltillo, and who has written a definitive history of the mission, praised Msgr. Thornton for continuing the good work started by his predecessor, the late Father Patrick Quinn.
Msgr. Thornton first served as Father Quinn’s associate at Perpetuo Socorro (Our Lady of Perpetual Help) from 1973 to 1977. He returned after Father Quinn’s unexpected death in 1997, serving for a year at Perpetuo Socorro before becoming the founding pastor of the new parish of San Miguel, where he continued to serve for five years. San Miguel was named for Father Paddy Quinn’s brother, Michael, a priest in Ireland who had died from brain cancer. In September, the mission will celebrate its 25th anniversary.
“(Msgr. Thornton’s) nickname was El Tranquillo, ‘the tranquil one’ because nothing would upset him. He would just rock along with everything that was happening,” Msgr. Flannery said. “He was a great priest, very dedicated to the mission. He did tremendous work. He really did. He was very popular there. He was very good to the sick and the dying. He was very committed to the people he served.”
Rogelio Perez first met Msgr. Thornton in 1973 dur-ing his first term in the Saltillo mission and the two remained close friends to the end, working closely together at both Perpetuo Socorro and San Miguel.
“He was very dedicated to his ministry,” said Perez. “As a boss, he was an excellent person, who treated the workers very well, both those who worked with him at the mission and those who built the chapels. In the municipality of Galeana, he adopted more ejidos (commons) that they asked him to visit, and in Saltillo he was in charge of two chapels, and he built one with the name of San Guillermo and the last one with the name of Cristo Rey, although he did not see it finished.
“For him, when we visited the ranchos, there was no deadline to return because he was always aware of the needs of the communities we visited, even if it was late, sometimes we returned at night.”
Perez would often accompany Msgr. Thornton on his trips to Mississippi to report on the progress at the mission.
“When we brought donations of clothes and medicine back to Saltillo, when it would come time to cross the border back into Mexico, despite how difficult it was, we always made it through,” he said.
Perez said Msgr. Thornton was more than a boss. He was a friend. “Personally, I am very grateful to him because he gave the blessing of our marriage to me and my wife, and he was always there for me, especially in 2001 when I had an accident,” said Perez.
“All the people were always very grateful to him, and they mourned his departure in 2004, when he returned to Mississippi for his new assignment.”
Perez and his wife would often visit Msgr. Thornton in Mississippi. The two saw each other for the last time in 2022 when Msgr. Thornton traveled to Saltillo for a visit.
“I will always be grateful for his priesthood, friend-ship, the love he had for the mission and, above all, his love for others. He was always looking out for those in need.” Herminia Moreno, his first secretary at San Miguel, said Msgr. Thornton will always have a special place in the hearts and minds of the people of Saltillo.
“He remains in our hearts, a holy and wise man, who gave us his friendship, was our spiritual guide and part of our family, always sowing the seed of faith with great humility among the poorest,” she said.
María Inés Laureano, the current secretary at San Miguel, said she will remember Msgr. Thornton as “a wonderful and humble man with a very good sense of humor and tremendous patience.” Laureano said Msgr. Thornton became part of the Mexican culture.
“He loved us very much,” she said. “When he returned to the United States, he did not forget about us. When someone called him to say hello, he always asked how everyone at the ranchos was doing. For those of us who knew him and worked with him, it was a blessing to have met a man so full of God. We will miss him.”
“Our consolation is that Msgr .Mike always did the best for the people around him and he was close to the Lord,” said Blanca Beatriz Garza Gonzalez , who has served as a catechist in Saltillo since the establishment of the mission at Perpetuo Socorro “Here in Saltillo he brought the Good News to know the Lord with the other priests who came to our mission.”
One of those to whom he brought the Good News was Father Sergio Balderas, pastor of St. Elizabeth Seton Parish in Ocean Springs, who is a native of Saltillo.
“I met Father Mike Thornton about twenty-five years ago, when he arrived in Saltillo after the death of Fr. Paddy Quinn. He became the new pastor in charge of the Perpetuo Socorro Mission. I went to see him at his office and ask his for his support and permission to come to Mississippi and study English. One family from Ocean Springs accepted me to live in their home during my studies; so Father Thornton was a big sup-porter of this experience,” said Father Balderas.
“When I made the decision to join the seminary for the Biloxi Diocese, once again, Father Thornton sup-ported my decision. He was my pastor and he recommended me to the diocese. I remember he gave me a bilingual Bible that was his. I used that Bible during my seminary formation. When he returned to Mississippi, he was assigned to Immaculate Conception Parish in Laurel, and I had the honor to serve with him as a transitional deacon and for three years of my priesthood.
“The impact he had in the Saltillo Mission was tremendous. It was not an easy job. There was lots of travel, many Masses to celebrate and sacraments to administer, He was also tasked with building more chapels, both in the ranchos and city. There were many poor people to take care of,” Father Balderas added. “He made it very clear when he arrived to Saltillo, when he said, ‘I am not here to replace Father Quinn’s presence in your hearts and minds, I am here just to continue his missionary work with the poor.’ Those wise words stole the hearts of the people and they immediately fell in love of the little Irish priest. His humility, kindness and service to the poor were a clear testimony of his faith and love for God.”
Suzie Middleton witnessed that love the first time she met Msgr. Thornton during a mission trip to Saltillo.
“It was the summer after Padre Quinn passed away. He was so kind. He would come around and shake everyone’s hand and welcomed us to the downtown mission,” she said. “I remember how loved he was. When we went out to the ranchos, he would visit with the local families and church members and go to their homes. It was such a beautiful thing to witness. You could see the joy in his eyes and smile on his face. His love for Jesus poured over to his ministry. He traveled long hours on dirt roads but it never dampened his call to serve.”
Middleton would reunite with Msgr. Thornton when he returned to Mississippi to became pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish in Laurel.
“He was our parish priest for 14 years and not once did he ever raise his voice or say one negative thing about anyone,” said Middleton, who is the parish youth minister. “He was an honorable man, a holy man, a saintly man.”
Kathleen Parker and her late husband, Roger, worked closely with Msgr. Thornton when he was pas-tor of Sacred Heart Parish in Pascagoula.
“He was the best pastor. I have to say this time at Sacred Heart is at the top of my list for favorite times in my life,” she said. “I worked with him in many min-istries. He enabled the lay people to step up and do their thing. Sacred Heart was an active, evangelizing parish because of him. He was always there to listen, to advise, to support, and to lead.
“We shared our love for Padre Quinn and I made a few trips with him to Saltillo. I called him Father Mikey and he called me “jefe” which means boss in Spanish. I got a kick out of that. Monsignor Thornton, Roger and I attended Padre Quinn’s funeral in Saltillo. I will never forget, on the night of the funeral, he invited us to say the Rosary at Father Quinn’s grave with a few other priests. It was late at night and the cement on the grave was still wet. Such an overwhelming experience and an honor for us.
“‘The heart of a servant is the sanctuary of God. This quote was on the retirement card we sent him. Msgr. Thornton had the heart of a servant and served God and his people faithfully. I truly loved this kind, humble, and holy man.”
Wanda Loper served as Msgr. Thornton’s secretary at Immaculate Conception Parish until his retirement in 2019. She too recalls his deep care for the sick and the dying.
“Father Mike had a gift for visiting the sick,” she said. “I remember when my mother was in the final stages of her cancer, Father Mike came to my house to visit with my mother. They sat at the table in the kitchen and talked and he heard her final confession. She was at such peace when he left. My family and I will never forget his kindness to us. He was small in stature, but a man with a gigantic heart.”
Deacon Rich Hollingsworth said one of Msgr. Thornton’s charisms was “the gift of listening.” “Within the first year of being assigned to Immaculate Conception/St. Bernadette, he found Catholics that had never been to our church. People who knew these people did not know they were Catholic. In one case, he went to the Emergency Room at the hospital and asked who had been in there and registered as Catholic. He would weekly visit shut-ins that were not on the church shut-in list, even though they were Catholic. Fr. Mike would not take anyone with him, because he could sit for five minutes without saying a word. He wanted the shut-in to bring up what was on their mind.”
St. Bernadette parishioner Mary Jo Canady recalled a time when Msgr. Thornton went out of his way to help her family.
“My daughter’s husband was in the Navy in San Diego and my granddaughter was preparing for her First Holy Communion there,” said Canady. “When orders came that they had to move cross country, my granddaughter was not going to be able to make her First Communion with her friends. Father Mike made it possible for her to receive her First Communion at St. Bernadette.”
Sharon Sanderson recalled a time when her husband, Bill, spent Thanksgiving in the hospital.
“Father Mike arrived unexpectedly in Bill’s Forrest General Hospital room bringing the Sacraments to Bill,” she said. “Bill was battling a serious sepsis infection. Father spent a generous amount of time with us that special day. This was truly an example of his holy priesthood.”
Msgr. Thornton will be buried in Cloughanover Cemetery in Headford, County Galway, Ireland.