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The Rev. Bob Begin, Cleveland's 'rebel priest' and champion of the poor, dies

The Rev. Bob Begin celebrates Mass at St. Colman Catholic Church in Cleveland
St. Colman Catholic Church
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The Rev. Bob Begin, who died July 24 at age 84, was the longtime pastor of St. Colman Catholic Church in Cleveland

The Rev. Bob Begin, who earned the title “Rebel Priest” early in his career and was never afraid to stand up to authority to help the marginalized, has died. He was 84.

The longtime pastor of St. Colman Catholic Church on Cleveland’s West Side, Begin devoted his life to not only churchgoers, but immigrants and homeless people in the city.

“I saw him as a person of truth, so when he would speak truth to power, that seemed to contradict his promise of obedience, which made him troublesome to the hierarchy,” said Begin’s sister, Laura Kuhn, one of his 12 siblings, who confirmed his death. “He always believed you do what’s right in spite of the consequences.”

That meant, as a young priest, protesting what he called “church hypocrisy” at the altar of the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, the headquarter church of the Cleveland Diocese. He and other activists performed an “unscheduled Mass” minutes before a 12:30 a.m. scheduled Mass, as he details in his unpublished memoir.

The activists, known as Catholics Who Care, spoke from the altar about how church hierarchy was not consulting priests and laity as prescribed in Vatican II. They talked about the need to address issues of poverty, racism and the war in Vietnam.

There was a tussle with billy club-wielding Cleveland police officers while he distributed communion. The police waited until he finished and placed Begin and another priest, the Rev. Bernie Meyer, in handcuffs and arrested them. Charges of criminal trespassing were eventually dropped, but their picture in vestments on the steps of the cathedral on a snowy January night appeared on the front page of The Plain Dealer.

Two months later, he doubled down, traveling with other anti-war activists to Washington, D.C. They became known as the D.C. Nine, after breaking into the offices of Dow Chemical to protest the company’s manufacturing of napalm and Agent Orange. They splashed blood through the offices and destroyed files.

Begin was sentenced to four years probation after pleading guilty to unlawful entry. He worked with and lived in homeless communities after his suspension from the priesthood. Later, as a priest in good standing without an assignment or a salary, he earned a law degree from Cleveland Marshall College of Law because, he said, poor and homeless people also need legal help. He learned to speak Spanish to communicate with Cleveland’s Latino community.

In 1975, he was assigned to the Commission on Catholic Community Action that had been established by Bishop William Cosgrove.

Later he was appointed to lead St. Colman, shaping it into a social service agency as well as a sanctuary for the poor from the surrounding neighborhood. He started his career with ambitions to become a foreign missionary, but he fulfilled his missionary work at home, his sister said. One of his brothers, the Rev. Dan Begin, also was a Catholic priest serving in several parishes in the Cleveland Diocese. He died in 2017.

When Bishop Richard Lennon announced in 2009 that St. Colman would be among the 50 churches he would close in a downsizing, Begin went to work saving his beloved church. This time, more quietly, working with parishioners to make the case that St. Colman should remain open.

He succeeded. It remains a community pillar today. But shortly after that fight, though he wanted to remain at the parish, the bishop accepted the letter of resignation Begin was compelled to write by canon law because he'd turned 75. He'd hoped for an extension, and was allowed to stay on for an extra year but then was dismissed. He continued to say Mass there and at Ennis Court, a nursing home in Lakewood, while studying French so he could help refugees from French-speaking parts of Africa.

Begin, who was diagnosed with cancer four years ago, has been working on his memoir, which he tentatively titled, “If You Go To Hell, It Won’t Be For That.” In it, he details all of the experiences that shaped his life until 1976 (a second book was planned for his St. Colman years). He writes about everything from his childhood to his rabble rousing protest days. His niece, Mary Handley, worked with him on the hefty manuscript and hopes to get it published as a legacy project.

He died shortly after 9 p.m. Sunday with family standing vigil in the home of another sister, Donna, as he looked out the window at the house next door on Larchwood Avenue in West Park, where he and his siblings were raised.

Begin’s family is planning a gathering and funeral at St. Colman, the church he fought to save. On the program, at his request, will be this Bible verse, from the Old Testament Book of Micah: “You have been told, O mortal, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: Only to do justice and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God.”

Updated: July 26, 2022 at 11:23 AM EDT
An earlier version of the photo caption said Rev. Begin died on Monday. He died Sunday, July 24.
Mike is the executive editor of Ideastream Public Media.