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Monsignor's last Mass before retirement packs Cockeysville church

Monsignor Paul Cook was an administrator in the Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore for 17 years before he became the spiritual leader of St. Joseph Parish in Cockeysville in 1977, at age 45.

"My feeling at the time was that I had served my sentence," he told his parishioners Sunday. "We're not ordained to be administrators. We're ordained to be ministers."

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Thirty-seven years later, Cook, now 82, was presiding at his final Mass before retiring. He will now live at Mercy Ridge, a retirement community in Timonium, where the diocese moves many of its retired priests.

Sunday's Mass, which was as much a celebration of Cook as it was a church service, was so well-attended that the loft was standing room only.

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"The thought crossed my mind (that) maybe we should have tried the fairgrounds," he said as the audience burst out laughing — and burst into applause

"I'm kind of overwhelmed," Cook said. "I think the reality of this is just hitting me."

But Cook, who was appointed by Archbishop William Lori as pastor emeritus of St. Joseph - Cockeysville, said he looks forward to being one of its 3,500 parishioners.

"You know, Mercy Ridge is within the parish boundary," he said.

First ordained to the priesthood in 1959, Cook served for 12 years as associate pastor of the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in Homeland. During his time at St. Joseph, the church built several school buildings and a parish center. It was announced Sunday that the center was being named in his honor.

Cook leaves a legacy in the person of the church's new leader, the Rev. Msgr. Richard Hilgartner, whom Cook once supervised at St. Mary's Seminary in Roland Park.

Hilgartner is the same age that Cook was when Cook was appointed to lead St. Joseph, Cook said.

But although Hilgartner represents new blood at St. Joseph, Cook lamented that the Catholic Church is lacking future generations of leadership.

"We all know how much we need priests," he told parishioners. "If only young people could appreciate what a wonderful thing it is to have a call to the priesthood."

Cook thanked parishioners often, likening the parish to a family.

"It's a wonderful family," he said. "God made us a family. We need one another. We forgive one another. We work together, play together, worship together. Together we serve our God (and) hope for heaven."

As he ended his remarks, church members stood and applauded for at least a minute. Cook wiped his eyes and spread his hands.

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"How can anyone not want the vocation of priesthood?" he asked.

Cook has served under six archbishops in the diocese — and six popes, he noted. He told the Catholic Review that more than 50 seminarians have been assigned to his parish in the past four decades.

Several clergy re-arranged their own Sunday schedules to attend the farewell Mass. Written accolades also came from clergy near and far, including from the Rev. Mitchell Rozanski, now bishop of the Catholic diocese of Springfield, Mass., and formerly auxiliary bishop of the diocese in Baltimore.

Pope Francis sent him a framed plaque, which he received to thunderous applause at the end of the service.

But accolades also came from parishioners.

"Because of you, we are a better parish," said Dick Seubert, president of the parish council.

One woman chased him down after the service as he walked outside to the fellowship hall for a reception and lunch in his honor.

"I just wanted to say goodbye," she said.

Gina Skelton, of Ruxton, has been a member of the church for as long as Cook has been pastor.

"That's a big part of the reason I've been here," she said. "He's a very holy man in the world."

"As far as I'm concerned, he's the only pastor I've known," said Elaine Bacinski, of Cockeysville, a parishioner for almost 50 years. She said neither of the previous two pastors stayed for that long.

"He's been wonderful," she said. "It's almost like losing a member of the family."

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