Robert Gronenthal, one of the first deacons in the Catholic Church on Long Island, once got transferred from his day job as a sales manager at Nabisco to Vero Beach, Florida.
He was there for only nine months. But by the time he left to come back to Bayport, he had already connected with migrant farmworkers in Florida and took part in marches to protest unfair wages and the use of pesticides while they worked, recalled his wife, Pat Gronenthal.
“He stood up for social justice for people who couldn’t stand up for themselves,” she said.
Robert Gronenthal, who most recently lived in Moriches, died on July 5 at the age of 84. Ordained in the Catholic Church in 1983, he was one of the longest serving deacons in the Diocese of Rockville Centre, officials said.
Deacons perform some of the same duties as priests such as preaching at Mass, witnessing marriages and conducting baptisms, though unlike priests they are allowed to marry. Deacons existed in the early church, but the role was suspended about 800 years ago until the Vatican brought it back in the 1960s, according to church scholars.
Gronenthal was in one of the first classes of deacons in the Diocese of Rockville Centre to be ordained, church officials said.
“He was a gentle soul,” said the Rev. Kevin Smith, the pastor at Our Lady of the Snow Roman Catholic Church in Blue Point, Gronenthal’s longtime home parish. “He was loved by the parish. He always had a real pastoral spirit about him.”
In nearly four decades as a deacon, Gronenthal delved into a wide range of ministerial work, some of it far beyond Our Lady of the Snow.
For years he traveled to Wyandanch to manage a soup kitchen run by the Sisters of Mercy at a nondenominational church. To meet the needs of the soup kitchen patrons, that work expanded to include ESL classes for immigrants and a program to obtain bikes so people without cars could get to work. Another program he helped implement provided “care packages” to people newly released from jail to help their transition back into society.
“He was a real deacon, in the full sense of the word,” said the Rev. Bill Brisotti, the former pastor of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal Roman Catholic Church in Wyandanch who was also involved in the projects. “He lived that ministry … in the sense of caring for needy people.”
Gronenthal, along with his wife, also helped support a new group home for girls and young women ages 16 to 21 who were either pregnant or had given birth. Mercy Center opened in Patchogue in 1983, and has now grown to three homes in the area.
“Deacon Bob Gronenthal was there when that tiny Mercy seed went into the ground,” said Briana Taylor, executive director of Mercy Center Ministries Inc. “Bob was a tremendous humanitarian. We are so blessed that he has shared his gifts of love, friendship, humor, support, and time with the agency since its inception.”
Our Lady of the Snow was one of the first Catholic parishes on Long Island to establish a social outreach program, and Gronenthal and his wife also played a key role in that.
Under the auspices of Catholic Charities, the two ended up traveling to other parishes around Long Island to help implement similar programs, Pat Gronenthal said. They also helped lead the Marriage Encounter movement for the diocese, including for the Hispanic community. The movement aimed to strengthen marriages through three-day weekend gatherings and follow-up events.
He did all this even though the couple had eight children and the demands of raising a family, she said.
“His energy level was tremendous,” Pat Gronenthal said. “He was always on the move. He was always looking to help people."
In his later years, he did hospice work for Long Island Community Hospital in Patchogue.
Gronenthal was born and raised in Queens and graduated from St. John’s Preparatory School. He went on to serve in the U.S. Army National Guard and later earned a bachelor's degree from Stony Brook University while settling in Bayport.
He is also survived by his children: Patti Gomez of Connecticut; Linda Murphy of Patchogue; Laura Juris, Kathleen Angrilla and Mary Wright of North Carolina; and Robert and Thomas of East Patchogue. A son, John, died in 1998 in a car accident. He also is survived by two sisters, Marie Borrone and Susan Bernhardt, both of Florida; 15 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
A wake is scheduled Saturday from 7 to 9:30 p.m. and Sunday from 2 to 4:30 p.m. and 7 to 9:30 p.m. at Raynor & D’Andrea Funeral Home in West Sayville.
A Funeral Mass will be celebrated Monday at 11 a.m. at Our Lady of the Snow in Blue Point. Interment will follow at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Coram.