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Continuing Labor of 'Labor Priest'

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Local Catholic activists are hoping to carry on some of the work of Monsignor Charles Owen Rice by pressing for room for a new column in the Pittsburgh Catholic focused on social-justice issues.

 

Rice, who died Nov. 13 at 96, was famous for his public agitation, and public commentary, on behalf of civil rights, particularly workers' rights. "[O]ne of the finest legacies of Monsignor Charles Owen Rice was his countless weekly columns in the Pittsburgh Catholic, spanning much of half a century," says a petition being circulated by local Catholic activists, including the Religion and Labor Council of Western Pennsylvania. The effort began at a memorial service for Rice. "We believe that a revival of the Monsignor's weekly column space as THE CHARLES OWEN RICE CORNER could be an opinion place," the petition concludes, for lay and religious commentators to continue Rice's legacy.

"You always had this space that was like an op-ed to [contrast with] what the bishop was writing," recalls Russell Gibbons about Rice's column. "That was the first thing people would look at. It was a long tradition."

 Gibbons, president of the Battle of Homestead Foundation, which focuses on the Mon Valley's labor history, knew Rice and is one of the individuals circulating the petition. "We feel the legacy could be best served with a church publication to have that space used by ... commentators or activists who feel those issues don't go away just because there's not [Rice] around to articulate them," he says.

At the end of 2005, for instance, such a column could focus on "just what's happened this week with respect to Congress chopping off so many billions of social services for people who are hurting already," he says. "Certainly, Iraq [too]. Race continues to be a problem. Rice addressed all of these."

Rice's column ended its regular run in the early '90s, although the priest contributed to the paper into the late '90s. Gibbons says the group did not think it would be appropriate "to take over his space while he was around." Now they are waiting for a "respectable" number of signatures before approaching the paper.

"We don't make decisions by petition," cautions Pittsburgh Catholic Editor William Cone, who had not heard about the effort. While open to discussing the idea, and calling Rice's writings "impressive," Cone added that "just about every story that we run, that we produce locally, touches on Catholic social teaching in some way. It permeates everything we do."

Gibbons believes the need for voice's like Rice's is still strong: "People disliked him very much or they applauded him. But he was read."

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