New Jersey priest dies during climbing expedition on Mount Hood

Hood River, Ore. — A 57-year-old Catholic priest from the Newark, N.J., archdiocese fell to his death on the northeast side of Mount Hood in Oregon on Monday morning.

Fr. Robert J. Cormier of Jersey City fell nearly 1,000 feet near Eliot Glacier on the south side of the mountain, officials said. Another climber who witnessed the fall, which happened at about 8 a.m., said the priest was on the summit and looked north, when he fell through a cornice -- an overhang of snow.

Cormier was climbing in a party of three people, according to Sgt. Pete Hughes of the Hood River County Sheriff's Office.

"We have had this happen a few times where people have gone to take a look over to the north side of the mountain and actually fallen off the north side, which is a sheer face," Hughes said.

Cormier was in active ministry in the Newark archdiocese for 31 years. He was ordained in 1982 by Pope John Paul II in Rome. At the time of his death, he was administrator of St. Patrick and Assumption/All Saints, a merged parish in Jersey City. He also was an author and pilot and enjoyed sailing and scuba diving.

Cormier's climbing group ascended from Timberline Lodge, the traditional south side approach to the summit of Mount Hood, and left at about 1:45 a.m. Officials said the priest was climbing ahead of his party because another climber in the group had a leg cramp.

Conditions on the mountain were clear on Monday, with temperatures ranging from the 50s at Timberline Lodge to the 30s near the summit. Avalanche danger has been high because of the warm conditions and recent heavy snowfall.

Searchers located Cormier's body on the Eliot Glacier headwall, in a crevasse, at about 10,500 feet above sea level, according to the sheriff's office.

Because of the avalanche dangers, efforts to recover the priest's body would not take place until a crew could do it safely, deputies said.

James Goodness, Newark archdiocesan communications director, said learning of Cormier's death was a shock for the archdiocese, noting the priest was named parish administrator in Jersey City just a couple of months earlier.

"He was both a passionate and compassionate priest who truly invited every person he met to find a deeper and more personal relationship with Christ," Goodness said in a statement to Catholic News Service on Thursday. "His work with Hispanic and multicultural communities in urban settings brought him very close to people and reflected his own desire to bring different groups together as one family."

St. Patrick's/Assumption and All Saints Parish "has perhaps four or five very distinct ethnic groups," he said, adding that parishioners decided to cancel the regular schedule of weekend Masses May 17 and 18 "and celebrate only one Mass this Sunday at 2:30 p.m. as one community."

The Cranford Chronicle, a New Jersey newspaper, quoted Gwendolin Herder, head of Crossroad Publishing Co., who had worked with Cormier on several books on spirituality he published.

"Father Bob," as he liked to be called, "was passionate about God, a God who -- he was convinced -- did not want to hide behind formulas removed ... from people's life experience today," Herder told the paper. "Everything Father Bob thought, said, wrote and did was in the service of the truth that all of us, every human person, already have what it takes to see the truth of faith for him or herself, that this truth makes ultimate sense, and that faith is the only thing that ever can fill our desires, and make us truly happy."

His books included Better Than We Believed, Why We Look Up and A Faith That Makes Sense.

Cormier spoke several languages, including Spanish. His parish assignments included 25 years at St. Rose of Lima Church, where he ministered to the Spanish-speaking community.

He also had worked in education, on the grade school and high school level, and served as a prison chaplain and a rehab counselor.

He had a weekly program on an Internet-based radio station called Radio Inmaculada, for which he also served as spiritual director.

Cormier, who grew up in Cranford, had a degree in philosophy from The Catholic University of America in Washington and a licentiate in theology from Rome's Pontifical Gregorian University.

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