TRIBUTES HAVE poured in for a Belfast-born priest who is currently missing, presumed dead, after a boat he was on capsized in the US.
Father Stephen Rooney, 66, has served as pastor of St Joseph Catholic Church in Trenton, Michigan since 2015.
Prior to that, he spent more than a decade serving as a priest in the Monroe County area of Florida,
The Northern Irish priest was one of two men who were initially reported missing after the boat they were on capsized near Grosse Ile, a suburban island between Michigan and Ontario, Canada, this past Sunday evening.
The body of the other man, named locally as Robert Chiles, has since been recovered.
A further 12 people, including five children, were onboard when the boat capsized.
Emergency services are continuing to search for the missing priest’s body though the operation has moved from one of rescue to recovery in the past 24 hours.
Born in Belfast, Fr Rooney studied at Holy Cross Catholic Church before joining the redemptorists at Clonard Monastery in the Northern Irish capital.
Prayers and messages of support have flooded in from both sides of the Atlantic following news of his disappearance.
In a statement, St Joseph's said: "It is with great sadness that we share that Father Stephen Rooney, pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Trenton, is missing with long-time parishioner Robert Chiles, after a boat capsized yesterday evening in the Detroit River, off Stoney Island.
"Several others were rescued from the water by a Good Samaritan nearby.
"Let us unite in prayer for the missing, for the rescued, and for first responders searching the waters."
Several tributes have also been posted on social media.
“Father Rooney was my own personal hero,” one former parishioner wrote.
“I sat for my first confession with this wonderful human being. I was crushed when they moved him out of our parish. He laughed when I shared how sad I was to see him go, assured me it would all be okay.
“This is so far from ok. I'm crushed beyond belief over this news."
“Father Rooney there will never be another priest like you,” another said.
“You were a wonderful priest always smiling and always had good words to say.”
A statement issued on behalf of the Rooney family this past Tuesday afternoon also thanked the kind messages of support, while acknowledging that hope of finding him alive had all but extinguished.
"Thank you to everyone who has sent their love and offered prayers for our brother Fr Stephen Rooney. The search commenced again today at 7am, please keep praying that his body and that of his friend is recovered soon."
HAPPENING NOW: Parishoners are gathering at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Temperence to honor Father Stephen Rooney, who served at the parish for five years and is still missing after a boat he was on capsized in the Detroit River last night. Full Story tonight on @13abc pic.twitter.com/P7hL6bqzSW
— Rachel Schneider (@RachelOnTV) August 17, 2020
The Grosse Ile Police Department have told reporterers it is "very unusual" for a boat of this size to capsize.
They have theorised that the 39-foot vessel may have made a quick turn and hit a wake or rock ledge.
Lieutenant Kenneth Pellen said: "One witness has informed us that the boat may have rolled at least once, and caused all the passengers to be ejected from the boat."