WESTMINSTER -- In the final days of his illness, Monsignor Joseph C. Antoszewski sent one last message to the people of St. John Catholic Church.
"He wanted me to tell our people he is still praying for them," the Rev. Isaac Karoor, an associate pastor at the church for the past two years, said at weekend Masses.
With that message, the 65-year-old priest, whom everyone called "Monsignor Joe," hoped to console the parishioners he had served for the past 21 years.
"He has gone ahead of us to prepare our eternal home, just as he has done here," said Father Karoor at the Masses following the monsignor's death from cancer Saturday.
Monday the church remained open for 15 hours as hundreds came to pay final respects to the pastor, who had guided them for 21 years. Those years saw the size of the parish, one of the largest in the diocese, increase from 300 families to 3,000.
"He came just as we began building our new church and took care of all the expansion since," said Joseph Beaver, chairman of the church's long-range planning council.
About 1,000 people gathered in the church yesterday for a Mass celebrating the life of their beloved priest. Five bishops and more than 100 priests, many of whom had served with the monsignor, filed into the church as the congregation sang "Praise to the Lord."
"Where is Father Joe? Is he coming, too?" Christopher Swartz, 5, asked his mother.
The little boy has been a member of St. John's since his birth.
"He always made a point of saying hello to Father Joe," said his mother, Gina Swartz. "He came today to say goodbye."
Many priests, including associate pastors Father Karoor and the Rev. David Pietropaoli, took places around the altar during Mass. Nearly 100 others filled an entire section of the church and stood with their right hands extended as Archbishop William H. Keeler consecrated the bread and wine. They intoned the ritual words in one voice.
Following the consecration, several clerics walked throughout the church, offering their hands in a sign of peace to parishioners.
While the congregation sang "Amazing Grace," communicants walked to the altar. Many touched the closed casket tenderly.
As the hearse pulled away, leading a long procession of cars to Holy Redeemer Cemetery in Baltimore, people lingered outside the church, exchanging hugs and renewing friendships.
Patricia M. Brink, principal of St. John School, said the children, many of whom attended the funeral, will miss Monsignor Joe the most.
"He always took his time, when he said Mass for us," said Tim Hodgin, 13. "He would stop and talk to us about what it meant and to remind us why we were in church."
Miss Brink said the monsignor learned last month that he was fatally ill.
"I never once heard him say, 'Why me?' " she said. "He accepted death peacefully. Just as he taught us how to live, he taught us how to die."
At the monsignor's request, Bishop P. Francis Murphy read from his own letter, sent to Monsignor Joe a few weeks ago.
"At Joe's 40th anniversary [as a priest] last month, he expressed the hope that he had done some good with his priesthood," said the bishop. "I wrote to tell him just how much good. He asked me to use that letter for today's homily."
The bishop detailed only a few of the monsignor's accomplishments, which include his involvement in the fund-raising campaign and architectural planning for a new building now being constructed on the church property. He provided a few humorous insights and elicited gentle laughter amid the solemn ceremony.
"If Joe was happy about dying, it was because it meant he didn't have to deal with the Archdiocesan Building Committee anymore," said the bishop.
"He was so faithful about attending meetings -- unless they were on Wednesday and conflicted with golf time."
The bishop said many priests find hope in their own vocations when they see a ministry like Monsignor Joe's.
"Monsignor's life witnessed for us the human experience of pain," said the bishop. "He also offered us a powerful witness of faith in God's love. He showed a commitment of obedient service lived out in unwavering fidelity."
Archbishop Keeler, who concelebrated the funeral liturgy with four other bishops, several priests and the church's two deacons, said he recently told Monsignor Joe that, with his final example, he was preaching the greatest sermon of his life.
Many said the monsignor didn't realize the scope of that influence until recently. When his illness became known, the rectory was deluged with hundreds of letters, calls of support and offers of prayers.
"He told me he was overwhelmed by the affirmation of his people," said Bishop Murphy. "He didn't realize until he was dying how much his ministry meant."
Father Pietropaoli said he lost count of the stacks of mail that arrived for the monsignor every day for weeks. "If there is any hidden blessing in this tragedy, it is all the goodness people have shown," he said. "It has given all of us the strongest feeling of unity and comfort."
Archbishop Keeler prayed that the monsignor's example would continue to inspire the parish.
"He had a profound influence both as pastor and manager of a large parish," said Mr. Beaver. "The people here will carry on because of his leadership.
Monsignor Joe's work will continue also.
"There will be a bit of sadness opening the new building in the fall," said Mrs. Brink. "But, he will be here in spirit."