NEW YORK — Franciscan Father Benedict Joseph Groeschel, well-known preacher and a founder of the Community of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, died on Friday at age 81, after an extended illness.

“We are deeply saddened by the death of Father Benedict. He was an example to us all,” said Father John Paul Ouellette, community servant of the Friars of the Renewal, in a statement.

“His fidelity and service to the Church and commitment to our Franciscan way of life will have a tremendous impact for generations to come.”

Father Groeschel was a founder, author, teacher, preacher and retreat master. He hosted and appeared on EWTN television shows for more than 25 years. He was ordained a priest in 1959 for the Detroit Capuchin province, and held a master’s degree in counseling and a doctoral degree in psychology.

In 1987, Father Groeschel and seven other Capuchin friars founded the Community of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal (CFR) in New York City. He was director of Trinity Retreat House in Larchmont, N.Y., and also taught pastoral psychology for many years at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Dunwoodie, N.Y.

He founded St. Francis House and Good Counsel Homes and served as chaplain at Children’s Village in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., for 14 years.

Father Groeschel is survived by his sister, Marjule Drury, several nieces and nephews, as well as 115 brothers and priests and 31 sisters of the Community of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal.

“All of us at EWTN were saddened to learn of the passing of Father Benedict Groeschel, CFR.  Father Benedict played an enormous role in the work of EWTN, hosting numerous programs and being a frequent guest on the Network for nearly three decades,” Michael Warsaw, EWTN’s chairman and chief executive officer, said in a statement.  “Like Mother Angelica herself, Father Benedict was an iconic presence on EWTN.  His gray beard and Franciscan habit were known to Network viewers around the world and he had a profound impact on the lives of countless individuals.”

In a statement from Priests for Life, Father Frank Pavone, national director, said, “I have known and been profoundly influenced by three priests in my life. … One of them is my longtime friend, professor and mentor Father Benedict Groeschel.”

Franciscan Father Sean Sheridan, president of Franciscan University of Steubenville, called Father Groeschel "a good friend" of the university.

"A well-loved speaker at our Defending the Faith Conferences, spiritual director of our  pilgrimages, and former member of our Board of Trustees, Father Benedict contributed in numerous ways to the mission of Franciscan University," he said. "He also strengthened the Church with new vocations as a founder of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, served as a brother to those living in material and spiritual poverty, and led countless souls to Christ."

"This inspiring follower of the first poverello, the little poor man of Assisi, this tireless and bold witness to Christ, will be greatly missed," Father Sheridan added.

In 2004, Father Groeschel was hit by a car, suffering intracranial bleeding and a heart attack, as well as having both legs, both arms and several ribs broken. His secretary said at the time that it would “take a miracle” for the priest — who was 70 years old when the accident occured — to survive. Father Groeschel, who praised God for his recovery from the accident, reinjured his arm earlier this year.

In September 2012, Father Groeschel stepped down as host of Sunday Night Prime, after he made statements in the Register suggesting that a minor is “the seducer” in “a lot” of sexual abuse cases, and that many abusers on their first offense should not go to jail “because their intention was not committing a crime.”

He subsequently apologized for the comments, as did his religious community, the Register and EWTN, who stressed that the priest’s physical health and mental clarity were both declining, noting that his comments did not reflect his life’s work.

Father Groeschel's death came as his community celebrated the vigil of the feast of St. Francis, founder of the Franciscans, whose feast day is Oct. 4. Details for his wake and funeral will be forthcoming.

“He poured himself out for others no matter what the cost — and sometimes the cost to him was very great. To have known him was to have been helped by him and even loved by him,” said the Community of the Friars of the Renewal in a statement. “Our CFR family and everyone who knew him received an enormous amount from Father Benedict — probably more than we were ever able to give back. It was not simply his wealth of wisdom and knowledge from which many benefited. It was his profound faith and equally profound love, two gifts that he never failed to share generously.

“Join with us in praying for the repose of the soul of Father Benedict, for his family and community, and also in thanksgiving for the legacy of renewal within the Church and Franciscan family that Father Benedict championed.”

Catholic News Agency contributed to this report.