By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY — Monday morning, June 11, was quiet in the offices of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. Msgr. Robert Gregory’s office was looking bare.
“Today is my last day here,” he said. “Retirement starts tomorrow.”
“Gosh, we’re gonna miss him!” said parishioner and Pastoral Council chair Ed Blasco.
Msgr. Gregory, 68, has served as rector of the Cathedral for seven years, following his 12-year pastorate at St. Elizabeth Parish.
“It was a great honor to be asked to be rector,” he recalled. “I got to know Bishop Finn in 2004, while he was still a monsignor, waiting for his episcopal consecration as bishop, so that he could serve as coadjutor to Bishop Boland. He was looking for a place to live.” There was room in St. Elizabeth’s rectory, and Msgr. Finn moved in.
“Father Richard Rocha was newly ordained and had been assigned to assist at St. Elizabeth, so the three of us lived together for a little more than a year,” Msgr. Gregory said. “I was deeply honored to be asked to serve as rector of the Cathedral. It showed me that Bishop Finn knew me as someone he could trust with his cathedral. Of course, the big surprise was when he called a meeting of some of us priests in 2006 and told us Pope Benedict XVI had raised us to monsignors. There are three ranks of monsignor. In this diocese we now have one protonotary apostolic supernumerary, Msgr. Blacet. Then Msgr. Bob Murphy, Msgr. Brad Offutt, Msgr. Rick Dierkes, who had passed away, and I were named prelates of honor.”
The pope also raised to Monsignors Donald S. Miller, Ralph L. Kaiser, John E. Leitner, Lawrence A. Speichinger, Joseph A. Mancuso and R. William Caldwell, as chaplains to His Holiness.
“I told the Cathedral parish that the honor was theirs not mine,” Msgr. Gregory said.
But he has more than lived up to their expectations.
Robert S. Gregory was born Oct. 19, 1943, in St. Joseph. He was raised on the family farm in Easton, about 13 miles from St. Joseph. He and his 10 siblings all had specific chores assigned and these gave the boy many opportunities to listen to God’s call.
Two of his older sisters, Sisters Elaine and Evelyn, are members of the Benedictine community at Atchison, Kan., so the family was used to the idea of religious vocations. But it wasn’t until he was 14 that he really started thinking about the priesthood. A friend of his enrolled at St. John’s minor seminary that year.
The teenager soon followed his friend to St. John’s and received his high school diploma from there in 1961. He then started at Conception Seminary College and spent the next eight years studying, praying, talking and thinking with the Benedictine monks.
Although he found Benedictine community life very attractive, it gradually became clear that the diocesan priesthood was in God’s plan for him. He was ordained a priest at St. Joseph’s Church in Easton by Kansas City-St. Joseph Bishop Charles Helmsing in 1969.
His ordination came at a volatile moment in history. Vietnam, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy, and the turmoil caused by the implementation of the tenets of the Second Vatican Council. Men and women entered the priesthood or religious life and, after only a few short years, left.
He recalled his thoughts at the time in a 2009 Catholic Key story. “It made me think, why am I any different? I was filled with doubt.”
Father Gregory was assigned as an assistant to St. Patrick Parish in Kansas City. He taught in the grade school, and at St. Pius X High School while serving as a chaplain for a local hospital, and a full-time priest in a large parish.
His doubts increased and finally, in May 1973, he took a leave of absence “with Bishop Helmsing’s blessing, to get my head together.” Over the course of the next three years, he worked in Washington, D.C., Tennessee, and ended up in San Diego. There, a walk on the beach and a heart-to-heart talk with Christ changed everything for the young man.
He asked Jesus how he knew he could trust Him. What if he was disappointed? “Christ answered, ‘I died for you, didn’t I?’”
Msgr. Gregory said that “call of love has been repeated many times in my priesthood. It’s a call to trust.”
He returned to full, active priesthood Christmas 1976. He was assigned as an assistant at St. Elizabeth Parish, serving there until he was moved to St. Thomas More Parish in 1979. He served as pastor of St. Louis Parish 1981-83, the Church of the Risen Christ 1983-87, and St. Robert Bellarmine Parish, Blue Springs, 1987-93. He was then appointed pastor of St. Elizabeth Parish, an appointment which lasted 12 years, “my longest assignment,” Msgr. Gregory said.
It was during his pastorate at St. Elizabeth that he got to know Bishop Finn, which resulted in his appointment as rector of the Cathedral in 2005.
In a speech he made at the June 3 retirement celebration Mass, Ed Blasco remembered, “You came to us at a difficult time in our parish life and you managed to pull us all together. You brought with you a love for the beauty of liturgy and ritual. You recognized early on exactly what areas were important to us at the Cathedral and you honed in on them.”
He listed many things Msgr. Gregory and the Cathedral Parish had accomplished together:
• the formation of the parish chapter of the Knights of Columbus and the Cathedral Guild, which opened the gift shop. The gift shop contributes funds for special projects every year.
• the remodeling of the rectory dining room and rebuilding of the kitchen using only private donations, no parish funds.
• the recruitment and hiring of Dr. Mario Pearson in 2006 to be Director of Music and Liturgy.
• consoled Cathedral parishioners on the death of long-time rector Msgr. Ernest “Bud” Fiedler in 2007.
• hosted a parish mission presented by Redemptorist Fathers in 2009.
• hosted the late Cardinal John Foley, 20 bishops and more than 50 priests at the 2010 investiture of the Knights and Ladies of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, attended by more than 700 Knights and Ladies.
• hosted Cardinal Raymond Burke, who celebrated the Closing Mass of the 2011 End of Life conference.
• hosted the Opening of the Cause for Sainthood for Sister Marie de Mandat-Grancey, celebrated and promulgated by Bishop Robert W. Finn in 2011, and
• the reduction of the parish’s long term debt from $1.2 million in 2005 to $392,000 currently.
Blasco continued, “Many people are good at talking the talk, but few really walk the walk. I have seen you ‘walk the walk’… helping an unfortunate homeless person with funds out of your own pocket …inviting a homeless man into your home, because he was hungry and you shared some left over steak with him. Several years ago, my grandson was in the hospital with a rare blood infection. You somehow found the time to visit my grandson and my daughter’s family at the hospital between Masses and your family Christmas party. You prayed with them. I don’t know if you have a special direct line or not, but my grandson got better very soon after that. Kathy (Blasco) and I will always remember that kindness and so will my kids.”
Now Msgr. Gregory has retired after 43 years as a priest. He has great memories of all his parishes, but especially of the Cathedral.
“I will never forget the opening of the cause for sainthood for Sister Marie de Mandat-Grancey last year. It was incredible. Most of my memories though are of the people here, the Cathedral staff and volunteers. When you work day in day out with people, you form bonds and develop relationships. I have been so privileged that they, and some of the parishioners, have shared their innermost joys and sorrows with me, as well as the daily work. I will miss that. I hope to maintain those bonds by lunches occasionally. And I have a tomato about this big (he formed a circle with his hands about 3 inches in diameter) that I grew myself. I’m going to give it to Louise in the front office. She’s one of our hardworking volunteers!”
Msgr. Gregory was adamant that he was retiring from parish administration, not from the priesthood. “I plan to help my brother priests on a daily, weekend or extended period of time, whether health related, personal or a sabbatical. I’m already booked for Masses at the Cathedral beginning June 19. Msgr. Offutt, the new rector, and Father Ken Riley, the new judicial vicar who will be in residence at the Cathedral, will both be on vacation for several weeks before beginning their new ministries. I’m looking forward to that and the parishioners seem happy that I’ll still be around. The people and the music of the Cathedral are always so special.”
Ed Blasco told The Catholic Key that Msgr. Gregory’s pastoral demeanor was perfect for the Cathedral. “He is also very human. That gives us hope for the rest of us!”
Msgr. Gregory planned to spend a few days in southern California first. A couple in their 80’s was to be baptized Catholic after converting from Judaism, and had requested Msgr. Gregory perform the sacrament.
He has lots of plans for retirement, along with helping his brother priests when needed.
Some years ago, he bought a house in Hyde Park with an inheritance from his father, and has been making improvements on it every summer. “I’ve put in a new kitchen and bath. It has a big yard and I love to mow the grass!
“The responsibilities of parish administration take up a lot of time,” he continued. “In my letter to Bishop Finn requesting retirement, I said that I want more time for some serious reading and to spend more time in prayer. I want to pray the Divine Office as it should be prayed. It’s time to pay more attention to the interior life, and I mean to give it the attention it needs. I will have to learn to slow down.”
With slowing down in mind, he would like to audit some art classes at UMKC, and take some music lessons. “I would love to learn to play the Irish harp,” he said. “It’s smaller than a regular harp. I would like to be able to accompany myself and sing the Psalms while praying the Divine Office. I played an instrument in grade school and I love to sing. In the new Grail Psalter translation by (Benedictine) Abbot Gregory Polan and monks from Conception Abbey, the accents are notated in the music so I believe I could do it. The Psalms were written by King David to be sung.”
He also plans to explore Crown Center and the Crossroads Arts District.
In his June 3 speech, Blasco told Msgr. Gregory, “People speak of the ‘Cathedral experience.’ You have definitely enhanced that experience and are leaving a fine legacy.”
Msgr. Gregory has no intention of disappearing into retirement. He plans to be around whenever and wherever he is needed and to enjoy his time of prayer and psalms.
Anyone know a good Irish harp teacher?