By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associated Editor
HARRISONVILLE — Vanity, thy name was not Father Donald Robidoux Cleary.
Delivering the homily at Father Cleary’s March 4 funeral Mass, Msgr. Bradley Offutt recalled when he was meticulously hanging up his vestments, carefully smoothing out all the wrinkles, after a Sunday Mass when in walked the retired Father Cleary to celebrate the next Mass.
“I saw in his hand a rumpled paper sack. I asked him what was in the sack, thinking it surely had to be a large print Lectionary, or his shoes. He answered me, ‘These are my vestments.’ And they were. All rumpled up. All together in that paper sack,” Msgr, Offutt said.
“That was our brother, Don,” he said. “A man altogether without pretense or conceit or vanity.”
Father Donald Robidoux Cleary died Feb. 23 at Villa St. Francis in Olathe, Kan. He was 84.
He was born into a family as close to historical nobility as possible in northwest Missouri. His great-great-grandfather was Joseph Robidoux, founder of the city of St. Joseph.
Father Cleary was a late vocation to the priesthood. After service in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War, he earned a degree in electrical engineering from Notre Dame University before hearing another call and attending Conception Seminary.
He was just two weeks past his 39th birthday when Bishop Charles H. Helmsing ordained him to the diocesan priesthood on June 1, 1968.
Father Cleary served as associate pastor of Guardian Angels, Annunciation and Risen Christ parishes in Kansas City, and Coronation of Our Lady Parish in Grandview before become pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes and it’s then-mission, St. Bridget in Pleasant Hill. After that assignment, he served as pastor of St. George Parish in Odessa and its mission, St. Jude in Oak Grove, until his retirement in 1997.
In addition to those assignments, he also served 12 years as a hospital chaplain at the Veteran’s Administration Hospital and St. Joseph Medical Center in Kansas City, and St. Mary’s Hospital in Blue Springs.
“That’s where the joy in being a priest comes from — making a difference in people’s lives,” Father Cleary told The Catholic Key upon his retirement. “As a priest, you can touch people at a level that most other professions cannot.”
Msgr. Offutt, who succeeded Father Cleary as pastor in Harrisonville and Pleasant Hill, said that Father Cleary used that gift of touching people’s lives in his humble service as a parish priest.
He noted that as priests or people, he and Father Cleary could not be more different.
“I tend to be passionate, even volatile in my search for holiness,” Msgr. Offutt said. “I labor under the apprehension that as a Christian, I have a right to shout that I may inspire you.
“There are other ways, and you know, they may be better ways — the Don Cleary way,” he said.
He told of a former parishioner, now a captain of industry, who “got his start on this sanctified ground in Harrisonville,” who told the Monsignor that Father Cleary always had time to talk to him about whatever adolescent problem he had.
“Father Cleary would lead him to scope out the problem and find a solution,” he said.
“People knew that he parted with his valuable time for them as if it were so much water.”
Another Harrisonville parishioner told Msgr. Offutt, “He was a gentle soul. He was a loving man. He lived to do his best for people, and I never heard him berate anybody. If anyone gets to heaven, it will be him.”
“I can’t claim to know him well,” Msgr. Offutt said. “But I knew him well enough to know that the high praise I heard was true.”
Even as his life was ending, Father Cleary offered his suffering as “redemptive suffering — a means of atoning for what he perceived to be his sins of his active life.”
“Would that we endure our own search for holiness with his grace and with the patience that shot through the life of this good man, and in a way that calls all people to find God,” Msgr. Offutt said.