By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
BUCKNER — He strolls around several red rose bushes planted outside the door to the Church of the Santa Fe, occasionally leaning over a bloom to inspect it. The years lie comfortably on his shoulders. Msgr. Ralph Kaiser, pastor of The Church of the Santa Fe since 1978, celebrated the 60th anniversary of his priestly ordination May 29.
Ralph LeRoy Kaiser, a native of Hohokus, New Jersey, was born in 1928. He attended St. Luke’s elementary and high school, taught by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Newark (now Peace). “We had good Catholic schools,” he recalled, “taught by the Sisters. Of course, vocations were always encouraged. In high school I had a job with the Erie Railroad. ‘What’s it going to be?’ was always the question in the back of my mind.” A long-cherished dream of serving in the U.S. Navy was also in the back of his mind.
Looking back on those days, he said it was interesting “how well off we were, despite the Depression years, because of the quality of the education taught by the nuns.” He learned to play the piano and the trumpet as a boy as part of his education.
He attended Seton Hall for his undergraduate studies. “A priest there who was a good friend of mine was also a friend of Bishop Edwin O’Hara of the Diocese of Kansas City, and he started talking about Kansas City. That got me thinking about the priesthood and Kansas City. The whole thing appealed to me.”
After graduating from Seton Hall, Ralph enrolled at Christ the King Seminary, then on the campus of St. Bonaventure University in Olean, NY. Although he was sure of his future as a priest, he never stopped nurturing a childhood dream of serving as a chaplain in the U.S. Navy.
After four years of study, prayer and fellowship with other seminarians, Ralph was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Kansas City May 29, 1954 at St. John the Baptist Cathedral in Patterson, N.J. He remembers that, of the nine young men ordained that day, “three were for (the Diocese of) Patterson, four were Benedictine priests, one for Salt Lake City and me, for Kansas City.”
Kansas City. In the mid-1950s, the city was still living down its Depression era, speakeasy, gangster reputation as a wild, wide-open town. “Different people had spoken of Kansas City to me,” Msgr. Kaiser recalled with a grin, “warning that I ‘had my work cut out for me.’ I have never regretted it!”
He said he was surprised and delighted to find a number of “St. Bonaventure boys” in the diocese, and many young and not so young priests from the eastern U.S., especially Pennsylvania.
The newly ordained Father Kaiser was assigned to Assumption Parish in Old Northeast Kansas City. He was to serve there until 1957, when he was assigned to Christ the King Parish on the other side of town.
The year before the young priest’s second assignment, Pope Pius XII redrew the Catholic map of Missouri, creating two new dioceses — Jefferson City and Springfield-Cape Girardeau — and merging the dioceses of St. Joseph and Kansas City, with the seat at Kansas City. Archbishop (a personal designation he received in 1954) Edwin V. O’Hara was appointed the first Bishop of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph on Aug. 24, 1956. Less than a month later, while en route to Rome, Archbishop O’Hara died in Milan. He was succeeded by Bishop (later Cardinal) John P. Cody.
With the realignment of the dioceses, a number of priests transferred to the Jefferson City diocese in 1956. Father Kaiser remained in Kansas City and served at Christ the King with Father Vincent L. Kearney until being to assigned Holy Trinity Parish in 1960.
He was not cut off from his family when he moved to the Wild West. “I went home to see my mother now and then,” he said. His father had died when he was a small child, and he was raised by his mother and grandparents.
During his time of service at Holy Trinity, Father Kaiser’s long-cherished dream of being a Navy chaplain came true. He was to serve for 14 years, both aboard ship and in ports. “Let’s see,” he said. “I spent three years in Rota, Spain. Being in Spain allowed me to visit Rome, and yes, I visited Santiago Compostela, although I never made the pilgrimage. I was at Parris Island with the Marines, oh lots of years serving as shipboard chaplain, and I spent one year on Diego Garcia Island.” He shook his head with a rueful smile.
Diego Garcia is an atoll in the central Indian Ocean, south of the equator, under British control but with the American Naval Support Facility (NSF) Diego Garcia, a large naval ship and submarine support base, military air base, communications and space-tracking facility. Msgr. Kaiser remembered his stay on the island. “It was lonely as all get out,” he said. “I built three radios from kits to ward off insanity! And I taught myself to play the recorder.” He gazed off into the distance for a moment, obviously remembering. “You know, the Indian Ocean is a huge expanse of nothing! No land within sight, no landmarks, nothing.”
When orders placed him on land, Msgr. Kaiser’s mother would fly to the port to visit him. He showed off a framed photograph of the two of them at a dinner while he was stationed in Rota.
In July 1977, Father Kaiser was released from active duty as a Naval Chaplain and returned to Missouri. “I stayed in active reserves for 10 years, and then they kicked me out at age 60. Mandatory retirement from the Navy.”
He was assigned to the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception for a brief period before he was assigned to pastor the Church of the Santa Fe in Buckner. He was only the second resident pastor in the 13 years since the parish’s founding. “Bishop Sullivan sent me here in 1978. I’m still here,” he said.
The parish was founded in 1965, with Msgr. Martin Froeschl as the founding pastor. The church was built a year later.
Just before Father Kaiser became pastor, the Church of the Santa Fe was air conditioned. Then in 1990, the parish’s Allen Digital Computer Organ was dedicated. To mark the dedication and celebration, Father Kaiser and five parishioners and guests gave a recital. Father Kaiser played the organ, as did William Harkins and David Russell, Seth Spurlock, Jamie Gibson and Derek Olson all played trumpet.
His mother moved to Buckner to be near him soon after he was released from the Navy. She died some years ago, and is buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Kansas City.
Over the years, he has learned a great deal, but “I’ve always felt I had an awful lot to learn,” he said. He has literally become a one-man show in running the parish: he cuts the grass, cares for the rose bushes, works up the annual financial report, celebrates Mass, answers the phone, and takes care of the church building and the grounds. Volunteers help him with the bookkeeping, but he does everything else.
He is justifiably proud that all bills get paid on time and that the accounts payable column shows a “0” balance at the end of each year.
Under his watch, a parish hall was built several years ago.
For a number of years, he has been directly involved in the parish’s religious education of youth. He also directs a group of youthful musicians in the nearby public schools. “I dabbled in different musical styles and musical instruments,” he said. “I played some duets with the music teacher at the high school here and then started working with some of the kids in band programs. We have a recital for the folks here in Buckner and then we go to music festivals either in St. Louis or Kansas City. This year it’s in St. Louis. My group this year is two alto saxophones, an oboe and a piano. There used to be more kids in the band programs; it gets smaller every year.”
He will play the piano accompaniment at the recital, and will play a trumpet solo in the adult hobbyist division at the St. Louis Music Festival.
The strong pro-life effort of the Church of the Santa Fe is led by its pastor, who travels to Washington D.C., annually for the March for Life.
He is also chaplain for the local Knights of Columbus Council.
In 2006, he received word from Bishop Robert W. Finn of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph that he was to be elevated to the rank of Monsignor, Chaplain to his Holiness. This is one of three honors granted by the pope, usually proposed by the local bishop, to Catholic priests who have rendered particularly valuable service to the Church. Priests given the Pontifical Honors are addressed as ‘Monsignor’ and have certain privileges, such as those regarding ecclesiastical dress and vestments. Msgr. Kaiser was one of a group of 11 diocesan priests elevated to Monsignor at that time.
Msgr. Kaiser has served at the Church of the Santa Fe for 36 years now, but he has no wish to retire. “My health is good, I like being pastor and I like what I’m doing,” he said with a big smile. “I have developed relationships with people, God’s people, and the joys of my work are great.”
When time allows, he wants to go on learning about many things, see friends and do a bit of traveling. He said he always travels with an agenda. For instance, his trip to St. Louis this summer will be to the Music Festival.
Later he plans on taking a week’s vacation to see the Canadian Rockies, and visit some friends in Calgary whom he met on tour of France years ago.
He is interested in watching Buckner grow and develop; even more he is interested in working on the growth of the Church of the Santa Fe parish.
What does he foresee for the next decade? “Assuming my continued good health, I would like to continue as pastor here. I want to keep on slugging it out with what I’m doing.”