By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — Father Robert Hardy Stewart fondly remembers many of his teachers, from the BVM Sisters at Annunciation Grade School to the Christian Brothers at De LaSalle High School to the Jesuits at Rockhurst University to the priests at Kenrick Seminary in St. Louis; along with reading, writing, Math and Theology, they instilled in him a love for Catholic education.
Now, having served the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph as a priest for 34 years, he is “so happy to finally pastor a parish with a school.” He was pastor of St. Margaret of Scotland in Lee’s Summit from 2004 until July of this year when he was reassigned to St. Patrick Parish in Kansas City’s northland.
He views St. Patrick’s School as a vital part of the mission and outreach of the parish. “Our schools are supported by our parishes,” he said. “They’re not a separate entity. The whole parish should take pride in forming a child in Christ!”
He shared stories and memories of growing up with his sister Marjorie and his mother near 30th and Walrond in Annunciation Parish (later Risen Christ). Robert attended Annunciation School, where he was taught by Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Although some students gave them the “black-veiled monsters,” moniker, to Robert they were awesome teachers. “I had some difficulties learning but they never gave up on me.” With gentle firmness they pushed him to do better and better, and while gradually improving academically, he learned not to give up on himself.
The family was not rich, but they had enough. His mother taught her daughter and son to “make do with what you have,” and give gratitude to Christ for it. She too taught him to have a little faith in himself, to know that if he worked hard at something, he could do it, even if it took time. He also learned from her to be forthright and speak his mind, but gently.
At the age of 10, he felt the first inkling that God was calling him to be a priest. At that time there were few black priests in this country. Robert would wait until his senior year in high school before he saw a black priest. But that did not deter him.
When Robert was in sixth grade, he got a part-time job in the Housekeeping department of St. Joseph Hospital, then at Linwood and Prospect. For the next 18 years as he graduated from Annunciation and began at De LaSalle High School, then on to Rockhurst College, and even after he received his degree, he continued to work at the hospital part-time, both as a custodian and as an emergency room technician. He also worked for several other firms at the same time, but it was the lessons learned from his mother, his teachers and from the staff and Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet at the hospital that he carries in his heart. Those lessons — to learn from mistakes and experiences, to see through a new lens (not only the same old perspectives), to be dedicated, to love and honor God in all his glory and to follow the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you — are the frame of his priesthood and his life.
When he was a senior at De LaSalle, he received the B’nai B’rith Council of Greater Kansas City Youth Award. The award, which carried a $200 scholarship, was for “outstanding service and leadership in human relations, citizenship and civic endeavors.” Robert had organized a Catholic Youth Organization panel to discuss, in a public forum, “The Negro and his Plight.” He also tutored GED students in elementary Math at St. Martin de Porres School, worked part time during the school year and full time during the summers, served as a teenage consultant to the Annunciation Parish Board and, with other CYO members, participated in fair housing demonstrations in Milwaukee, Wis. Robert also was a member of several student organizations at De LaSalle.
There were some setbacks and detours on his road to the priesthood, but he persevered and in June 1982, Robert Stewart was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph. He was 33 years old. His first Mass was a memorial Mass at Blessed Sacrament Church honoring his mother, who had died the year before his ordination.
His first assignment was as chaplain for Bishop Hogan High School, and he also taught 8th grade Religion at St. Martin de Porres. It wasn’t long before he was appointed Associate Pastor at Blessed Sacrament and served at St. Louis Parish in the same capacity. In 1986, he became pastor of Blessed Sacrament. In 1991, Father Stewart was assigned as Associate Pastor at St. Peter Parish. He later was assigned to Holy Family Parish and then in 2004, was asked to take on the pastorship of St. Margaret of Scotland. He also served as diocesan Director of Vocations for six years.
Now as pastor of St. Patrick’s parish, he is also in charge of the school. He has met the principal, teachers and staff and is looking forward to a great year. “Teachers in a Catholic school setting are happy; they have the freedom to help form children academically, socially and spiritually, in Christ,” he said. “We are a Catholic school, and we can make a difference. It may be small, but one little pebble thrown in a river causes ripples that spread outward. We belong at the table!”
Catholic education has something to offer that is life giving for the human race, Father Stewart said. He applauds the school families and the teachers for they value that education (and if they don’t yet, they will, he added). “We will not back down from our Catholicity!”
He realizes that Catholic education is expensive, and that parents make sacrifices to send their kids to Catholic schools. “I am convinced,” he said, “that resources are well-spent and sacrifices are worth it.” He hopes that parish families don’t lose sight of their vision in Christ, pushing souls toward eternal life.
Father Stewart strongly believes that it is important to always give back. “People owe something to society, and should want to give back because they have been given. It’s called gratitude.”
He encourages Catholics to “always be open to inserting moral insights and values while respecting others’ perspectives. But don’t back down on what we’ve learned is true. We have to apply Catholicity to both our micro and our macro community. Here at St. Patrick’s we have a community. It’s a family experience — praying, playing, learning, teaching — we will carry on.”
Education prepares kids for the working world, the marketplace. Catholic education, he said, “arms them with solid knowledge and role models that speaks of who we are in Christ, on which they can pattern their own behavior. No matter where they go, they’ll bring Catholic education with them. It’s part of who they are!”
Working with the teachers, the families and the school staff, he hopes to instill in the students a larger vision: “Catholicity makes you look at a bigger world and that’s important. The human elements of strong convictions, love, creativity, stretching the mind and insights into how to inspire children to learn and be better. I can; you will and I will help dedicated teachers keep you going.”
Good schools are an investment in the people of a community as children grow into adults, he said. If supported by parents, grandparents and others in the community, schools can strengthen neighborhoods and the return on the investment can be great. “None of us do it on our own. We need to remember to be grateful.”
For many of his years of service to the Diocese, Father Stewart wanted to pastor a parish with a school. “I am happy to finally have a school to work for,” he said. “It will be a labor of love!”