Father Robert Stewart: A light that still shines brightly

Mourners packed St. Patrick’s Church for the Mass of Christian Burial Dec. 21 and to say ‘farewell’ to Father Robert Hardy Stewart, who died suddenly Dec. 15. More than 80 priests, deacons and seminarians were in attendance. Rest in peace! (Marty Denzer/Key photo)

By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Associate Editor

This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine, … let it shine!

KANSAS CITY — Father Robert Hardy Stewart was born Sept. 5, 1948 in Topeka, Kan., ordained June 5, 1982 and died Dec. 15, 2017, at St. Patrick Parish where he served as pastor. The Mass of Christian Burial was celebrated by Father Terrell Finnell, pastor of Church of the Good Shepherd, Dec. 21 at St. Patrick’s, with burial following at Calvary Cemetery.

Father Stewart was a joy-filled, beloved priest, and hundreds of current and former parishioners, friends and family came from near and far to say ‘Goodbye,’ and witnesses to that love. Along with Bishop James V. Johnston, Jr., more than 80 priests, deacons and seminarians attended the Mass. Representatives from many institutions in the diocese, including St. Teresa’s Academy, Rockhurst University, St. Joseph Medical Center, the Catholic Schools Office, Cristo Rey-Kansas City High School and Catholic Chancery staff filled the pews and stood in the back and in the narthex to remember him.

Robert Stewart spent his earliest years in the Catholic Charities foster care system, and was eventually adopted by Sally Sutherlin and moved to a home near 30th and Walrond in Kansas City. The little family, Sally and two children, Robert and Marjorie, had enough to be comfortable and the children were taught to “make do with what you have,” and be grateful to Christ for it. Sally taught Robert to have a little faith in himself, to know that if he worked hard at something, he could do it, even though it took a while. She also trained him to be forthright and speak his mind, but gently. The Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary teaching at Annunciation Grade School reinforced his mother’s teachings.

Father Robert Stewart

Although Robert was 10 when he first felt the call to the priesthood, the nation had few black priests in the mid-20th century. He wouldn’t see a black priest until his senior year at De LaSalle High School.

As a sixth grader, he got a part-time job at St. Joseph Hospital’s Housekeeping department. He was to keep that part-time job for the next 18 years, working as both a custodian and an emergency room technician. He graduated from Rockhurst University in May 1972 and joined the Army National Guard, serving until honorably discharged in 1978.

He graduated from Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis with a degree in Theology. Although his road to the priesthood was fraught with detours and setbacks, in June 1982, he was ordained, the first black priest of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph. He celebrated his first Mass at Blessed Sacrament Church honoring his mother, who died in 1981. The lessons he learned from her, his teachers and the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet and staff at St. Joseph’s Hospital —learn from mistakes and experiences; see through a new lens (not just the same old perspectives); be dedicated; love and honor God in all his glory and, treat others as you would have them treat you — framed his priesthood and life.

His first assignments were as chaplain for Bishop Hogan High School and 8th grade Religion teacher at St. Martin de Porres. In 1983, he was assigned as Associate Pastor at both Blessed Sacrament and St. Louis parishes. In 1986, he became pastor of Blessed Sacrament. In 1991, Fr. Stewart was assigned as Associate Pastor at St. Peter Parish; pastor of Holy Family Parish in 1993, and then in 2004, named pastor of St. Margaret of Scotland. He also served six years as diocesan Vocations Director.

He was active in community service and served on multiple boards of directors, including Rockhurst University.

In his homily, Father Finnell reminisced about his friend, Fr. Robert Stewart, his quirky sense of humor, his light-up-a-room smile, his jokes that could sometimes catch a person off-guard. “Robert was Robert! He reveled in being Robert … I would often hear him say he was taking parishioners to the doctor, or sitting with a family at a graduation … He loved the arts, books, plays and music, even a type of music I felt no self-respecting African American would even think about … Robert enjoyed country music. ‘Listen to the stories being sung, you’ll be better for it.’ So occasionally I tune in my Bluegrass station because of him … He always thought that people, wherever they came from, had a part in the life of the church. People come together for the Sacrament of the Eucharist, what Robert considered the most important, most miraculous event in the life of the Church — people gathered around the table, to hear the word of God, be with one another.” Fr. Finnell added that Fr. Stewart wanted to make sure that everyone felt they had a part in the Church and would go the extra step for that.

Bishop Johnston, in closing remarks, recalled Fr. Robert presenting him with a black cowboy hat, similar to one the priest often wore. He said that parish priests and bishops wear lots of hats, gesturing with his crimson biretta. “A cowboy hat, if you think about it, is a shepherd’s hat,” he continued, “a cowboy basically is a shepherd. So, it really was a fitting hat for him to wear and he loved wearing it. It is a reminder of what a remarkable man Fr. Robert was, and how much he will be missed.”

He noted the many priests in attendance, and that they also were greatly affected by Fr. Robert’s death. “The presbyterate is a band of brothers,” Bishop Johnston said, “and we’re going to miss our brother!”

In the summer of 2016, the Bishop appointed Father Stewart to be pastor of St. Patrick Parish in the northland. After 34 years of serving the church, he now was in charge of a parish with a school. Kaci Monaghan, principal of St. Patrick’s School, told The Key that, “Fr. Robert was one of a kind. He loved our school and loved our students and wasn’t shy about sharing it. Often at the end of school Mass, he would say, ‘Children, you are goooood.’ He praised their singing, encouraged them to interact with him during Mass and his homilies, and gave them high fives as they walked out of the church. He enjoyed them and appreciated that they were children and encouraged me to allow them to be kids. … We were a great partnership … who loved this school and wanted to watch it grow. … Our church and school lost our beloved priest, and I lost my friend … grateful for the opportunity to know him and learn from him, but I am truly heartbroken.”

With Fr. Stewart’s arrival at the parish in 2016, St. Patrick School joined other schools in the diocese partnering with FIRE Foundation, the advocacy and fundraising organization that enables children with special needs to attend their parish schools with siblings and friends. Executive Director Lynn Hire said, “Fr. Robert was a wonderful champion of all children – especially those on the margins. … He will be missed by all those whose lives he touched with his smile, care and laughter. We are so glad that he is a part of the FIRE Foundation’s story. Our lives are much richer because of his presence.” She added, “He was the only priest who came to our annual FIRE Happy Hour grant presentation, which spoke volumes about his commitment to inclusive Catholic education! He was the real deal.”

Former and current parishioners posted condolences, memories and prayers for Fr. Stewart on the Muehlebach Funeral Home’s website. “I loved his joyfulness during Mass. I will always remember him dancing down the aisle to the altar with the opening hymn. He had so much energy and related to everyone so well” … “Every time we bake an apple cake using his mother’s recipe that he gave us will remind us of his tenderness and love of the simple things in life.” (His mother’s recipes for Apple Cake and Chili are prized by those he shared them with.) … “greeted me and my family with a high five after church” … “You were the breath of fresh air … needed by all of us … may you dance with the Lord forever.”

Deacon Mike Lewis, interim pastoral administrator of St. Patrick Parish, said, “He loved being a priest and he loved people. He was a particularly joyful priest. To him everybody had value. He did the things that make priests shepherds, and he understood his role as a priest. He brought so much life and light to this parish in such a short amount of time. We can’t let that light go out, we must keep it burning brightly.”

One of Fr. Stewart’s favorites, the gospel music piece, “This Little Light of Mine,” was one of the Communion songs.

Fr. Stewart is survived by his sister and brother-in-law, Marjorie and Webb Green, nieces and nephews, Vauncille Bartlett (Anthony), Lionel Green (Detrice), Gwen Green and Ron Green, and great-nieces and nephews, Marli Bartlett, Thaddeus Green, Jared Green and Lorna Green.

In the homily, Fr. Finnell reflected that many sorrowing parishioners and friends were thinking that not only did he pass away too soon, it was also at a time of year that was expected to be happy. But, “Fr. Robert loved Christmas.” He often would put up his Christmas tree and not take it down until July. So perhaps it was the best time.

As Deacon Paul Muller of St. Margaret of Scotland Parish said, “Fr. Stewart got the ultimate Christmas gift. He spent Christmas with the Lord!”

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  • Dwight Conrad

    Very nice article. I loved Fr. Robert, he brought me back to my Catholic faith and I am grateful for that. I will always have a smile when I remember him.

  • Kat Duncan

    Fr. Robert was like no one I have ever met. He just had an aura of joy, love, comfort, friendship and humor. When I joined St. Margarets I was in a rough time dealing with my faith. I have been a paraplegic for 11 years now and just struggled with the why’s. Father Robert was so welcoming my first time at that church with that big smile and his high five. And the longer I attended the more anxious I was to attend mass for Father Robert’s sermons spoke so deeply to me some Sundays I would cry during the mass. We spoke a few times about my struggles and he suggested books to read and gave me one of his. I grew to love him and find the guidance I was missing. He will be forever missed here on Earth. Until we meet again Father, I am counting on your guidance as one of my angels. I miss you.

Wednesday
January 17, 2018
Newspaper of the Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph