Father Ambrose Karels’ service honored at funeral Mass

Fr. Ambrose Karels pictured in mid-beat of his baton while directing the Pontifical Choir. (Key photo courtesy diocesan archives)

By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Associate Editor

KANSAS CITY — Father Ambrose Karels served as a priest of this Diocese for 59 years, Diocesan director of Music and conductor of the Pontifical Choir for 35 years. He also served in several assistant pastorates, and as chaplain at three high schools, a Latin Mass community and at two Veteran’s hospitals. He died April 7 at Menorah Hospital in Overland Park, Kan. The Mass of Christian Burial was held April 13 at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception celebrated by Bishop James V. Johnston, Jr., and was attended by many of the diocesan priests.

Ambrose Gregory Karels was born May 25, 1932, in Rosen, Minn., one of Phillip and Margaret (Stolls) Karels’ six children. He lived on the family farm before entering the seminary. Rosen, named for a 19th century priest, was a tiny rural community where German was spoken at home, and at Mass every sermon was in German. St. Joseph’s School was taught by Benedictine Sisters and thanks to them, the boy developed a love of music and the Gregorian chant.

Also thanks to them, every boy in St. Joseph’s grade school wanted to be a priest, including Ambrose Karels.

Beginning his journey at a seminary in Minnesota, at the suggestion of one of his teachers, he transferred to Kansas City in 1952. The teacher, Msgr. Richard Schuler, was acquainted with Bishop Edwin V. O’Hara, who had written that if Ambrose was interested in Kansas City, “let him come.”

There were a few detours, including a year at St. John’s Minor Seminary here while waiting to matriculate at St. Meinrad’s Seminary in Indiana. But he persisted. On March 14, 1959, Ambrose Karels was ordained a priest at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception for the Diocese of Kansas City. His first assignment was as assistant pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Kansas City.

He served as assistant at St. Augustine 1963-66, and at Visitation, St. James, Kansas City, and Assumption over the next decade. He resided at Christ the King Parish for about a year. In 1963, Bishop O’Hara tapped him to conduct the Pontifical Choir and in 1967, Bishop Cody named him Diocesan Director of Music. He served in both capacities until 1991. Father Karels also served as chaplain at Cardinal Glennon, Archbishop O’Hara and Bishop Lillis high schools. His chaplaincy service also extended to the Veterans Hospitals in Kansas City and Leavenworth, Kan. For many years he directed the Latin Mass Community then at Our Lady of Sorrows Church.

Fr. Karels and his dog, circa 2009, after his retirement. (Key photo courtesy John Huertz)

He retired in 1991.

Father Paul Turner, Cathedral pastor, was the homilist at Father Karels’ Funeral Mass. He began with a story about the priest in his role as conductor of the Pontifical Choir.

“Archbishop Jean Jadot,” Father Turner said, “the apostolic delegate to the United States, had just finished the prayer after Communion at the installation Mass of Bishop John J. Sullivan here in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception on Wednesday, August 17, 1977. Local television news crews for the first time occupied much of the free space in the choir loft and side aisles of the cathedral. Camera locations marked on the floor by masking tape would remain stuck there over two decades more. Announcements were underway. Father Ambrose Karels did not concelebrate; he was up there conducting the Pontifical Choir, and I was on the organ bench, still in the seminary, two years away from my ordination. Ambrose called the choir, brass, and timpanist to attention because they were about to launch into a new setting of the Te Deum in a translation recently approved by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy and composed by Jean Langlais in Paris, a work commissioned by the Composers’ Forum for Catholic Worship, … of Sugar Creek, Missouri, and directed by Robert I. Blanchard, Ambrose’s predecessor as conductor of the Pontifical Choir.

“Somehow, while Ambrose was getting the attention of the other musicians, he lost track of what Archbishop Jadot was doing. A pause had blossomed downstairs in the sanctuary, so Ambrose, a conductor, who understood the importance of accurate timing, sprang into action. Raising his baton, he threw down his mighty arm in the direction of the timpanist, who lifted two substantial mallets and sounded a thunderous drumroll.

“Unfortunately, it wasn’t yet time for the Te Deum.

“In those same seconds of silence, Archbishop Jadot had raised his own arm to give the final blessing. As great waves of drumbeats washed from the choir loft toward the sanctuary below, I could see with panic the archbishop glancing at the palms of his own hands as if to ask, ‘What did I just do?’

“Ambrose realized the difficulty immediately and instructed the timpanist accordingly – not to stop the drumroll, but to play it pianissimo. Above this low carpet of sound, the archbishop obligingly imparted his solemn blessing. Then Ambrose cranked up the volume in the loft and filled this cathedral with the praise of God, Te Deum.

“Ambrose Karels conducted the Pontifical Choir in this cathedral for 35 years. He was ordained a priest here 59 years ago last month, and he returns here today so that his friends may pray a final time in thanksgiving for his life and for the repose of his soul.

“I don’t want to shock anyone, but Ambrose didn’t get along with a lot of people. His best friends fell into two categories: musicians and animals. His most recent four-legged friend was Luke, but who can ever forget Pickwick the Scottie, or the image of them both pacing the Concourse in Historic Northeast Kansas City, before rejoining Sasha the Siamese cat, virtual landlady of the rectory?

“A study in contrasts, Ambrose ministered to teens and elderly veterans. He kept many people at arm’s length, but he cultivated close, meaningful and life-giving friendships with an inner circle. He led music for very public diocesan liturgies, but he preferred to live in relative obscurity and hoped to retire in obscurity. So, if you ever felt distant from Ambrose, you helped him meet his goals.

“Yet, in spite of himself, Ambrose believed in harmony. He inherited a choir of boys and men; he expanded it to include women. He recruited relentlessly to create a balanced sound, he practiced discipline in the rehearsal room, and he developed a devoted band of followers who embraced his musical preferences, tolerated his outbursts, and – at a time when Catholic musical tastes were not catholic-with-a-lower-case-c – produced some of the most beautiful music in the history of our diocese, from Bach cantatas to the Fauré Requiem. He cultivated and harvested the human voice.

“… the other elevated space that will forever be associated with Father Ambrose Karels is the attic of Assumption Rectory, now known as St. Anthony’s. There he gathered colorful people of diverse personalities to exchange ideas, play music, eat delicious food, and sip the fruit of the vine. Gatherings were intimate but lively, as you would expect from a man who enjoyed chamber music more than symphonic. The attic became a foretaste of heaven, the place to which believers hope to ascend, unbothered by heat and chills, to spend endless time with lifelong friends, where every tongue, sated with true food and true drink, shall give praise to God. Ambrose spread the table before his friends and poured many cups overflowing.
“May he now rest from his labors. May his works accompany him. May he who enjoyed his privacy discover the blessed harmony that awaits all those drawn in the Spirit’s tether to sing eternally Te Deum, alleluia.”

Father Karels’ long-time friend, Father Craig Maxim of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas, bore the wooden box containing Father Karels’ cremains to the sanctuary steps. Bishop Johnston prayed at the box, incensed it and blessed it with holy water. The cremains were to be taken to Rosen, Minn., where they will be buried later in the cemetery of his boyhood parish, St. Joseph’s.

Father Karels was preceded in death by his parents, his brother Ralph and sisters Marcie, Adelaide and Grace. He is survived by his sister Antonia, and nephews and nieces.

Memorial donations may be made to the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph.


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September 26, 2020
The Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph