Father Phil Luebbert dies of cancer

The casket of Fr. Phil Luebbert awaits the pall his family will place over it while Bishop Johnston prays. Many priests of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph and of Conception Abbey, and many family members and friends attended the Mass to say “Goodbye” to a well-loved loved priest. (Marty Denzer/Key photo)

By Marty Denzer
Catholic key Associate Editor

KANSAS CITY — Father Philip Henry Luebbert, known to friends and family as Fr. Phil or simply Phil, died just after midnight Oct. 17, at his home at the Little Sisters of the Poor Jeanne Jugan Center in Kansas City, where he had served as chaplain since mid-2018. He was 71.

The funeral Mass was celebrated at Nativity of Mary Church in Independence by Bishop James Johnston Jr., and concelebrated by Fr. Robert Stone, Nativity of Mary pastor. Many priests of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph and Benedictine priests of Conception Abbey and Benedictine College, Atchison, Kan., were in attendance. Abbot Benedict Neenan of Conception Abbey was the homilist. The church was filled to capacity with people wanting to bid farewell to a well-loved priest, among them the Sisters in Jesus the Lord of Raytown and Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Eucharist of Independence. Several Conception Seminary College classmates and family members contributed to the Mass.

Father Phil was born Sept. 24, 1949 in Springfield, the son of Leo and Celia Luebbert. The Luebberts moved to Independence when he was a child.

After graduating from Nativity of Mary grade school, he enrolled at St. John’s Minor Seminary in Kansas City. He had already decided he wanted to be “like the priests he saw celebrating Mass each day” while attending Nativity of Mary.

The Blessed Mother had a profound impact on Fr. Phil’s life, vocation and ministry. He grew up praying the Rosary with his family, honoring Mary at Nativity of Mary, and then praying the Rosary daily with the Vincentian priests and fellow students at St. John’s Minor Seminary. “The Rosary remains a necessary part of my daily prayer life,” he told The Catholic Key years later.

Phil graduated from St. John’s in 1967, attending Conception Seminary College for his freshman and sophomore years (future Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was a classmate as was the future Abbot Benedict Neenan of Conception Abbey)  where more lifelong friendships began. Phil then transferred to St. Benedict’s College in Atchison for his final two years. He was in the last St. Benedict’s College class (1971) before St. Benedict’s merged with Mount St. Scholastica college in 1972 and was renamed Benedictine College. Still wanting the priesthood in his future, he chose to major in Philosophy.

Father Phil Luebbert

After graduating from college, he “went on” to St. Paul Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., for his first two years of theology. “Despite my enthusiasm,” he later recalled, “things didn’t work out and I left in 1973.” Health problems and his own uncertainty got in the way.

Finding a job that would pay the bills was difficult. He said later, “Philosophy is great as far as helping someone sort things out and understand the deeper realities, and what are the most important priorities. But for job resumes — not advantageous.” He ruefully spoke of many years working on a shopping center cleaning crew, but Phil never lost sight of the priesthood.

“I kept my interest in the priesthood over the next 33 years,” he said. In his 40s, he began applying to different dioceses, but was turned down because of his age. In a Dec. 2013 article in Catholic Digest, he recalled his spiritual advisor, Benedictine Fr. Alexander Luetkemeyer, suggesting that before he gave up the search to write to the pope. Phil took his advice and wrote a letter to Pope John Paul II describing his long, concerted efforts to find a bishop who would allow him to continue his formation to become a priest. He expressed his disappointment as he was simply trying to follow his vocation and still met with negative results. “‘I asked his holiness if he could find a way for me to follow my vocation.’”

Two weeks after mailing that letter, a very surprised Phil Luebbert received a letter from the apostolic nuncio in Washington, D.C., telling him the pope could not help him directly, but promising to pray for him. Pope John Paul II kept his promise and just a short time later, things started falling into place for Phil. At age 56, he approached then-Bishop Robert W. Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph to request sponsorship to Holy Apostles Seminary in Cromwell, Conn. “’The day I found out I was going to be sent to Holy Apostles,’” he recalled in the Catholic Digest article, “’my life seemed to go from a level two to a level nine in one day (on a scale of one to 10).’”

In 2006, he entered Holy Apostles Seminary, and four years later, on May 29, 2010, he and two other men were ordained to the priesthood by Bishop Finn at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Kansas City. He was 60 years old. His first assignment was as assistant pastor at St. John LaLande Parish in Blue Springs.

On Ordination Day, the new priests were reminded to “Be close to Mary, to whom the Lord entrusted us all at the foot of the cross. She is the mother of the High Priest. She is the mother of all priests.” Fr. Phil took the reminder to heart and his devotion and trust in Mary increased.

In 2012, Fr. Phil was assigned to pastor St. Ann’s Parish in Plattsburg. Shortly his arrival, his predecessor, Fr. Jeff Stephan, asked him to continue prison ministry at Crossroads Correctional Center, the men’s maximum security prison in Cameron. Fr. Phil agreed to continue the ministry.

In 1999, seven years before his ordination, he worked as a correctional officer for a year, an experience that impressed upon him the acute need of prisoners for the spiritual life, particularly the need Catholic inmates have for the sacraments. “Thinking of God’s mercy changed my attitude toward them and made me want to fulfill their need for the sacraments,” he said.

Having experienced some uncertain times in his own life, Fr. Phil did not find it difficult or scary to talk with inmates. A book he read years ago, The Glories of Mary by St. Alphonsus Liguori, had stuck with him and became a focal point in his prison ministry. Each chapter in the book is headed by a line from the Salve Regina, “Hail Holy Queen,” the prayer concluding the Rosary. During each visit to Crossroads Fr. Phil talked to the men about Mary loving them as she loves her Son, Jesus Christ; about her love for penitent sinners.

During his Crossroads ministry, two inmates were baptized Catholic, with Baptismal certificates issued by St. Munchin Church in Cameron. And when Fr. Phil was informed by a deacon in prison ministry that a teenager in the deacon’s parish had been critically injured in an automobile accident and wasn’t expected to live. Before Mass, Fr. Phil asked the dozen men in his group that evening to pray for the teen. After Communion, they prayed fervently and in silence, he recalled.

The very next week the deacon joyfully told him the teen was slowly recovering. Fr. Phil later said he considered the teen’s recovery a miracle brought about by the “heart-felt prayers of men in a maximum security prison. It was one of the most fantastic and powerful experiences of since my ordination and, of this life in general.” Ministering to inmates at Crossroads was important to Fr. Phil and to the men.

He continued his ministry at Crossroads when he was assigned to Sacred Heart Church in Hamilton.

The first week of May 2018, he went on a 5-day pilgrimage with a group from the Kansas City, Kansas Archdiocese “to Guadalupe, Mexico to have daily Mass and visit the Shrine where the Blessed Mother appeared to St. Juan Diego in 1531,” as he wrote in an email to family and friends. While there, Fr. Phil and Benedictine Fr. Gabriel Landis of St. Benedict’s Abbey in Kansas City, Kan., were surprised to be invited to concelebrate the Mass and Rite of Beatification of Blessed Maria Concepcion Cabrera de Armida May 4 at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. They joined the 200 priests concelebrating the Mass with Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Becciu, Prefect of the Congregation for Saints Causes, who served as principal celebrant. In Fr. Phil’s “opinion that was the greatest blessing of the pilgrimage.”

Shortly after his return to the diocese, Bishop Johnston assigned Fr. Phil, then 68, as resident chaplain at Little Sisters of the Poor in Kansas City. He had been diagnosed with cancer several years back, but, in an email, he said he welcomed “this invitation from the Lord to minister to the poor and to the elderly residents at the Jeanne Jugan Center. I worked there the summer of 2008 as a volunteer while a seminarian … became acquainted with the place and people — sisters, residents, and staff.  My friend Fr. John McCormack was assigned chaplain there when he was 68 years, too, and he is ‘still at it’ about 20 years later now, helping out.”

This past January, he traveled by bus with others from the KCSJ diocese to Washington, D.C., to attend the annual March for Life. He emailed family and friends, “This year the weather was decent, and we had a safe trip. We were in Washington one day and travelled 2 days. More than 200,000 participated in the March for Life. We attended a Mass with about 20 bishops, several hundred priests, and over 20,000 pilgrims.  After the Mass there was a rally at the National Mall, where we listened to Vice President Mike Pence and his wife speak, also Archbishop Joseph Naumann from Kansas City, Kansas, who represents pro-life issues among the national bishops. … The March for Life seems to be winning since the number of abortions in our country decreases each year. But your prayers and work for protection of the innocent unborn are still needed.”

By the beginning of Sept., his health was beginning a downturn. But ever positive, he wrote in an email, “So far with the help of chemo-therapy and a new med called Keytruda, I am able to do my work. I am thankful for that.” He still found the time and energy to respond to messages of prayer and encouragement.

God took him home just after midnight Oct. 17. His funeral Mass was scheduled for Oct. 22, the feast day of Pope St. John Paul II, who had prayed for him when Fr. Phil was trying to realize his dream of priesthood. He was laid to rest in Conception Abbey cemetery.

He was preceded in death by his parents and one sister, Marilyn L. Meyer; He is survived by his sisters Carol (Scott) Barrow, Annette Newell, and Lisa Luebbert; a brother, David (Karen Eagle); and by four nieces and six nephews. Memorial donations may be made to Little Sisters of the Poor, Kansas City.

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  1. November 14, 2019 at 2:28 pm #

    A few years back when I was working on trying to obtain Statewide tax credits for Catholic Schools I reached out to Fr. Phil. I asked for his help in obtaining signatures in his parish.
    Well he was wonderful. He would bring the petition with him on his calls. Although we never met we had a number of very pleasant calls. He will be missed.

    Eternal rest, grant unto him O Lord
    and let perpetual light shine upon him.

    May his soul and the souls of all the faithful departed,
    through the mercy of God, rest in peace.
    Amen

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November 20, 2019
Newspaper of the Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph