By JEAN GONZALEZ, Catholic News Service | Published April 29, 2016
ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. (CNS)—In the days Father Rene Robert was listed as missing, the faithful gathered at two churches for prayer vigils.
The turnout became a testament of the love and commitment Father Robert fostered for those he served.
Kate Quigley Burns is a longtime friend and fellow advocate for the deaf community, which the late priest served for some 35 years.
She was a sign language interpreter during a vigil April 15 at Sacred Heart Parish in Fleming Island, a parish Father Robert was assigned to from 2009 to 2012. She said she saw people from the deaf community whom she hadn’t seen for years.
“The community honored him because his life was about giving to others,” she said. “He was a true servant.”
Father Robert, who was ordained in 1989 but was retired from active ministry, was first reported missing April 12 after he missed a church function a couple of days earlier. His body was found April 18 in Burke County, Georgia, about 260 miles away from St. Johns County, Florida, south of Jacksonville, where he had lived.
Police, using bloodhounds, apprehended Steven James Murray, 28, in a wooded area of Aiken, South Carolina, about 46 miles from where Father Robert’s body was found, on April 14, one day after he was identified as a person of interest in the case. Father Robert’s car also was found near Aiken.
Police said Murray led them to several sites, including the one where Father Robert’s body was found. On April 20, a charge of malice murder was filed against Murray, who was held without bond.
The Augustine Diocese held an evening prayer vigil April 25 at San Sebastian Catholic Church in St. Augustine. A morning funeral Mass for Father Robert was celebrated at the church April 26.
“While his life was taken from us tragically on Sunday, April 10—the day of his disappearance—it is important that we remember how he lived his life in selfless love for others,” Bishop Felipe J. Estevez of St. Augustine said in an April 19 statement.
Father Robert, who was from Albany, New York, had been in Florida since 1980. He became a Franciscan brother after college, learned sign language and moved to the Sunshine State to minister to the deaf. In 1989, he was ordained a Franciscan priest and a few years later was incardinated into the St. Augustine Diocese.
For Burns, the loss of Father Robert is enormous, but it was a moment with her adopted deaf son—who was baptized by Father Robert—that especially struck her as poetic in recent days. Some time ago, she went into a church for Mass with her son. She inquired about whether an interpreter was available. They said, “No.” She asked if they would like her to interpret. Again, their response was “No.”
It was a moment that angered Burns. Even though the conversation was spoken and not signed, her son understood what was happening. He was quick to tell his mother, “It’s OK. I can still pray and I can still hear God.”
“I think about that now and realize that was just like something I would hear from Rene. My son had that same forgiving spirit. To me, Rene had passed on this spirit of God’s forgiveness to my son through the baptism,” Burns told the Florida Catholic, newspaper of the neighboring Orlando Diocese. “Rene was a great gift to the youth. They loved him because he got them. And he had a deep commitment to his ministry. He walked the walk and talked the talk.”
Priest helped begin Atlanta’s deaf ministry
Father Robert worked for some five decades in the deaf community, including service with the National Catholic Office for the Deaf. He was instrumental in helping to launch a deaf ministry in the Archdiocese of Atlanta in 1990. As NCOD’s priest representative for the Southeast, Father Robert came to Atlanta in April of that year to celebrate Masses in American Sign Language at Transfiguration Church, Marietta, and Corpus Christi Church, Stone Mountain. He also met with then Archbishop Eugene A. Marino, SSJ, as well as an estimated 30 people who were interested in getting the ministry started in the Atlanta area.
In the archdiocese today, nine parishes regularly serve the deaf community, said Kathy Daykin, who currently serves as coordinator of deaf services for the Atlanta Archdiocese.
More than 25 parishioners comprise the community, along with a family who travels from South Carolina for Mass. The ministry has about 14 volunteer interpreters.
Daykin remembered Father Robert as “a dedicated member of the National Catholic Office for the Deaf and faithful attendee” of the annual NCOD Pastoral Week over the years.
She said, “It grieves me to think of not seeing him there … like the ‘missing man formation.’ He had a divinely inspired focus.”
A long-time volunteer in Atlanta’s deaf ministry, Kathy Byrne attended many retreats and workshops with the priest. She said, “When people in the deaf community asked him (in ASL) if he was deaf, he would sign back, ‘Sometimes!’”
She added, “He was witty, very gentle, and personable. He loved God’s people, and served us with his whole heart. This is a huge loss for the Catholic deaf community in our country.”
Frania Franch echoed Byrne’s words. Franch, a member of the deaf community at Transfiguration since 1995, is the Southeast Atlantic Region representative for NCOD. She said, “I am devastated that Father Rene Robert was brutally murdered. I am very concerned that the deaf Catholic community in St. Augustine may be lost without him.”
She said, “I pray that most of the dioceses would follow the Diocese of St. Augustine to encourage any priests to learn American Sign Language and remain to serve the deaf Catholic community among the hearing Catholic families in some designated areas.”
Franch recalled that she first met Father Robert at a deaf Mass and potluck hosted by a parishioner at Holy Cross Church, Atlanta, about 16 years ago.
She said, “I believe that Father Rene Robert is such a humble servant on the earth for all humans, not just for the deaf and hard of hearing people.”
Florida community shaken by death
Father Robert’s death shook the community in St. Augustine. Because the evidence points to the 71-year-old priest being murdered, his death stirred up feelings of anger and bitterness. Many have asked, “How could someone do something so horrible to a person who lived to serve others?” They have questioned how, in light of Father Robert’s own forgiving spirit, can they forgive the man who allegedly took his life?
Father John Gillespie, San Sebastian’s pastor, heard the comments many times in the days before authorities found the body of his fellow priest, who celebrated Masses at San Sebastian, as well as nearby St. Anastasia.
Father Gillespie said it was too soon to talk about forgiveness because people must deal with their immediate emotions.
“In the first stage of grief, you are angry as hell. You can shout, scream,” Father Gillespie said. “The key for people is whatever strong emotions you feel, feel them. Own them. And then you can move on. Don’t try to stop the emotions you are feeling, but experience it.”
“There is healing already at work,” he added, recalling a woman who confessed about how angry she was, to the point she might not trust any prisoners coming out of jail. He counseled her that those angry feelings would pass.
“In the end, she knew she could hear what Rene might say to her if she did not open the door to the poor. … All of us will try to do more knowing that he did what he did,” the priest said. “He gave his life doing for others. And there will always be a hole in the place he left behind.”
Father Gillespie described Father Robert as having the “energy of the Energizer bunny.” In a couple of days’ time, he might show up at five, six or seven different events, such as gatherings for prison reform, hospital and nursing home visits, serving as a teacher or translator for the deaf.
Father Robert also could often be found at protests of capital punishment, especially vigils at Florida State Prison in Raiford before an execution.
His alleged murderer could face the death penalty. Both Florida and Georgia have the death penalty and use it.
“Father Rene would reject that idea totally,” said retired Bishop John J. Snyder of St. Augustine, who visits prisoners on death row. “I wouldn’t hesitate to say that.”
“I hope if it comes to that that, we will stand up against it. We as the church have for a long while, and we have got to stand up against it for one of our own,” Bishop Snyder said. “The mind of Father Rene would be to forgive and to heal.”
Gonzalez is editorial/online director at the Florida Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Orlando. Mary Anne Castranio also contributed to this story.