BRIGHTON — The Diocese of Rochester’s historian Father Robert F. McNamara sits in his room at the McAuley Residence, shuts his eyes a moment and recalls his father, Dr. Thomas A. McNamara, former mayor of Corning.
“I remember very well when my father let me drive his buggy,” the priest said. “I was a wee, wee sort of kid … 2 years old.”
The man who let him hold the reins was born five years before the Civil War. The future priest himself had been born on Nov. 3, 1910, less than two years after the first bishop of the Diocese of Rochester, Bernard McQuaid, had died. Hence, it seems fitting that the life of the diocese’s greatest chronicler has spanned most of its history since its founding in 1868 — but don’t look to Father McNamara for any grand musings on what it all means.
“I’m not a theorist,” he said. “I’m not a philosopher.”
What he is is a storyteller, and he’s told more stories about the Rochester Diocese than anyone. Indeed, his entire career as a priest could be summed up in the provision of his storytelling gifts to both the diocese and the wider church.
He’s the author of The Diocese of Rochester in America: 1868-1993, which itself was an updated version of a history originally released in 1968. He’s also the author of a monograph on Catholic preaching in America; a history of his home parish, St. Mary’s, Corning; a centennial history of Pontifical North American College in Rome; and his latest book, Good Old Doctor Mac: 1856-1927, a biography of his father.
Father McNamara noted he was born into a prayerful family and that he enjoyed the Sisters of Mercy who taught him.
“Sister Gerard who taught first grade — she was a dear,” he said with a smile.
He added that he felt the call to the priesthood at 14.
“It was one of those convictions that you don’t refuse,” he said.
Ordained in 1936, Father McNamara taught church history at St. Bernard’s Seminary from 1938-81. He has authored numerous parish histories or assisted in generating them. He’s served as an associate editor of the Catholic Courier and has been both a frequent contributor to the paper as well as an oft-used source for stories. He was also instrumental in the establishment of the diocesan archives, located at the diocesan Pastoral Center in Gates.
The priest has also served parishes and was priest-in-residence at Irondequoit’s St. Thomas the Apostle from 1981-2002. The parish will honor him with a reception from 2 to 4 p.m. Nov. 6 to celebrate his 95th birthday. Every week, the parish bulletin features his “Saints Alive” column, which details the biography of a canonized person. The column may be found at www.stthomasirondequoit.com/SaintsAlive.
Despite his many accomplishments, Father McNamara is quite modest about his role as a priest. He summed up his priestly life simply.
“It’s amounted to be what I hoped it would be, what I expected it to be,” he said. “I’ve not been displeased.”