Father Michael J. Mahler, pastor of St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Ithaca and longtime Cornell University chaplain, died from cancer on June 29, 2009. He was 63.
As a child he attended St. James Parish and school in Irondequoit before studying at St. Andrew’s and St. Bernard’s seminaries in Rochester and St. John Fisher College in Pittsford. Upon completion of his studies, Bishop Joseph L. Hogan ordained Father Mahler March 30, 1973, at Irondequoit’s St. Margaret Mary Church.
After ordination, Father Mahler served for three years as parochial vicar at Holy Apostles Parish in Rochester. In 1976 he became chaplain of the Newman Center at the State University of New York at Geneseo and discovered a passion for campus ministry. In 1977 he led a group of students to the eastern Kentucky region of Appalachia, where they spent time with elderly, isolated residents and did repair work on the residents’ homes.
The Appalachia service trip became an annual tradition, and one that Father Mahler continued even after he left SUNY Geneseo in 1983 to become cochaplain at Ithaca’s Cornell University. In 1992 he became Cornell’s director of campus ministry, a position he held until 2003.
“I like ministering to young people who are asking questions about their life and the faith and the church,” he reflected in a 1998 Catholic Courier article. “They’re right at the cusp of maturing. I feel we’re blessed to help them with that.”
While at Cornell, Father Mahler also served as chaplain for the University Police and the university’s football team. He left Cornell in 2003 after two decades, but he didn’t leave the Ithaca area. Instead, he became pastor at St. Catherine of Siena, where he served parishioners until his final days. In 2005 he also took on another campus-ministry position, this time as Catholic chaplain at Ithaca College.
During this time, Father Mahler also kept up his own studies through sabbaticals to Jerusalem, Gregorian University in Rome and Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.
Family members said Father Mahler was fond of cross-country motorcycle trips, cruise ships, and such outdoor activities as hiking and water skiing. One of his most prized possessions was his 2004 pearl-white Harley Davidson Road King Classic motorcycle, which he dubbed, “Pearl,” family members said.
One of the things he loved most of all, however, was being a priest, said Father Scott Kubinski, pastor of nearby All Saints, Holy Cross and St. Anthony parishes in Lansing, Dryden and Groton, respectively. Father Kubinski resides at the St. Catherine of Siena rectory, where Father Mahler lived from 2003 until shortly before his death.
“He loved the confraternity that priests had,” Father Kubinski said. “He was very gracious always. He was very kind to me.”
Bishop Matthew H. Clark celebrated Father Mahler’s funeral Mass July 2, 2009, at St. Catherine of Siena. Memorial donations may be made to St. Catherine of Siena, 302 St. Catherine Circle, Ithaca, NY 14850.