Father Robert F. McNamara, the Diocese of Rochester’s renowned historian/archivist who also was a prolific author and seminary instructor, died May 22, 2009, at the Sisters of Mercy Motherhouse in Rochester following a short illness. At 98 years old he had been the oldest diocesan priest, fulfilling his vocation for some 72 years.
“He was a beautiful priest, a beautiful friend who touched so many lives in his 98 years,” said Father Robert Bradler, a close friend, during an evening prayer service held for Father McNamara May 27 at the motherhouse.
Father McNamara was born Nov. 3, 1910, in Corning, where he and his family belonged to St. Mary Parish. He attended Georgetown and Harvard universities, as well as the Pontifical North American College in Rome. He received his licenciate in sacred theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University, also in Rome, where he was ordained on Dec. 8, 1936.
During his early years as a priest, Father McNamara served as assistant pastor of St. Francis Xavier Parish in Rochester, chaplain of St. Ann’s Home in Rochester and associate editor of the Catholic Courier.
In 1938 Father McNamara was appointed professor of church history at St. Bernard’s Seminary, and he continued teaching in that capacity until the seminary closed in 1981. During that time he also served from 1940-79 as weekend assistant at St. Salome Parish in Irondequoit.
Bishop Matthew H. Clark, who celebrated Father McNamara’s funeral Mass May 28, 2009, at Irondequoit’s St. Thomas the Apostle Church, asked the few dozen priests in attendance how many of them had been taught by Father McNamara. Most raised their hands — including Bishop Clark, who attended St. Bernard’s in the late 1950s.
Among Father McNamara’s more notable works was an elaborate 1948 parish history on his native St. Mary in Corning — just one of many histories he wrote for churches of the diocese. His penchant for this type of project also led to his establishment of the diocesan archives in 1976.
His signature work was a 1968 history of the Diocese of Rochester, which he updated in 1993. Bishop Clark noted that Father McNamara personally presented him with a copy of the history upon his becoming bishop in 1979; he read it “immediately” and has reread it many times since.
In 1981 Father McNamara moved to Irondequoit’s St. Thomas the Apostle Church in retirement, and remained there for some 21 years where he was highly visible in parish life. Father Bradler, who served as pastor at St. Thomas from 1995-2007, marveled at Father McNamara’s willingness to lend his knowledge and experience to the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults process.
“What a pleasure it was, for those young people embracing the church to have this man spend time with them,” Father Bradler said.
Father McNamara also was well-known for his “Saints Alive” bulletin column. Father William Graf, during his homily at the funeral Mass, stated that storytelling is vital in enhancing our faith and how well Father McNamara carried out this role through his descriptions of the lives of various saints — “so often they were obscure people to the rest of the world, but they had a story to tell” — and his many other writings.
“These are the stories that are so important for us to keep in our hearts,” said Father Graf, a friend of Father McNamara’s for more than 50 years.
Father McNamara relocated to the Mercy Motherhouse in 2002. There, he busied himself with his desk full of papers, books, newspapers, magazines and letters of correspondence. He even wrote another book — Good Old Doctor Mac, an account of his father, which he released in 2004.
“It was all about the desk. I think that’s what kept him going, what kept him young — his writings and his research,” said Ann Maloney, a cousin of Father McNamara’s, who is writing his partially completed biography.
“He was a young man, even at 98 — full of life, joy and curiosity,” Bishop Clark said.
Father McNamara was a frequent contributor and resource for the Courier for several decades, a distinction he held well into his 90s. Karen Franz, the newspaper’s general manager and editor, said Father McNamara’s articles were usually “related to historical topics or the canonization causes of individuals with local ties.” She added that the priest was considered “a gentle, beloved friend to the newspaper’s writers and editors, who will miss him dearly.”
Franz, Father Bradler and Bishop Clark all noted that Father McNamara was often sought out for historical data and always responded willingly.
“He loved it — at (age) 90, 95, 98, still doing research,” Father Bradler remarked, adding that Father McNamara “was up to date on all that was taking place. He would read the newspaper from top to bottom.”
Father Bradler also lauded Father McNamara’s deep spirituality as well as his great love for the poor — “something very few people knew about,” he said, describing the many calls, letters and knocks on the door Father McNamara would receive from people in need: “He never said no.”
“He certainly was a brilliant man but very, very humble,” Maloney added. “I think we can honestly say that whatever he did, it was for the greater glory and honor of God.”
Father McNamara’s interment was to be in the family plot at St. Mary Cemetery in Corning. In addition to Maloney, Father McNamara is survived by many nieces and nephews.
Memorial donations can be directed to the Sisters of Mercy, 1437 Blossom Road, Rochester, NY 14610.
This story was updated on May 29, 2009.