Father Robert J. Donovan had a unique sense of humor that led people to gravitate toward him, friends recalled. Sometimes while in earshot of a priest needing guidance, he would pretend to have a conversation with Bishop Matthew H. Clark about the priest.
"Bishop, I’ve told him time and time again," Father Donovan would say. "But he just doesn’t listen."
Father Timothy Horan, pastor of St. Margaret Mary Parish in Irondequoit, who lived for five years with Father Donovan at St. Andrew Parish, recalled witnessing such conversations, and noted they were always hilarious.
"He was charming," Father Horan said. "He was a man of great humor, a lightness of spirit and a strong Irish faith."
Yet for all of his wit, Father Donovan’s final years were full of quiet suffering, as he endured daily, debilitating headaches and other health problems. Father Donovan, 83, who had lived for several years at the Sisters of Mercy Center in Brighton, died July 9, 2010.
"He was a very gentle person who loved people," said Father Bernard Dollen, one of his classmates from St. Andrew’s and St. Bernard’s seminaries. "Unfortunately, he had a series of minor strokes which changed his personality, which was too bad."
A native of Rochester, Father Donovan attended Rochester’s Immaculate Conception and Holy Rosary Schools, and Aquinas Institute before transferring to St. Andrew’s Seminary. Another of his classmates, Msgr. Gerard Krieg, recalled one memorable homily Father Donovan preached after having been ordained a transitional deacon. Father Donovan quoted the disobedient words of Adam and Eve in Latin, but made an error that gave his classmates endless fodder for jokes about the declaration, "I will not make jam!"
Father Donovan took it in stride.
"He had this infectious laugh, and he was always so gentle and considerate," Msgr. Krieg said.
After being ordained June 6, 1953, at his home parish — Sacred Heart Cathedral in Rochester — Father Donovan served as assistant pastor at St. Patrick, Elmira (1953-59); St. Thomas the Apostle, Irondequoit (1959-65); St. Mary, Canandaigua (1965-66); Holy Family, Auburn (1966-71); and St. Mary of the Lake, Watkins Glen (1972-73). He was pastor of St. John the Evangelist, Newark Valley, and St. Francis, Catatonk (1973-77); and St. Dominic’s Shortsville (1977-83). From 1983-86 he was chaplain of St. Mary Hospital, Rochester, and from 1986-93 he was parochial vicar at St. Lawrence in Greece. He also served at Holy Trinity Church in El Cajon, Calif., from 1971-72.
Father Donovan’s strong faith and his beloved Boston terriers helped him through it all, Msgr. Krieg said.
"He did have a couple rough assignments, and he managed to maintain his sense of humor throughout them," Msgr. Krieg said. "Life was difficult, but he never became bitter. I’m quite sure (this attitude) was faith-based."
Due to health reasons, Father Donovan retired in 1994 and moved permanently to the Mercy Center several years later.
"The Sisters of Mercy were very loving and attentive to him, and made his last days, as difficult as they were, livable," Father Horan said.
Father Donovan is survived by nieces and nephews, the Sisters of Mercy and his fellow Mercy Center residents.
Father Donovan lay in state July 12 and 13 at Mercy Center, 1437 Blossom Road, Brighton. Father Joseph Hart, a vicar general of the diocese, celebrated his funeral liturgy July 13 at the Mercy Center.
Memorials may be made to the Sisters of Mercy.