Priest looks back on seven decades of history - Catholic Courier

Priest looks back on seven decades of history

Father Robert F. McNamara’s face lit up as he began a conversation about his 70 years as a priest. He said he’s delighted to share his experiences in hopes that it might encourage young men of today to pursue the priesthood.

“Don’t give up hope,” Father McNamara said. “There’s a great need for more people, and it’s a lovely life that is so satisfying to the individual and to the needs of the church.”

The Harvard- and Georgetown-educated English-literature graduate, whose gifts for turning a phrase and love of history have been constants in his own vocation, is the oldest diocesan priest in the Diocese of Rochester. He celebrated his 96th birthday and his 70th anniversary of ordination with a Nov. 12 party at Irondequoit’s St. Thomas the Apostle Church, where he lived from 1981 to 2002 before moving to McAuley Residence in Brighton.

Born in Corning on Nov. 3, 1910, Father McNamara was the only child of a widowed local general practitioner, Dr. Thomas Alexander McNamara, and his second wife, Helen Dwyer, sister of his late first wife. After her sister’s death, Helen McNamara stepped in to raise her nieces and nephews as her own, Father McNamara said.

The family was very devout and made sure their children were brought up in the faith. Father McNamara said he heard the call to a priestly vocation when he was 15.

“A voice seemed to say to me, ‘you will be a priest,'” he said. “I hadn’t thought of it previously, but it seemed to suit me.”

Father McNamara didn’t follow that calling until he was 21 and in his first year of a five- to six-year doctoral program at Harvard University.

“I thought it was sort of foolish to wait until after that, so I wrote to my mother, and I got a wonderful letter from her,” he said. “She said, ‘I’m not worthy of such a blessing.'”

As Father McNamara was deciding where to pursue his priestly studies, several acquaintances suggested the North American College in Rome, the residence for American seminarians enrolled at the Pontifical Gregorian University. He was ordained in Rome on Dec. 8, 1936.

“I am thankful to God to allow me to have that special privilege,” he said of studying and living in Rome.

Upon returning to Rochester in June of 1937, Father McNamara served for a few weeks at a Corning church before being assigned to St. Francis Xavier Church in Rochester, where he worked specifically with Italians at the Chapel of the Annunciation. In 1938, he became an editor at the Catholic Courier-Journal and also became chaplain of St. Ann’s Home on Lake Avenue. Later that year, he was tapped to be a professor of church history at St. Bernard’s Seminary, replacing a professor who was retiring.

“I was completely green about church history,” Father McNamara remarked.

However, he kept up with the course readings and drew knowledge from his varied background. During his career, he also taught patrology, liturgy and Italian, and was the visiting professor of U.S. Catholic history at the Toronto School of Theology in 1972 and 1976. He also worked as diocesan archivist, was a member of the Diocesan Liturgical Committee from 1965 to 1976, has penned many books and articles, and has contributed to several Catholic encyclopedias and reference books.

Father McNamara also helped found the Corning Painted Post Historical Society and was its first president. He has received two honorary doctorates and the Founder’s Medal of the Pontifical North American College, was inducted into the Steuben County Hall of Fame and was the initial recipient of the President’s Award from St. Bernard’s Institute.

He is modest about his decades of accomplishments.

“I’m still just a fumbler,” he said.

Upon retiring from St. Bernard’s when it closed, Father McNamara moved to St. Thomas the Apostle and began a column for the parish’s bulletin. The parish posts the columns, now called “Saints Alive,” on its Web site, where they generate thousands of hits and hundreds of questions and comments from readers around the world, including Africa, Europe and Canada.

Not only is Father McNamara an eager writer, he also is an exacting researcher, said Ellen Brannin, St. Thomas the Apostle’s secretary.

“He’s humble, and he’s got a wonderful sense of humor and a wonderful way with words,” she said. “He writes stories that bring what he’s writing about alive for the reader.”

Father McNamara is popular among St. Thomas parishioners for his personality as well, Brannin said.

“He lights up the room,” she said. “He’s one of those people that even when you are just thinking about him, you are still smiling.”

Even though he was retired, Father McNamara helped out at the parish whenever he was needed and able, including hearing confessions, giving counseling and occasionally leading Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults classes. Each night he would close the chapel at 11 p.m. following adoration.

“He was a delightful person to have at the rectory,” said Father Robert C. Bradler, St. Thomas the Apostle’s pastor, who was a student of Father McNamara’s.

Father McNamara has remained flexible through all the changes in the church during his career, Father Bradler noted.

“He’s been able to mix the old and the new in the church, and he’s gone with the flow of what we are doing today,” he said.


Fr. McNamara’s books

* A Century of Grace. A History of St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, Corning, N.Y., 1848-1948

* The American College in Rome, 1855-1955

* The Diocese of Rochester, 1868-1968

* St. Bernard’s Seminary, 1893-1968

* Catholic Sunday Preaching: the American Guidelines, 1791-1975

* Ambassadors for Christ (a necrology of priests and permanent deacons who have served within the Diocese of Rochester, 1818-1993)

* The Diocese of Rochester in America, 1868-1993

* Good Old Doctor Mac, 1856-1927

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