Laughter, tears mark community’s farewell to slain Florida priest

AUGUSTINE, Fla. — While sorrowful hearts mourn Father Rene Robert, two services that helped commemorate his life and allow family and friends to say farewell was wrought with as many laughs as there were tears.

Police said Father Rene Robert, 71, died April 11. His body was found April 18 in Burke County, Georgia, about 260 miles away from St. Johns County, Florida, south of Jacksonville, where he had lived. Steven James Murray, 28, has been charged with malice murder in connection with the death.

Family and friends at the casket of Father Rene Robert during his April 25 funeral Mass at San Sebastian Church in St. Augustine, Fla. The 71-year-old priest was found dead April 18 in Burke County, Ga., after being reported missing April 12 when he did not show up for a church function. (CNS photo | Diocese of St. Augustine)

Father Robert had been ministering to Murray, who recently had been released from a Jacksonville, Florida, jail. A priest for 27 years and a Franciscan brother before that, Father Robert’s ministry included serving as chaplain of Florida School for the Deaf and Blind, prison ministry and parish work.

As mourners gathered at San Sebastian Catholic Church in St. Augustine April 25 for an evening prayer service for the priest, it became keenly evident that Father Robert touched the lives of clergy, lay and religious in many different communities.

During the service, Father John Gillespie, San Sebastian’s pastor, asked the members of the community who gathered to recall Father Robert without too much solemnity and pomposity. If the priest were sitting with them at the vigil, Father Gillespie suggested, Father Robert would be wearing his familiar New York Yankees cap to put everyone in “the proper mood.” He was a man of faults, a man of whimsy, and a man of service who could show love and drive people crazy, he said.

He offered the opportunity to everyone gathered to say a few words about Father Robert. Many people did. A woman from the deaf community who had known him since she was a child spoke about how Father Robert “transformed” her family as he taught them sign language and gave them strength.

While Father Robert was renowned for his communication skills with the deaf community, he also served the Hispanic community. Some speakers joked that he was not known for his Spanish language skills. But there was no denying his love for the Hispanic community, they said, and a congregant gave thanks for the priest’s role in starting a farmworker ministry in St. Johns County.

Along with the laughs, there were tears as well. Retired Bishop Victor Galeone of St. Augustine described the moment he heard that Father Robert was missing.

“I went to the Blessed Sacrament chapel and prayed, ‘Please. Please. Let him be safe. And when I heard his body was found, I went to the chapel again, and I cried my heart out,” Bishop Galeone said.

The community gathered once again for a final farewell at a funeral Mass April 26 at San Sebastian. St. Augustine Bishop Felipe Estevez presided at the Mass, which was a collaborative effort between San Sebastian and St. Anastasia Parish, both of which Father Robert had served in retirement.

Father Timothy Lindenfelser, pastor of St. Anastasia, thanked Father Robert’s siblings, Brian Robert and Debbie Bedard, for sharing the gift of their brother during the homily.

The pastor, who shared a residence with Father Robert and other priests, recalled some of Father Robert’s foibles, such as his lack of organization, his “jumping into something that came before him forgetting that there were other things he was supposed to be doing.”

“Occasionally, he ignored the instructions of his family and superiors,” Father Lindenfelser said. “Father Rene was well aware that, despite trying to share the love of God with others, his words and actions sometimes backfired. Father Rene knew his sins; he tried to overcome them on his own and, like us, frequently failed.”

Before the final commendation, Bishop Estevez spoke to the congregants, saying it was fitting that in the Jubilee Year of Mercy, a time when the faithful are encouraged to expand the works of mercy, that Father Robert as a priest who lived the Beatitudes.

“Father Rene’s entire discipleship is a witness to the Gospel of mercy,” Bishop Estevez said. “In spite of the anger, the sorrow, the injustice done to this nonviolent, peaceful, brother, Father Rene, we can say, ‘Alleluia!’ because he is going back to the father to rest in the peace of the risen Lord.”