by Jean Gonzalez
Servant. Faithful. Teacher. Franciscan. Advocate. A unique gift.
That was how people who knew and loved Father Rene Robert described him. His murder struck a heavy blow to the St. Augustine community and the deaf community, which he faithfully and joyfully served for more than 35 years.
But even as they grieve, family and friends could not deny that Father Robert died as he lived – helping someone in need.
“Father Rene was a humble and generous servant of Our Lord and he shared his many gifts with the poor, the deaf community and with individuals whose lives have found themselves in jail or imprisoned. He put his faith into action through the corporal and spiritual works of mercy,” said Bishop Felipe Estévez of St. Augustine. “To those whom he ministered, Father Rene will be remembered for his kindness and endless love for them. He always saw the good in the people he served, reminding them that God created them for greatness with a good and noble purpose for others.”
The 71-year-old priest, who had lived as a Franciscan brother, Franciscan priest and then an incardinated priest of St. Augustine, went missing April 10. A frequent Facebook poster, his last post was just after 1 p.m. from Orange Park Medical Center where he was visiting a friend. After that it was radio silence, which friends knew was not like him.
The St. Johns County Sherriff’s Office was notified and asked to make a well check at his apartment. Sheriff David Shoar, who had known Father Rene for three decades, said the well check found nothing unusual, but because the priest’s car was missing and he was not checking in online as he normally did, a bulletin was put out for his vehicle.
The sheriff, a Catholic, admitted he was worried about his friend, worry that intensified when Father Robert’s blue Toyota Corolla was spotted a half hour after the lookout was issued. Behind the wheel was Stephen Murray, a 28-year-old man recently released from jail. He gave chase on Interstate 95 in St. Johns County. When he crossed the county line into Duval, Jacksonville Sherriff’s officers continued the chase but lost him in a construction area off of I-95.
That was April 12 and the community came together in prayer hoping for Father Robert’s safe return.
Murray was captured in South Carolina April 13. After waiving extradition, he was transported back to St. Augustine. Shoar said he was questioned when he first arrived and there were plans to question him again the next morning. But Murray asked correctional officers if he could call the detectives on the case. He wanted to talk.
He told officials where to find Father Robert’s body. He was found April 18 in a rural area in Burke County, Ga. just outside of Waynesboro. It has been determined that Father Robert died April 10, the day he went missing. Shoar said Father Robert suffered a “terrible,” “violent” death, but added finding his body was a small miracle.
“The chance that we would have been able to find his body without the information the suspect gave would have been slim to none,” Shoar said of the painful discovery. “Maybe something that Father Rene said or did during their time compelled that man to talk. Maybe Father Rene’s kindness paid off in a small, but meaningful way.”
Father Robert’s kindness was something akin to his personality. Shoar said along with working with the deaf community, Father Robert had a “robust prison ministry program.” And while the sheriff, friends and even members of Father Robert’s family warned him about the high-risk nature of his ministry, there was no way to stop his passion.
“He was out there ministering to people everyone else gave up on: prostitutes, convicts, drug addicts,” Shoar said. “When I warned him, he told me, ‘I am doing what God is telling me to do,’ and I believed him. He died doing what he loved.”
It was that giving spirit that drew Shoar to Father Robert. Thanks to the prison ministry, the two would talk shop, and Father Robert encouraged the sheriff to regard his career not just as a job, but also a ministry. The priest told him just as he was called to serve others, so are law enforcement personnel.
“At his most fundamental base, Father Rene was a teacher of good things and the word of God. He provided us a better way to live our lives; that giving is a lot better than receiving,” said Shoar who hopes to begin a type of scholarship or grant to better people’s lives after release from prison in his friend’s memory. “I was blessed to know him. We cannot afford to forget Father Rene.”
The pain of the loss greatly fell on the shoulders of Father Robert’s family, including younger brother Bryan, and his younger sister Debbie Bedard. They arrived in St. Augustine April 15, and attended a prayer vigil held in their brother’s honor on April 16. To see the outpouring of love for their brother was “phenomenal,” Bedard said, adding there was “no way to thank them enough for what they have done for my brother.”
“So many people came to me and said, ‘You know he’s a saint, right?’ and he was,” Bedard said in a phone interview. “He always had a tender spirit. I had the blessing of him being my brother. I am so proud of him. I still am proud of him. He was just so remarkable. It is just so sad that we no longer have him on this earth.”
Born Sept. 2, 1944 in New York City, Richard Wayne Robert, he was adopted at the age of 3. Bedard recalled a story their mother told over and over about the first time she took young Richard to church. He started running up the aisle and pointed at the priest saying, “‘I want to go with him.”
As a young man, he took vows in 1962 with the Order of Friars Minor Conventual Franciscans and took the name Brother Rene Robert. Although he loved his community, he also kept close ties with his family. Along with being a loving brother and son, Bedard said when he would visit them, he always took the entire brood of nieces and nephews to the movies, paying for their tickets, popcorn and candy. For a man who took a vow of poverty seriously, that offer only made the act extra special, she said.
Although Bedard teased that they called their brother the “absent-minded professor” because he constantly left something behind during his visits, she added he had a ‘tender spirit” and never lost his temper. Even in times of heartbreak, like when their mother was dying of cancer, he offered solace.
“I gave up on the Lord for a short time because I was angry that my mother suffered with cancer. But he helped me realize it wasn’t God’s fault that she died; it was the darn sickness, it was cancer. He said, ‘You will see her again someday,’ and I know I will because he made me believe. And that is why I know I will see him again, too,” Bedard said. “He didn’t deserve to die. I don’t know how it happened, and I don’t think I want to know. It was not right, and it breaks my heart.”
Kate Quigley Burns, a longtime friend, also recalled Father Robert’s even temperament and calm demeanor. They first met in the 1980s, both sharing a passion to serve the handicapped, including the deaf community. She described Father Robert as a true servant and a true Franciscan. What little money he had, he would share with those in need, even buying a plane ticket so a family member could visit relatives.
When they met, Father Robert was a consecrated religious brother. They both worked together at the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind, where, at the time, there were some 600 residential Catholic students. Father Robert taught religious education at the school, but found it increasingly difficult to find priests who would come to the school and hear confessions.
After much discernment, he believed he found an answer: He would go to seminary to study to be a priest. Burns thought his friend was crazy. Not only did he love being a brother, but being a priest for the deaf community was quite an endeavor. He would have the responsibility at the school and also with a parish.
“It’s a well-known fact to anyone who works for the deaf that finding a priest who knows the language and serves the community is like finding a needle in a haystack. And it is a huge undertaking. You feel like you can never sleep because you are ministering to two very different communities,” said Burns, who moved to work for people with disabilities on a diocesan level.
She knew that he entered the seminary but then discovered Brother Rene was now Father Rene.
“He reached his goal, which truly wasn’t surprising, but it was an extremely tough decision for him. But he did it for the people he served.”
Bishop John J. Snyder, then bishop of St. Augustine, ordained Father Robert a priest on August 19, 1989 at St. Mary Church in his hometown of Waterford, N.Y. At that time, there was not a Franciscan order within the St. Augustine area where Father Robert wished to continue to serve at the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind. So, Bishop Snyder offered San Sebastian Parish in St. Augustine to the order. They stayed there for 13 years, but decided to leave the parish in November 1993, which left Father Robert at a crossroads once more. If he were to stay with the Franciscans, he most likely would be moved away from his deaf ministry. If he became incardinated in the St. Augustine Diocese he could stay, but that would mean he would have to leave his beloved Franciscan order. And that’s what he did.
“He did it for the sake of the deaf community,” Burns recalled of her friend’s heartbreaking decision. “But he didn’t allow it to change him. He was a Franciscan through and through, and he had a vow of poverty and kept it for life, no matter what team he played for.”
Bishop Snyder agreed. “He was a unique gift to us,” the bishop said. “He reached out to touch lives and to be a healing presence. He gave of himself so extraordinarily, generously. As a priest, you are to serve people in the name of God and he exemplified that.”
It was Sister of St. Joseph Rita Baum, a longtime advocate for the deaf community, who hired then-Brother Robert to work at the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind in 1980. The two had met at national conferences for ministers for the deaf. Sister Baum described Father Robert as “faithful,” especially in keeping the community together and in touch with one another. That was probably the impetus for the priest’s love of Facebook, where he not only posted his whereabouts, but saint of the day postings and prayers. It was an easy way to keep connected with students and the deaf community, which spanned the entire state. But it also afforded him opportunities to minister to them in a way they could understand.
“He so loved the deaf community that he changed his own life for them. He was happy being a Franciscan brother, but he knew the deaf community needed priests,” she said. “Many times the deaf are neglected by the Church, and perhaps even lost to the Catholic Church. No matter how hard we both tried to share the faith with the deaf community, once they left (the school) and went elsewhere, they would go to whatever denomination spoke their language, and that wasn’t always the Catholic Church.”
It was that fact that fueled Father Robert because he began to witness it in his own community. Just this past year, he restarted a monthly Mass for the deaf at San Sebastian that included a dinner social afterward. With Father Robert’s passing, there are no immediate plans to continue the Mass or social afterwards.
“I would hope that someone else would be inspired by his witness to follow in his footsteps and serve the deaf community,” Sister Baum said. “That would be the best way to remember Father Rene.”