by Joe Bollig
LEAWOOD — Father Jerry Spencer spent almost his entire career as a priest in ministry to the sick and suffering. And then he joined their numbers.
Active even in retirement, Father Spencer battled multiple health issues in order to continue to be of service.
He died Nov. 30 of pneumonia.
“He suffered so much here on earth. I just can’t believe that God in his compassionate love for Father Jerry wouldn’t take him straight to heaven,” said Father Storey, pastor of Curé of Ars Parish in Leawood, where Father Spencer was senior associate pastor in residence.
“He worked so hard to get people to heaven.”
Father Jeremiah Lee Spencer — known widely as simply Father Jerry — died at Shawnee Mission Medical Center in Merriam. He was 78.
Most long-serving pastors can point to a lengthy list of parochial assignments, but Father Spencer could only point to two: Holy Trinity Parish in Lenexa from 1965 to 1967, and Holy Name Parish in Kansas City, Kansas, from 1967 to 2012.
Although it is unusual for a priest to serve in one parish for so long, there was a good reason in this case. Father Spencer was a chaplain at the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City, Kansas, for 44 years — the first four as a volunteer, and later on staff.
Father Spencer sometimes referred to “KU Med” as his “fourth parish.”
“He had a compassion and a love for the sick and dying. Even being so sick himself — with one leg removed and having a kidney transplant — it was most important to him to make sure people were anointed,” said Father Storey. “It was his passion. He never gave it up. He might have retired from KU Med, but [that only meant he ministered] to other hospitals and nursing homes.”
Father Spencer was born on March 5, 1939, in Topeka, the third and oldest son of Lee and Helen Elizabeth (Neill) Spencer. His parents met while working at the famed Harvey House Restaurant — Lee was a cook and Helen, a server. Later, they worked at the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad cafeteria. Father Spencer and his two younger brothers — Gilbert and Fred — would work there, too. The Spencers went to Assumption Parish.
The future priest attended Sumner Grade School from 1944 to 1947, then Assumption Grade School from 1947 to 1953. He graduated from Hayden High School in 1957. He attended St. Thomas Seminary in Denver from 1957 to 1965, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1961 and a master’s degree in 1964.
Often, Father Spencer would ride the train between home and the seminary with two former Topeka neighbors — Msgr. Vince Krische and Father Al Rockers.
Father Spencer was ordained a priest by Archbishop Edward J. Hunkeler on May 29, 1965, at the Cathedral of St. Peter in Kansas City, Kansas.
His plans for the priesthood did not include hospital chaplaincy. As a deacon, he’d done clinical pastoral education at three Topeka institutions. In 1967, he was assigned to be an associate pastor at Holy Name Parish in Kansas City, Kansas, with chaplaincy duties at the University of Kansas Medical Center.
“This is definitely a specialized ministry, because it has required availability 24/7,” said Father Spencer in a Feb. 3, 2012, profile in The Leaven.
Sometimes, the pager went off hourly. He was called to the hospital at all hours of the night. The ministry required discernment, tenderness and toughness.
“I have seen true, heroic sanctity,” said Father Spencer, “but I have also seen people in the deepest moral distress and situations that one could hardly imagine.”
In his 44 years there, he became almost an institution at KU Med.
“He was a true, faithful steward,” said Msgr. Krische. “He always did the best job he could at KU Med. His reputation among the staff was very genuine. People had a lot of respect for him.”
Father Rockers remembered him as a hard worker.
“He loved visiting the sick and [ministering at] weddings and funerals,” said Father Rockers. “He was always on the job, answering his phone or doorbell. He loved to work and looked for work.”
Father Peter Jaramillo, SSA, pastor of St. John the Baptist, St. Mary-St. Anthony and Holy Family parishes, all in Kansas City, Kansas, said that in Father Spencer, what you saw is what you got.
“He was straightforward,” said Father Peter. “There was no pretense about him . . . no-nonsense in his spirituality. He was a friend you could count on to deliver on what he said he would do.”
He also had a lively sense of humor, even when he himself was physically suffering.
Upon his retirement, Father Spencer was in residence as senior associate at St. Agnes Parish in Roeland Park and then Curé of Ars Parish in Leawood.
Father Spencer was preceded in death by his parents and his brother Gilbert. He is survived by his brother Fred of Fort Wayne, Indiana; nieces Tonya Tidwell of Lee’s Summit, Missouri, and Kelly Covalle of Jackson, Michigan; and sister-in-law Sharon Spencer-Will of Paola.