by Joe Bollig
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — For Father Thomas Ambrose Kearns, his priesthood was a total giving of himself and encountering others.
“He let no one be a stranger to him,” said Msgr. Ray Burger, retired. “Tom was renowned for his desire to know everything about everyone he met. His piercing questions to newcomers and oldsters brought forth results, and a stranger was no longer a stranger, but a friend.”
Near the end of his life, he’d always ask visiting priests, “How are the guys?”
“‘The guys’ were all his priest friends,” said Msgr. Burger. “Life wasn’t about Tom. It was about others and his concern for them.”
Father Kearns, 87, died on Dec. 16 at Villa St. Francis Care Center in Olathe. He was a priest for 61 years.
He was born on Sept. 5, 1934, in Kansas City, Kansas, one of three children of John Patrick and Margaret Lillian (Loftus) Kearns. The family belonged to the Cathedral of St. Peter Parish in Kansas City, Kansas.
He attended the cathedral grade school and graduated in 1952 from Bishop Ward High School in Kansas City, Kansas. He attended Saint Mary College in Leavenworth and graduated in 1954 from Rockhurst College in Kansas City, Missouri. He studied for the priesthood from 1954-1960 at St. Thomas Seminary in Denver.
Father Kearns was ordained to the priesthood on June 4, 1960, by Archbishop Edward J. Hunkeler at the Cathedral of St. Peter. His first assignment was as associate pastor at Sacred Heart Parish in Kansas City, Kansas.
Father Al Rockers, retired, recalled how Father Kearns enjoyed the outdoors. Together, they bought a few acres at Lake Perry and built a simple cabin. Father Kearns loved to run and walk the trails. He was an avid jogger in all weather.
Father Kearns persistently promoted vocations.
“He was vocation director for a while, but even when he no longer had the title, he still did that work,” said Father Rockers. “He was always interested in our seminarians — visiting, supporting and helping them. He kept this up all his life.”
Father Francis Hund, in fact, was personally invited by Father Kearns to consider the priesthood when the latter was his pastor.
He was also supportive of his fellow priests, said Father Hund, archdiocesan minister to priests. Father Kearns was instrumental in co-founding the Jesus Caritas Fraternity of Priests prayer group in 1972.
And many a world problem, he believed, was solved over a cup of coffee.
“Tom was very serious about his coffee,” said Father Mark Mertes, pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Kansas City, Kansas. “He called it ‘touching base’ with people. He saw this as important. He believed there was no better way to visit than over a cup of coffee.”
Father Kearns was also a mentor.
“He taught me how to take a day off,” said Father Mertes. “He said there will always be something on a Monday that you think you have to do, but take the day off. He was right. That was a good lesson.”
Father Kearns belonged to that generation of priests who implemented changes after the Second Vatican Council
“He might not have been the flashiest pastor, but he really believed in getting people involved in ministry,” said Father Mertes. “He was truly a child of the Second Vatican Council. He [came from] a time after the council when we interpreted ‘full, active participation’ as more people doing more roles. That’s the way we understood it. Some [priests] now think that’s kind of chaotic, distracting and disrespectful — lots of people doing lots of things. But in the 1970s, that’s what the church was doing, and that was very important to Tom.”
Father Kearns retired in 2004 and became senior associate pastor at Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park while assisting at Good Shepherd Parish in Shawnee. In 2010, he lived in residence at Blessed Sacrament Parish in Kansas City, Kansas, and assisted there and at Our Lady & St. Rose and Christ the King parishes in Kansas City, Kansas.
In 2018, Father Kearns moved to Overland Park Place, and then in March 2020 to Villa St. Francis.
Father Kearns was preceded in death by his parents and siblings John Kearns and Ellen (Kearns) McCarthy. He is survived by 10 nieces and nephews, and great-nieces and great-nephews.
A Mass of Christian Burial was celebrated on Dec. 22 at the Cathedral of St. Peter, with Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann as main celebrant. Burial was at Mount Calvary Cemetery in Kansas City, Kansas. The family asked that memorial contributions be given to Villa St. Francis or the Catholic Education Foundation.
Funeral arrangements were by Porter Funeral Homes and Crematory in Lenexa.