by Joe Bollig
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — There’s an old saying among priests: “The priesthood isn’t what you do, it’s who you are.”
That was certainly the case for Father Robert Burger, 92, who died at Villa St. Francis in Olathe on Oct. 29. When Pope Francis urged priests to “smell like their sheep,” this was nothing new to Father Robert.
“He was dedicated — absolutely and unconditionally, 100-percent — to the people of his parishes,” said his brother, Father Francis Burger, retired. “If there was a job to do, he’d stick to it, do it well and love it.”
“Every parish he went, people would have said of him that he was always available for every circumstance,” he continued. “Like the pope said [of pastors], ‘smell like your sheep.’ He accomplished that.”
At the time of his death, Father Robert was the longest-serving priest in the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas, having ministered for 67 years.
A Mass of the Resurrection was celebrated on Nov. 3 at St. Joseph Parish in Shawnee. Burial was in Resurrection Cemetery in Lenexa.
Father Robert “Bob” Burger was born on March 3, 1923, one of 14 children of Dr. J. A. Burger and Mary Burger. The family belonged to the now-closed St. Thomas Parish in the Armourdale neighborhood of Kansas City, Kansas. The children went to the parish school.
The future Father Robert graduated from Bishop Ward High School in 1940. He entered Cardinal Glennon College and then Kenrick Seminary, both in St. Louis. Father Robert was ordained a priest on April 3, 1948, by Bishop George Donnelly at St. Thomas Church in Armourdale.
Father Robert was always a family man, both in relation to his family and as a spiritual father to his parishioners.
This was especially true when the Burger family faced two great challenges during the early 1950s.
First, the great flood of 1951 displaced the family and “washed us all the way to Shawnee,” said Father Francis. The family became members of St. Joseph Parish there.
Second, their father died in 1955, and Father Robert became the leader of the clan and caretaker of his mother until her death in 1977.
“Father Bob became the patriarch of the family, self-appointed,” said Father Francis. “That was undisputed and earned. . . . He was the glue that held everyone together.”
The Catholic faith was very strong in the family, the parents setting the example by going to daily Mass and leading daily family rosaries. The family produced several vocations to the priesthood and religious life.
Msgr. Charles McGlinn, retired, knew Father Robert since he was ordained in 1967. Although they weren’t close personal friends, Msgr. McGlinn grew to respect the senior priest, who had an excellent reputation for his personal holiness and pastoral skill.
Father Robert was the founding pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park, celebrating the first Masses in the Glenwood Theater until the church was built in 1971. In fact, his last public act was to send his blessings to the parish, through Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann, on the dedication of the church’s renovation on Oct. 23.
The education of parish children was a high priority for Father Robert, according to Msgr. McGlinn, who succeeded him as pastor of Curé of Ars Parish in Leawood.
“He did something that was remarkable,” said Msgr. McGlinn. “When I got there, I found that he had just established a system of tithing so there was no tuition for the students. It was a far-seeing move, and we’re still doing that at Curé. . . . He thought of the school as being the lifeblood of the parish, and he was right. He left me a thriving school and a thriving parish. He did all he could, and he did a wonderful job.”
Father Robert was humble and modest in all ways, but he did allow himself one indulgence: automobiles.
“He never owned a used car,” said Father Francis. “Right after [World War II] when new cars were hard to come by, he managed to get one soon after he was ordained.”
The cars he bought were nothing fancy — strictly utilitarian. In terms of brand, he was ecumenical.
“We never knew what he’d be driving,” said Father Francis.
Giving up the car keys was hard for him, but he did it gracefully if somewhat begrudgingly.
He also liked the Kansas City Royals baseball team, keeping a notebook of team statistics and relevant notes.
Father Robert moved to Villa St. Francis in Olathe and shared the chaplaincy with another resident, Bishop Marion Forst. Villa residents were delighted to have both of them, and Father Robert soldiered on as long as he could after Bishop Forst died.
“He was a character out there,” said Msgr. McGlinn.
Later, his younger brother Msgr. Raymond Burger moved to the Villa to accompany and take care of him as his health declined. He and other family members cared for Father Robert until his death.
Father Robert was preceded in death by his parents and siblings Paul, Sister Julius Marie, Joseph, Charles and Father Richard. He is survived by Sister Ann Catherine, Sister Rose Helen, Elizabeth Marie, Msgr. Raymond, Carol Morgan, Sister Joan Marie, Angela and Father Frank. He also leaves many nephews and nieces.
Funeral arrangements were by Porter Funeral Homes & Crematory of Lenexa.