The missionary’s next mission: home

by Joe Bollig
joe.bollig@theleaven.org

TOPEKA — Coming home to Kansas has been a great experience for Father Bob Conroy, MC.

It has also been a little weird.

Father Bob spent most of his time in impoverished, third-world countries for the better part of the last 20 years. Returning to his boyhood home of Topeka has required some adjustments.

“Coming back to America has been a little bit of a culture shock,” he said. “I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience for about a month, trying to figure everything out, like, checking accounts.”

And Wal-Mart. And the BIG food portions in restaurants. In fact, just about everything seemed a little weird at first.

“I haven’t worn shoes for 20 years,” he said. “I only wore sandals. [Shoes] were strange. I got blisters on my feet.”

Father Bob was given permission by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann and his religious order, the Missionaries of Charity Fathers, to spend some time in ministry in his hometown. Currently, Father Bob is associate pastor at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish.

He was born in Minneapolis. After living in other places, his family moved to Topeka when Father Bob was five years old, so Topeka is home. His father, Dr. Robert Conroy, and his stepmother Carolyn live there. His mother Beverly is deceased. He has two younger brothers who live in California.

Father Bob knew he wanted to be a priest from the time he was seven years old. And he knew he wanted to serve the poor.

This calling came to him while he was still a little boy, and the family was living in El Paso, Texas.

“At a certain point, my father was thinking of getting out of the military, and we were looking for a home,” he said.

“At one point, we were driving along the border,” he continued. “On one side was suburbia; on the other was Rio Grande, and these shacks made of tar paper and cardboard, and women drawing water out of the river with buckets.”

The jarring juxtaposition of wealth and poverty made a powerful impression and became the catalyst for his vocation. He wanted to serve the poor as a priest.

When the family moved to Topeka, his father found a job with the Menninger Institute. Father Bob graduated from Washburn Rural High School in 1979 and entered St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana as an archdiocesan seminarian. After graduating in 1983, Archbishop Ignatius J. Strecker sent him to Rome for further studies.

While in Rome, Father Conroy lived at the Pontifical North American College and studied at the Pontifical Gregorian University.

One year before his scheduled ordination, the young seminarian was inspired to join the Missionaries of Charity Fathers — the male branch of the order founded by Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta. He was subsequently ordained a priest for that order on Jan. 28, 1989, by Bishop Emilio Carlos Berlie Belaunzaran of Tijuana. Mother Teresa was at his ordination.

From 1992 to 1996, Father Conroy served in his order’s house of formation in Rome as novice master, postulant master and prefect of studies. He returned to Tijuana, was appointed vicar general of his order in 1999, and also continued as novice master until 2001. From 2001 to 2003, he was a missionary to the indigenous people of Tamahau — a remote, mountainous region of northern Guatemala.

“We [Missionaries of Charity] took it because it had been a Dominican mission in the 16th century, but it was abandoned by the diocese later on,” said Father Bob. “These people were just left to the four winds.”

“There were two tribes that didn’t speak Spanish. We had to learn two native languages — Poqon and Q’eq’chi,” he continued. “We served about 30 villages in the mountains. We’d have to walk four or five hours up the side of a mountain on these little trails carrying everything. You had to be in great shape. It would be raining, and you’d climb like a billy goat, and reach the top above these clouds and celebrate Mass.

“It was great. I loved it.”

He was called back to Tijuana when he was elected superior general of his order in 2003, and served in that capacity until 2008.

Over the past few years, the Missionaries of Charity Fathers have been changing the focus of their vision on how to serve the poor. The community closed its missions in Africa, Guatemala, and other places.

This new direction affected Father Bob’s vocation, so he took a sabbatical, spending part of it at a Benedictine monastery in South Dakota from late 2008 to 2009.

Then, he made a weeklong Ignatian retreat under the direction of Father Benedict Groeschel of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. Father Benedict recommended that he spend some time in ministry in his home archdiocese. Father Bob began serving at the parish on Oct. 22.

Being at Our Lady of Guadalupe has been a wonderful experience, said Father Bob. In a sense, the mission has come to the missionary.

“I never realized there was such a large Hispanic population in Topeka,” said Father Bob. “The people and [pastor] Father John Cordes have been welcoming.”

“The [celebration of the] feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe was a three-day event,” he continued. “It was fantastic — the singing, the dancing, the Masses — it was like we were in Mexico. We really have a good spirit here.”

The priest, whose desire was always to serve the poor, has discovered that he could do that here as well.

“Coming back to the archdiocese, I’ve really enjoyed working directly with the people — visiting them in the hospitals and in their homes, and celebrating Mass,” he said. “We have an incredible evangelization program.”

Coming home has also reminded him of something the late Bishop Marion Forst once told him.

“He said to me in 1986, ‘Why do you have to leave? We need priests who want to be missionaries. We need priests who want a simple life. We need priests who are zealous for serving the poor. Why do you have to leave to do that?’” said Father Bob.

“I feel like God, in his providence, has brought me back to Kansas — to Topeka even — and now I see Topeka with new eyes,” he said, “like the scales have been taken from my eyes.

“The spirit of Mother Teresa is alive and well. And I believe in my heart that this is what God has called me to do — to serve the poor in whatever way I can.”

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