Archdiocese Local Religious life

Father Jerry Spencer spent a lifetime caring for the sick

Father Jerry Spencer, retiring chaplain at the University of Kansas Hospital. PHOTO BY SUSAN MCSPADDEN 01/20/12

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.

About the author

Joe Bollig

Joe has been with The Leaven since 1993. He has a bachelor’s degree in communications and a master’s degree in journalism. Before entering print journalism he worked in commercial radio. He has worked for the St. Joseph (Mo.) News-Press and Sun Publications in Overland Park. During his journalistic career he has covered beats including police, fire, business, features, general assignment and religion. While at The Leaven he has been a writer, photographer and videographer. He has won or shared several Catholic Press Association awards, as well as Archbishop Edward T. O’Meara awards for mission coverage. He graduated with a certification in catechesis from a two-year distance learning program offered by the Maryvale Institute for Catechesis, Theology, Philosophy and Religious Education at Old Oscott, Great Barr, in Birmingham, England.

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  • Jerry is my brother and will always be. I can remember a Sunday in the early 70’s when he and Gilbert were sitting in the backyard of my parents home having a beer and getting some sun. His beeper went off and said several people were injured in a car wreck and said I have to leave. I hope to see him in the near future.

  • This was my brother and we will be joined again soon. In a better place, Thank God and I miss you Bro in the skype days. Fred

  • Father Spencer was a wonderful, nonjudgmental chaplain who helped counseled many patients and health care workers at KUMC who were not affiliated with organized religion. He brought them warmth and compassion regardless of their status. He was one of a kind!

  • It was very sad for me to read in the Leaven about the passing of Father Spencer. When I lived in Ks. I always enjoyed morning mass services read by Father Spencer, then greeting everyone with a hand shake at the back of the church to have a blessed day as parishioners exit and left the church. R.I.P. Father Spencer, you will be remembered.

  • Father Jerry you are a true solider of the Catholic church. You helped our family through so much sadness and gave us so much joy at the same time. You will be missed and I enjoyed listenig to you at Holy Name Church, R.I.P Father Jerry.