Msgr. Hemberger’s service to the church recalled by those he led
A reflection shared by Monsignor Robert E. Hemberger before he retired summed up his service to the Diocese of Wichita.
“Some are called to lead and some are called to set the table,” Msgr. Hemberger told Wendy Glick, who is now executive director of Catholic Charities.
Although he was never asked to don a bishop’s mitre, Msgr. Hemberger did, in fact, lead many priests and laity for decades, twice as administrator of the Diocese of Wichita when the bishop’s cathedra was empty.
Monsignor Hemberger, 74, died Thursday, Nov. 8, in Florida. He was a priest of the Diocese of Wichita for 48 years and the brother of Father Kent Hemberger, pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Andover. Services were held today at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Wichita.
Several of Msgr. Hemberger’s brother priests remembered his kindness, his friendship, his sensitivity, his organizational ability – and his humility.
Father David Lies, vicar general for the diocese, said Msgr. Hemberger had spent his life in ministry as one who set the table for others. “No better description of his service could be offered.”
Fr. Lies said during most of his priestly ministry, his relationship with Msgr. Hemberger consisted of ‘as needed’ contact with him as the chancellor or vicar general.
“We were acquaintances, but he was always very complimentary and supportive of my work as a pastor,” he said. “After he retired and I succeeded him as vicar general, he became a mentor of sorts for me and a ready and willing resource if I had questions about fulfilling my role.”
Father Lies said Msgr. Hemberger offered him advice he needed without telling the young vicar general what he thought he ought to do.
“His words were encouraging as I sought to learn my responsibilities as vicar general, and he shared a little more fully with me some of the joys and challenges that he experienced when he served the diocese. He always ended our conversations by thanking me for accepting the responsibility of leadership at this diocesan level, and he pledged his prayerful support for me.”
Fr. Michael Nolan said Msgr. Hemberger combined a genuine empathy for people with a firm adherence to principle and truth.
Fr. Nolan, a canon lawyer and the chaplain of St. Maximilian Kolbe Parish at McConnell Air Force Base, said Msgr. Hemberger never lost the drive for excellence and service.
“He was able to discern individuals’ talents, match them to the needs of the church, and provide them with the support to succeed. He was a true friend and mentor for me,” Fr. Nolan said. “I learned from him the meaning of class, humility, and how to apply canon law with pastoral sensitivity. He was a good listener and astute observer, a priest deeply committed to the Lord and the Lord’s people.”
Fr. John Lanzrath, pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish in El Dorado, said he was mentored for many years while working with Msgr. Hemberger in the Chancery.
“The man loved to attend meetings. He could sit hour after hour in one meeting after another and be energized by the experience,” Fr. Lanzrath said.
“I often wondered what drove him to persevere through these meetings and I realized that he sought to listen to other people. While he would speak at meetings and ask penetrating questions, he did so only after listening to others. His witness to listen to others has been a very valuable gift to me and to the entire diocesan family.”
Fr. Bob McElwee, a retired priest of the diocese, said he owes an unpayable debt of gratitude to Msgr. Hemberger.
“Once at a Marriage Encounter Mass as I was standing in the Communion line and was extending my hands as a sign of requesting Communion, he quietly asked me if I was Catholic.”
Father McElwee answered, yes, he was Anglo-Catholic, of the Church of England, or Episcopalian. Msgr. Hemberger told him he was not Catholic, but could him a blessing instead.
“At that point I was new to any religion, and I had believed what my protestant minister had told me,” Fr. McElwee said. “Monsignor had the courage to tell me the truth and later explained to me why I was not really Catholic. His tactful courage started me down the road to become a member of Christ’s One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.”
Fr. McElwee added that none of his Catholic friends had the courage to tell him the truth because they had not wanted to hurt his feelings or insult him.
“I will be eternally grateful to him!” he said.
Father Paul Oborny, a retired priest of the diocese, said Monsignor Hemberger helped him appreciate his priesthood in service to the people of the diocese.
Fr. Stephen Thapwa said Msgr. Hemberger was a true friend with a huge pastoral heart. “Many times I would ask him about how to help a refugee couple living outside of the Diocese of Wichita get a church marriage. Together, we have validated quite a few marriages, bringing them, happily, back to fullness of Catholic living.”
Fr. Mike Baldwin said he and Msgr. Hemberger were in a priests’ Emmaus group that met monthly for 34 years, a group organized by Msgr. Hemberger.
“In these later years he communicated via email. It was very common for the email to be sent at 1:00 or 1:30 a.m.,” Fr. Baldwin said. “He would be in his office wrapping up his day’s work.”
Fr. Baldwin, the director of Field Apostolate for the St. Joseph House of Formation, said Monsignor’s dedication became more evident while he was working on the cathedral renovation.
“I sat on three or four committees at that time. Monsignor was at every one of our meetings and he attended all the meetings of the many other groups involved in that complicated project. He was a stabilizing presence and an active participant in all of them.
“He had a gift for hearing each point made by every person at the table and synthesizing what had been said in his summary remarks. He was the backbone for the renovation and did much of the heavy lifting to make it happen. Every time I walk into the cathedral I remember how he labored to bring our shared vision to life.”
Fr. Jerome Spexarth, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes in Pittsburg, described Msgr. Hemberger as a priest who was always positive and who ran great meetings. “He was always available to answer questions and give me encouragement as a young priest.”
Robert Hemberger was born on Aug. 26, 1944, in Conway Springs. He studied for the priesthood at Conception Seminary College in Conception, Missouri, and at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. He was ordained on May 30, 1970, at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Wichita.
He served as an assistant at St. Anne and All Saints parishes in Wichita before being appointed chaplain of St. Francis Hospital in Wichita in 1973. Five years later Fr. Hemberger was named chaplain of Halstead Hospital, and diocesan director of Marriage Encounter.
While continuing his duties at Halstead and with Marriage Encounter, Fr. Hemberger was named assistant chancellor for the diocese in 1980. Later that year he was named chaplain of St. Francis Hospital in Wichita while continuing his duties with M.E. and as assistant chancellor. In 1981 Fr. Hemberger became master of ceremonies for the bishop, along with his other duties.
In 1982 he was named chaplain of the St. Francis Regional Medical Center.
Father Hemberger began studies for a licentiate in Canon Law in 1983 at Catholic University. Upon his return to the diocese in 1985, he was named judicial vicar of the Matrimonial Tribunal, diocesan liaison for Health Affairs, part-time associate pastor in residence at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish.
Father Hemberger served for a brief time as temporary administrator of Holy Cross Parish in Hutchinson beginning in October 1986. The next year he was named synodal promoter and moderator, while continuing his other duties, including liaison for Health Affairs.
In June of 1988 he Fr. Hemberger was named chancellor of the diocese and chaplain of Mt. St. Mary Convent, while continuing with his work in the tribunal and as liaison for Health Affairs.
In 1998 he was named director of Diocesan Planning, in addition to his other duties.
He was named Prelate of Honor to His Holiness Pope John Paul II, or monsignor, in 2001.
In 2002 Msgr. Hemberger was named chancellor, moderator of the Curia and vicar general.
In 2003, when Bishop Thomas Olmsted was named the ordinary of the Diocese of Phoenix, Msgr. Hemberger was elected diocesan administrator. He served in that role until April 2005, when Bishop Michael O. Jackels was named bishop of the Diocese of Wichita. Msgr. Hemberger was then appointed as vicar general.
After Bishop Jackels was named archbishop of Dubuque, Iowa, once again Msgr. Hemberger served as diocesan administrator from June 6, 2013, to April 30, 2014, when Bishop Carl A. Kemme was named to the Diocese of Wichita.
Msgr. Hemberger retired on June 11, 2014.