Msgr. Robert Roh will celebrate the 50th Anniversary of his Ordination to the Priesthood on July 11, 2015. To recognize and commemorate this blessed event, a parish potluck dinner with the meat, drink and table service being provided, is being planned for 4 p.m. Sunday, July 12 at Prichard Auditorium. Also, plans are to have the new FC Sacred Heart Activity Center open from 1-3:30 p.m. that afternoon for anyone wishing to take a tour of the facility.
By Jason Schock
Just days after the 2014-15 school year came to a close and three days prior to reading his final “official” Holy Mass, Msgr. Robert Roh pauses while packing up his belongings in the Sts. Peter & Paul Catholic Church Rectory, motions to the massive book case that entirely eclipses two living room walls, and shakes his head at the daunting idea of relocating his substantial personal library.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do with those,” he says. “They won’t fit in an apartment.”
Fifty years after his ordination and more than a quarter of a century serving as Senior Pastor at Sts. Peter & Paul and Superintendent of FC Sacred Heart School, Msgr. Roh openly and enthusiastically discusses all that has transpired. Early life on a farm near Abie, Nebraska, the difficult internal challenges he once struggled with, as all young seminarians and/or priests do, his schooling in Rome, fishing, football and, mostly, friends and family. That’s what he’s most fervent about: the relationships forged with Sacred Heart students, faculty and church parishioners since June of 1988.
“Honest to God, we have great people here,” he says. “This has been an amazing assignment for me. Everyone has been really good to me. Its all truly been a gift.”
He cares deeply for the people who welcomed him into the community with such warmth he practically refused to leave after he’d promised he would never stay. Msgr. Roh is officially retired and looks back on all of it fondly — reluctantly, he looks forward.
“The most disturbing thing is getting ready to move out of this house after 27 years; I guess (the books) are the least of my worries.”
A former Sacred Heart faculty member and one of Roh’s many proteges, Fr. Thomas Dunavan, has taken over his mentor’s official duties and has moved into the Rectory Roh called home for nearly three decades.
As he did just prior to his arrival in Falls City on June 10, 1988, Msgr. Roh immediately followed the compass north to fish in Canada after his work was officially done. “It’s a good way to bookend it,” he said. Meanwhile, between the two Canadian fishing expeditions, Msgr. Roh officiated over 106 marriages, 473 Baptisms and 435 funerals, taught hundreds of students religion and philosophy and molded countless boys and girls into the best hurdlers and pole vaulters in Nebraska. Msgr. Roh talks less enthusiastically about what lies ahead, as opposed to what he now must — to at least some degree — leave behind.
He hardly saw it coming.
In the summer of ‘88, a rather disgruntled Fr. Roh drove some 1,600 miles to Red Deer, Canada to fish (coincidentally, a Falls City bunch, including eventual close friends he hadn’t yet met, like the late Ron Keller and Don Coupe, had departed from a trip of their own just days before Roh’s arrival).
This time, he’s not driving so far north, nor is he disgruntled. But neither is he willing to devote the rest of his days in search of gill-bearing aquatic animals. Msgr. Roh has more to teach, more to give – so while he accepts his directed assignment from his Bishop, he does so with some reluctance and perhaps even a hint of defiance.
As it was in the beginning, so shall it be in the end.
In the early 1960s, when Bishop James V. Casey thought it best the candidate for ordination study four years in Rome, Robert Roh, then in his early-20s, thought otherwise.
“I sent him a tastefully written letter about why I should stay in the United States,” Msgr. Roh said.
Bishop Casey wrote back: “Dear Mr. Roh, If you want to continue to study in the Diocese of Lincoln, you’ll be on board this ship, in this harbor, at this time, and so on,” Msgr. Roh recalls.
“I remember looking up at the Statue of Liberty as we sailed under it, eyes filling up with tears. Then I looked at all my classmates – they were crying even harder! We all felt the same way.”
They were bound for a solid four years of instruction, all of which, including the tests, would be delivered in the Latin language. There were no furloughs or holidays and when a flash flood wiped out the Roh dairy farm, Italy was as far away from Abie, Nebraska, as planet Mars.
“I was there a year when I got a telegraph that a seven-foot wall of water took everything,” he recalls. “House, tractors, everything.”
“It was a real challenge for me. At first, it never was, ‘that’s what I’m going to be.’ It was, ‘I’ll try it another year.’”
Early on, I thought about getting out, but when I overcame that fight, I put this ring on my finger,” he said, pointing to his left hand. “For better or worse, because it’s not a question of, ‘Am I happy or not?,’ it’s a question of, ‘Am I faithful?’”
Half of his 60 classmates and four of his five best friends would eventually quit the priesthood.
He became Fr. Roh on July 11, 1965, at the Church of the Twelve Apostles, after three years of study, one of six ordained early (the other 54 finished in December). He spent the fourth year earning the equivalent of a Master’s Degree in theology.
“It was the best thing I ever did,” Msgr. Roh now says of his time spent in Rome. “I traveled a lot – Poland, Ireland, Czechoslovakia. It was a great experience; I didn’t see that at first.”
Upon his return to the States, Rev. Casey approached the new young priest.
“You know, we had clashed – he said, ‘Robert, I can’t believe I’m making you a priest. You’ll do a good job – now go do it,” Msgr. Roh says.
Roh returned home to celebrate his first Mass in 1966 at his home parish, Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church in Abie. He spent two years at St. Joseph’s in Beatrice, serving as a priest, teacher and getting his first taste of coaching. From Beatrice, Fr. Roh moved to the Diocese headquarters with newly installed Bishop Glennon P. Flavin in Lincoln for one year.
“It was a tough year,” he said. “I was behind a desk or steering wheel and had no opportunity to build a relationship with a flock.”
That job didn’t give me people and Bishop Flavin knew what I was saying,” Msgr. Roh said. “I was the only one in the Diocese who got reassigned under Bishop Flavin. I appreciate him understanding that I had to be around people.
Rev. Flavin did, indeed realize it and sent Roh west, to St. Cecelia’s in Hastings, to began work on a degree in education administration and then to serve as a full-time teacher and coach at David City Aquinas. In 1975, he became pastor at St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Bellwood, where he would serve for 13 years. He was settled and content.
“A priest gets attached,” he said. “Seldom does a guy in our Diocese stay somewhere for more than six years.”
After finishing work on his administrative degree at Creighton, Roh received the call he didn’t want, this time from Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz. Next stop: Falls City.
“I really, really liked where I was. I tried to make (Rev. Bruskewitz) promise me it’d be three years, max. I guess 27 years is the answer to that,” he said.
“It didn’t take very long to get used to Falls City,” Msgr. Roh said.
Falls City quickly became home. So much so, when he was offered the Superintendent’s job back at Hastings St. Cecilia a handful of years later, he turned it down. And though he’s long planned to return to the Roh Farm in Abie upon retirement, he no longer considers that “home.” Falls City is home.
“I do look forward to being in the classroom more and spend time with the students – and not need lesson plans,” he joked. “They’re going to see me around a lot. I will probably come to all the daily Masses and do a lot of substituting. Everyone is telling me I’ll be busier than I was before.”
Msgr. Roh will continue to coach pole vaulters and hurdlers, too, as long as his health allows.
“I love teaching,” he said, “and really like our teachers. They’re great people who are in it for the kids. When I’m with them, they make me better,” he said.
Msgr. Roh first considered becoming a priest at a retreat his senior year of high school, and even turned down a full-ride football scholarship from then Wyoming Coach Bob Devaney, as well as a walk-on offer from Nebraska. His indecision about the priesthood ended at Benedictine in Atchison, KS.
It was while living in Atchison when he also learned a most valuable life lesson.
He ministered to and befriended and elderly black man, whom he visited weekly.
“He was delighted to have me down and each week I really looked forward to meeting with him,” he said. “One day he tried to give me something – I don’t know what it was, money, or some kind of gift. I didn’t want to take it. Then he raised his voice – it was the only time he ever raised his voice at me and I was shocked.
“‘When someone wants to give you something, you take it,’” he told me. “‘They’re trying to show you that they love you.’”
In that case, Thank You, Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz.