ANDERSON — He’s taking his canoes with him. That, and a whole lot of books. He’s got everything packed upon his truck, and he’s headed for fresh waters.
Along with him, the Rev. Father Robert Williams will carry the love and well-wishes of the community he’s shepherded for 29 years.
Better known simply as Father Bob, the beloved pastor of St. Mary’s and St. Ambrose Catholic churches in Anderson heads tomorrow for Delphi, Ind., the new parish to which he has been assigned.
While it’s a tough departure for his congregations to handle, the man leaves a legacy of empowerment with them.
“It’s a big change for us. He’s just been an absolutely wonderful pastor for us,” said Pat Marstall of St. Mary’s. “He really is a model for a servant….He taught us that well – how to serve the poor and reach out to those that are marginalized.”
During his almost three decades in Anderson, Father Bob was a key player in many outreach ministries that have impacted the community including the sick, the aged, the imprisoned, and the hungry.
Second Harvest Food Bank is just one example of Father Bob’s local impact. Lois Rockhill, now-retired executive director of the organization, said that Father Bob’s participation really helped to grow Second Harvest.
“Father Bob was an integral part of it. At the start, it was difficult to find our place… It was very good to have him on our board during that time," said Rockhill.
At the same time, Father Bob was diligently ministering in the prison, serving meals through The Christian Center, making hospital visits, teaching classes on immigration, serving at the Community Justice Center, and more.
“His spirituality has increased the whole spirituality of the church,” said Mary Ann Nivens, who serves as director of the Rites of Initiation of Adults at St. Mary’s. “His love of people, especially the poor — he’s always been a savior of the people.”
Anderson’s Hispanic community has been an area of particular focus for Father Bob. He said that in embracing the Hispanic community here, it has been a matter of integration, not assimilation. “They bring their customs, language, culture, food. I see that as an enrichment in the parish. I make a conscious effort to welcome them with their customs.”
That included the incorporation of bilingual Masses.
Oralia Martinez heads up Hispanic ministries as St. Mary’s and has witnessed Father Bob’s impact.
“He took time to learn Spanish. You won’t hear him boast about it, but I think he speaks better Spanish than I do — because he wanted to be able to communicate,” said Martinez.
“In every aspect of living he has been able to be there for the Hispanic community…. People feel that we have someone who can help us, someone who can advise us.... He treats people with dignity and compassion no matter who you are or what walk of life you come from.”
'Dedication to priesthood'
Father Bob was a founding member of the Floricanto Center established about 10 years ago to help Hispanic members of the community, many of whom are far from home or family. Griselda Garcia was also a founding member.
“We are going to miss him. He’s been here so long and been such a blessing for all the community, but especially the Hispanic community,” said Garcia.
Father Bob’s shoes are big ones to fill. Monsignor Robert Sell, Vicar General of the diocese, has been assigned to oversee the two parishes. Father Mark Walter will serve as associate pastor at St. Mary’s. The bilingual priest is already on site learning the ropes from Father Bob.
“I see him as a priest with enormous dedication for pastoral care for the sick,” said Walter. In addition to the many trips to hospitals, nursing homes and the homebound, Father Walter has watched Father Bob in the sanctuary. “That dedication to his priesthood is definitely something I will take from him as he leaves for his new assignment.”
Father Bob was ordained to the priesthood 45 years ago, and served at Indiana parishes in Muncie, West Lafayette, Medaryville and Francesville, and Hartford City before landing in Anderson. Now, at age 70, he is downsizing a little as he takes up pastoring in Delphi.
“It’s going to be a whole different lifestyle,” Father Bob said. That means he might just have a little more time to indulge in things he likes to do like reading and oil painting. Delphi residents will also likely see him out canoeing the waters of the Wabash River. He’s been canoeing since 1969.
Father Bob will head for Delphi in his new used truck. His parishioners purchased the vehicle as a gift to replace the one he’s been driving "forever."
The congregation is struggling with Father Bob’s departure, but they’re celebrating today with a farewell party at St. Mary’s from 1 to 4 p.m. Nivens said that Father Bob’s 93-year old mom may be part of the festivities Sunday, making the trip from Kokomo.
“Anybody’s welcome to come and say goodbye,” said Marstall.
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