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“Kind,” “caring” Msgr. Lawler retiring as Vicar General

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He is described in affectionate superlatives.

Kind. Gentle. Caring. A trusted confidante.

He is also a good storyteller.

The Rev. Msgr. Robert L. Lawler, 82, will retire March 31 as vicar general for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Ogdensburg, a position he has held since 1994. A quiet and unassuming man, he chose not to comment on his decades-long career with the diocese.

But his friends and diocesan colleagues were more than happy to.

“He is the most kind and gentle man I have ever known,” said the Rev. Douglas J. Lucia, pastor, St. Mary’s Catholic Church, Canton. “I always admired his patience. He always has time to talk to people.”

Colleen E. Steele, administrator of St. Joseph’s Home, Ogdensburg, which the monsignor was key in developing and where he continues to preside over daily mid-morning Mass, considers him family.

“Obviously, we see him as part of St. Joseph’s Home,” she said. “He’s one of the kindest men I’ve ever met. The residents remember him.”

Msgr. Lawler was born Nov. 9, 1930, in Oneonta. He studied for the priesthood at Wadhams Hall Seminary College, Ogdensburg, and Catholic University of America. He was ordained to the priesthood on May 19, 1956.

In serving Bishops Paul S. Loverde, Gerald M. Barbarito, Robert J. Cunningham and Terry R. LaValley, he has held numerous diocesan positions. He retired in June 2012 as pastor of St. Mary’s Church, Waddington, and St. John the Baptist Church, Madrid.

That kind of jack-of-all-trades willingness to serve his diocese has never gone unnoticed or unappreciated.

Just ask Bishop LaValley.

“In that (Vicar General) position, he has served as the closest advisor and confidante to the last four diocesan bishops,” he said in an emailed message. “My three predecessors and I have been richly blessed by Monsignor’s wise counsel and cherished friendship. On two separate occasions, this devoted and well-respected priest was elected to lead the Diocese of Ogdensburg as the diocesan administrator when the diocese was awaiting the naming of a new bishop. The Church, indeed the entire north country, is indebted to Monsignor Lawler for his continuing priestly ministry among us. We thank God for leaders such as he whose love of Jesus is reflected in his great care and concern for the vulnerable among us.”

Sister Jennifer L. Votraw, SSJ, the diocese chancellor, planner and director of communications, says the monsignor is regarded as “a saint” by many of the other sisters.

“He’s a good man,” she said. “He’s a well-respected man.”

The monsignor, Sister Votraw added, has an extensive knowledge of the diocese’s history.

And then some.

“He could always tell a good story,” she said.

Msgr. Lawler’s successor as vicar general, Rev. Joseph A. Morgan, rector of St. Mary’s Cathedral, has high praise for his friend’s dedication to the diocese.

“Msgr. Lawler has served with distinction over the course of these many years,” he said. “His fine work and ministry with Catholic Charities for decades and the pastoral care he has extended to his parishioners over the years has been second to none. He has a wonderful way of helping people draw close to the Lord and experience the love of God in their lives.”

The monsignor, Rev. Morgan added, “has also served as vicar general for four of our bishops and during two times when we were without a bishop, the College of Consultors asked Msgr. Lawler to serve as diocesan administrator. This speaks volumes about the high regard in which he is also held by his brother priests. Always a gentleman, Msgr. Lawler continues to be a priest who serves others. He regularly offers Mass and the sacraments at St. Joseph’s Home.”

Rev. F. James Shurtleff, pastor, Notre Dame Church, Ogdensburg, agrees.

“He is a very kind and caring person,” he said. “He has a great concern for the needy.”

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