Robert M. Kearns

The Josephite priest led two West Baltimore parishes and was an early supporter of the BUILD program in the city.

December 12, 2008|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

The Rev. Robert Michael "Rocky" Kearns, an activist Josephite priest who had headed two West Baltimore parishes and been an early supporter of Baltimore United in Leadership Development, died Saturday of cancer at a hospital in Mobile, Ala. He was 72.

Father Kearns was born and raised in South Boston, the seventh of eight children. After graduating from Nazareth High School in 1950, he entered the Society of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart, the Josephites, a Roman Catholic order whose work is largely with the African-American community.

In 1963, he earned a bachelor's degree in philosophy from St. Joseph Seminary in Washington and was ordained a Josephite priest.

Father Kearns attended the University of Minnesota and Loyola University in Chicago, where he earned a master's degree in urban studies in 1966.

"From 1968 through 1982, his assignments were in the District of Columbia, where his leadership was well-known and respected," said the Rev. John F. Byrne, a Josephite priest and friend.

Father Kearns came to Baltimore in 1983 when he was named pastor of St. Pius V Roman Catholic Church in West Baltimore. He then became area pastor for both St. Pius V and St. Peter Claver parishes.

After 1990, Father Kearns focused only on St. Peter Claver.

"His pastoral efforts helped the city and church reach some major advances in the rehabilitation of housing for the poor in Baltimore," Father Byrne said. "He was active with BUILD [Baltimore United in Leadership Development] and its spinoff, Build Enterprise Nehemiah Development Corp, a housing initiative."

Father Kearns was also actively involved with the Catholic Committee for Urban Parishes, the Baltimore Urban Parish Study and Planning Process, and many other diocesan and civic organizations.

He had served as president of Quarter Way Houses Inc., which operates substance abuse centers in Govans and on Maryland Avenue.

"He was one of the early religious leaders who got his congregation involved with BUILD," former Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said yesterday. "He was a tireless advocate for improving the quality of life along the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor. He truly believed that things could get better."

He described Father Kearns as having a "magnetic personality" and said that "people were always drawn to him because of his work."

He recalled Father Kearns' wide and welcoming smile.

"He always had a smile on his face and a cheery disposition, even when he was talking to drug dealers who were only a stone's throw away from his church," Mr. Schmoke said.

The Rev. Michael J. Roach, pastor of St. Bartholomew Roman Catholic Church in Manchester, became acquainted with Father Kearns while serving as pastor of another West Baltimore church, St. Peter the Apostle Roman Catholic Church.

"Rocky never lost his South Boston accent, and he never shied away from the fray," said Father Roach. "He was a sterling leader and never afraid of the street. He was a can-do man, and I always had great respect for him."

In 1984, three masked gunmen broke into the St. Pius V rectory and demanded money. After an associate priest was pistol-whipped, Father Kearns told the gunmen that the money from Sunday's Masses had already been deposited in the bank.

When the gunmen persisted and became agitated, he told them where the poor box was, but only after lecturing them that the money they were about to steal was to be used to buy food and Christmas presents for 200 needy West Baltimore families.

After the thieves fled with $200 in alms, Father Kearns told The Sun that at first he was "incredulous and angry" but that "God will provide in some way for us" to care for the needy.

Less than a year later, he was threatened again, this time by a razor-wielding robber who burst into St. Peter Claver.

He and nearly a dozen parishioners helped subdue the intruder, who was later charged with three counts of attempted murder and three counts of attempted robbery.

"There is a fear that paralyzes you and a fear that helps you to know you have to react," Father Kearns told The Evening Sun. "Nobody was passive. Even the ladies were throwing chairs."

Father Kearns left St. Peter Claver in 1995 when he was elected Superior General of the Society of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart, which has its headquarters in Baltimore.

During his tenure, he oversaw the building of a Josephite retirement facility in Baltimore and a new faculty residence at St. Augustine High School in New Orleans.

After completing two terms, Father Kearns was named pastor of St. Brigid Roman Catholic Church in Los Angeles in 2003.

From 2007 until his death, Father Kearns held missionary assignments at St. James Major Parish in Pritchard, Ala.

A Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 11 a.m. tomorrow at St. Peter Claver, 1542 N. Freemont St., with interment in New Cathedral Cemetery.

Surviving are a brother, Clement Kearns of Boston; and two sisters, Doris Kearns and Rosemary Kearns McDaniels, both of Boston.

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