Bishop Raymond James Boland dies at age 82

Bishop Raymond James Boland, the beloved missionary priest who followed so many of his fellow Irish to the New World, eventually coming to a Kansas City suffering from the almost biblical flood of ’93, died Thursday in Cork in the old country.

Boland served as the fifth bishop and spiritual leader of the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph until he retired on May 24, 2005.

“I just felt, in some misguided fervor of my youth, that I wanted to be another St. Patrick or something,” he would reminisce about his emigration.

At 82 and suffering from lung cancer, the bishop emeritus quietly traveled from town Saturday, leaving a host of friends, admirers and his Catholic faithful to pray for him as he returned to the home of his youth for hospice care.

“It is obvious that God has blessed me in many ways,” Boland wrote in 2001. “For that reason, I would hope that my passing will not bring sorrow or pain to others because I will be sharing the happiness promised by the Lord of compassion and love.”

Father Pat Rush of Visitation Parish, who was vicar general under Boland, recalled him Thursday as “a very pastoral bishop who had a great concern for people and their needs.”

“A blessing for Kansas City,” was how Pat O’Neill, a public relations consultant who had long known Boland, described him.

O’Neill said Boland’s Masses, which he would say partly in Gaelic, were a link for Irish-Americans to their heritage.

Boland combined his Irish charm and sense of humor with management savvy to lead the diocese as the number of priests was declining and Catholics continued to migrate from the central city. He was known for his open style of management, his strong grasp of fiscal matters and his love of conversation.

“One does not have to be a genius to be a bishop,” he once said, “as long as one is smart enough to allow the Holy Spirit to do all the work.”

Boland succeeded Bishop John J. Sullivan, who retired for health reasons, and was in turn followed by Bishop Robert Finn.

“When I was appointed almost 10 years ago, Bishop Boland welcomed me warmly,” Finn said in a statement. “I quickly came to know him as a good priest, and joyful bishop, who was highly organized, and very fraternal. He had lots of stories and a great love for the Church...

“I enjoyed him and said on more than one occasion that it would be better (easier) to follow a man who was not so capable and well loved. But on the other hand, his love paved the way for many priests, lay faithful, and others (even me!) to persevere in following Christ.”

James P. Keleher, the retired archbishop of the archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas, recalled Thursday that he and Boland were installed on successive days.

“We became friends from the start,” Keleher said by e-mail. “We decided to try and do many more things jointly. We called together major Youth Events with thousands of young Catholics. We enlarged both the Knights and Ladies of the Holy Sepulcher as well as the Knights and Dames of Malta who undertook major projects to assist the poor and the sick and the needy. We worked to create an anointing service for healing of those in need.”

Keleher said Boland had a special gift.

“He became known to all of us that he could give homilies and talks that were carefully crafted with historical detail and presented with a delivery that was precise and evidenced an Irish eloquence that (was) marvelous to hear,” Keleher said.

“His recent illness he bore without complaint and when he saw the end coming he chose to return to his beloved Ireland. I and so many on both sides of the state line will miss him dearly.”

Boland arrived in the 27-county diocese as northwest Missouri was recovering from the flood of 1993. Instead of holding the traditional reception after his installation, Boland announced that the $12,000 to $15,000 earmarked for the affair would go to flood victims.

The bishop was seen as a very decisive, but gentle agent of change who faced one of the church’s greatest crises. Like so many bishops, Boland soon had to wrestle with the rising scandal of sexual misconduct by church employees.

In December 1993, in light of increasing national publicity about the issue, he held a news conference to pledge a policy of “zero tolerance” for priests who sexually abused children.

“When it’s established that a priest is an abuser he will not receive another assignment in this diocese or in any diocese, as far as I’m concerned,” he said.

The diocese said that nine years later, the U.S. bishops would also adopt the same “zero-tolerance” policy.

While the number of abuse revelations exploded across the nation, allegations of abuse committed years earlier by priests in the diocese began coming to light, leading to dozens of civil lawsuits and, years later, a $10 million settlement with victims.

By 2002, Boland had sought forgiveness for the past and pledged to be vigilant in the future.

Boland was candid about how the crisis had affected him.

“In 45 years as a priest and about 15 as a bishop, this is the only problem that I have lost sleep over, many, many nights,” he said. “There are many other crises in the church, and the church will survive. ... It’s taking a big hit, but it’s going to survive.”

In late 1994, Boland took a historic step by naming a layman as chancellor of the diocese, and a nun as vice chancellor. Previously those top advising positions had been held only by priests.

Under the bishop’s watch, the diocese was able to build, expand or renovate dozens of parish churches amid the booming ’90s. In all of his experiences and all his positions, he said he’d learned that the parish was “where the rubber meets the road.”

In 1999, he kicked off another capital-improvements campaign that resulted, among other things, in the improvement of Catholic high schools and the renovation of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception downtown.

Colleagues spoke of his collaborative management style. Boland worked with his counterpart across the state line, Archbishop James P. Keleher, in a cooperative arrangement on ministry to Korean and Vietnamese Catholics. The Missouri diocese developed the Vietnamese ministry, and the Kansas church worked on the Korean ministry.

“He was hugely responsible for the popularity of the Mass at the Kansas City Irish Fest,” O’Neill said. “We went from 400 people the first year to nearly 3,000 people. That was the magnetism and the Irishness of Bishop Boland.”

The eldest of the four sons of John J. and Gertrude O’Brien Boland, the bishop was born Feb. 8, 1932, in Tipperary, Ireland.

The family moved to the city of Cork where Boland was educated at the Christian Brothers College. Boland was a competitive athlete in his youth, playing rugby and a form of basketball.

His love of sports never waned. In his last months, he followed the Wichita State Shockers basketball team and enjoyed their brilliant run, said Rebecca Summers, who was communications director for the diocese under Boland.

As a young man, he had thought about teaching, but went to Dublin’s All Hallows Missionary College.

“He talked a lot about being in seminary in Ireland and the decision that led him there,” Summers said. “He had considered architecture and teaching. He was an avid student of history, so he would talk about various periods in time.

“You had a sense that this was someone who had been fully engaged in life,” Summers continued. “He grew up exploring the arts, culture and books.”

Summers recalled her sons once coming home from an event at Rockhurst High School and reporting they had seen “Uncle Bishop” in a ball cap in the library researching something.

She described him as a shy man, but a fine storyteller who “definitely came out when he had the end of the mike.”

Boland was ordained a missionary priest in 1957, leaving that year for the Archdiocese of Washington, which had a shortage of priests. He worked hard and fit well in the Washington area for 31 years — as pastor of several parishes, assistant director of the youth department, secretary for Catholic education, chancellor, vicar general and moderator of the curia.

He coordinated the state visit of Pope John Paul II to meet President Jimmy Carter in Washington in 1979. It wasn’t all official business. As a gift to their mother, he and his brothers flew their delighted mother from Ireland to receive Holy Communion from the pope himself.

Boland was named bishop of Birmingham, Ala., in 1988, a post he held five years before coming to Kansas City.

He served three years as chairman of the communications committee for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. In that capacity, he moderated press panels at the bishops’ semi-annual meetings. He also had been a member of the Nominations Committee and a consultant to the Pro-Life Committee.

Boland had served on the boards of Conception Abbey Seminary in northwest Missouri, the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, and the Eternal Word Television Network in Irondale, Ala.

Rush said that coming to Kansas City was an adjustment for Boland after serving in the Washington archdiocese so long.

“But he really fell in love with the people, which became obvious after he retired and stayed here for almost nine years,” Rush said.

In a trip to Ireland in 2001, by that time the survivor of one cancer operation, he chose his gravesite at St. Michael’s Church in Tipperary, where he was baptized.

Finn said that last week, Boland flew back one last time with his brother, retired Bishop Kevin Boland of Savannah, Ga., and died in a hospice center in Cork.

“I pray, confidently, that now he will hear God’s words, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! Enter into the kingdom prepared for you,’ ” Finn said.