February 22, 2017
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2013 as part of the “Paths to the Priesthood,” a series exploring Paulist priests’ vocation stories.
Sometimes a person’s passion for a specific vocation in life fades. This may be especially true for a vocation to the priesthood or religious life, but that is definitely not the case for Father Robert Rivers, CSP.
“I always wanted it,” said Father Rivers, 66, whose priestly calling started at age 5. “My idea of the priesthood has changed a lot over the years, but I’ve always wanted to be a priest.”
Father Rivers grew up in predominantly Polish, predominantly Catholic section of Winona, Minn. He and family – including four brothers and two sisters – attended St. Stanislaus Kostka Church and the parish school. Young Robert was an altar server and went onto attend Cotter High School, the Catholic high school in Winona.
He studied at St. Mary’s College before attending the North American College of the Gregorian University in Rome from 1965-69. He was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Winona on Dec. 20, 1968 at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Parish ministry beckoned the young priest, and Father Rivers served at St. Joseph the Worker Church for one year, and then it was off to serve St. Thomas More Church. He then became a college chaplain at Mankato State University.
Coming from a large, close family in a rural area was not a place where one could live in community, Father Rivers said. Priests in his diocese were a lone-wolf operation, and he “wanted a sense of community commitment and collaboration.”
After six years as a diocesan priest, the Paulist bug bit Father Rivers. He first became familiar with the Paulist in Rome through the Paulist-staffed Santa Susanna Church and through a retreat given by former Paulist president and Vatican II veteran Father Thomas Stransky. Father Rivers also knew the Paulists through their work at St. Lawrence Parish and Newman Center in Minneapolis. It also helped that a colleague of his was the cousin of Paulist Father John O’Keefe and that he knew the family of Paulist Father Thomas Ryan.
It seemed all roads were leading to Paulists.
Then, Pope Paul VI issued the encyclical on evangelization in 1975, and Father Rivers was hooked.
“This is the work I wanted to do … I wanted to carry out the work of evangelization” said Father Rivers. “This is what the Paulists do, so I began thinking about becoming a Paulist myself.”
Father Rivers made first promises with the Paulists in 1976, and began his Paulist novitiate experience in 1977 with 21 other men at Mount Paul in Oak Ridge, NJ. Because he was already ordained, he ministered at St. Joseph Hospital in nearby Paterson. Father Rivers also ministered in Toronto and in the Italian community in Chicago before making final promises with the Paulists at St. Austin Church in Austin, Tex., in 1979.
In 1979, Father Rivers became pastor of St. Paul the Apostle Church in Greensboro, NC, which served the Catholic community at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and its surrounds. The West Coast would beckon in 1986, and Father Rivers’ next assignment was as pastor at St. Paul the Apostle Church in Los Angeles until 1984.
Ten years later, Father Rivers would be called to national ministry, and began serving on the staff of the Paulist National Catholic Evangelization Association based in Washington, D.C., in 1994. At PNCEA, Father Rivers assisted in developing the hugely successful Disciples in Mission program, and other evangelization-based programs, materials and missions.
Unfortunately, Father Rivers suffered a stroke in 2006. After his recovery, Father Rivers could minister in a limited capacity, so he moved to Boston to help out at the Paulist Center, and specifically the New England Outreach Center. In that capacity, Father Rivers gives missions and develops programs for parishes and dioceses throughout New England and beyond focusing on evangelization, St. Paul and Sacred Scripture.
“Being a priest is being a people person who can bring meaning and faith to people’s lives through ministry,” he said.