Monsignor Robert Gara's
Friday, June 16, 2000 - St. Rita's
Click here for
photos from before and after the service.
If you would like to post
a story or anecdote about Fr. Gara, or just say a few words, please e-mail
me and I will post it on this page. This page (and your quotes/stories)
will remain in perpetuity, allowing you to post new thoughts on his birthday,
the anniversaries of his death, etc.. Scroll down to see what others
Here is the unedited text
of the article I submitted to the Sierra Madre Weekly. It is my understanding
that an edited version will appear on the cover of this week's issue.
Special thanks to Fran DeRuyter for her assistance in the preparation of
A crowd estimated by Sierra Madre Fire Chief Ed Tracy
as being in excess of 1000 people showed up to honor and pay their last
respects to the former pastor of St. Rita’s Catholic Church. Monsignor
Robert Gara died June 10th at the age of 79. Ironically, Msgr. Gara’s
passing occurred on the 55th anniversary of his ordination in Ireland,
at the Cathedral in Waterford. His funeral service was presided over
by Cardinal Roger Mahoney. The mass was celebrated by more than 50
members of the clergy who participated in the service, with reports of
nearly 2 dozen other members of the clergy in attendance as well.
Cantor Peter Vecchio led the attendees in song, accompanied by Organist
Mary Cronin. Hymns included Msgr. Gara’s favorites, including “Come,
Holy Ghost, Creator Blest”, a hymn that was part of the service at his
ordination, and "Holy God, We Praise Thy Name". Cardinal Mahoney noted
that “You knew where you stood with Msgr.
Gara, there were no lights and
shadows.” He went on to state that while he may have had a “rough
exterior, inside he was a big teddy bear.
After retiring in 1988, Monsignor Gara continued
to work until the day of his death, even stopping on the third floor of
the Arcadia Methodist hospital to visit an ailing parishioner prior to
going down to the Emergency Room to seek treatment for himself. Unfortunately,
he did not survive. Cause of death was an abdominal aneurysm which
Monsignor Gara was born in Dublin on Nov. 4, 1920.
He had one sister, and his mother died when he was only 3. A few
years later his father remarried, and he and his new wife provided him
with another brother and sister. His brother has passed away, but
he is survived by his two sisters in Ireland and 22 nieces and nephews.
Five of those nieces and nephews were able to attend the service at St.
Rita’s; there will be another memorial Mass in his honor in
Wicklow in Ireland, for the Irish family and friends.
Among the many wonderful traits cited by those who
knew Monsignor Gara was his humility. Though he attained the rank
of Monsignor in 1984, if you asked him his name, his response was Father
Gara. And that is how he will be referred to for the remainder of
this article. Fr. Gara attended high school in
to attending St. Nathes College in Roscommon. From there he moved
to St. John’s Seminary in Waterford. He said his first mass on June
11, 1945, the day after his ordination. The following day, he left
for his first assignment at St. Leo’s in Watts. This church was ultimately
torn down to make way for the Harbor Freeway.
The next 14 years saw him draw many assignments
at various churches around Southern California, among them San Marino,
St. Felicitas, Perpetua, Nativity and St. Clement. In 1959, he was
named administrator of Holy Family in Orange; where he finished the building
of the church that later became the Cathedral of Orange. He was sent
to Pomona, where he built St. Madeleine’s Church and School. He went
on to Yorba Linda and built St. Martin’s in 1970. It was in Yorba
Linda, prior to the building of the Church, that he and current St. Rita’s
pastor, Msgr. Joseph Cokus performed baptisms in the front yards of their
parishioners, with neighbor’s looking on. Msgr.
Cokus, who delivered
the homily at Fr. Gara’s service, recalled that they discussed that this
type of setting must have been what the early Catholic Church services
were like, and they recalled these days as both spiritual and special.
He came to St. Rita’s in 1974, was named Monsignor
in 1984, and retired from administrative duties in 1988. But Fr.
Gara remained extremely active in the parish, saying the daily morning
mass (followed by coffee with friends, who are now keeping a seat open
in his honor), presiding over numerous weddings and funerals at the request
of parishioners, and hearing confession. He also visited the sick
and infirm throughout the community and in local hospitals, providing confession
and communion for those unable to attend services.
Fr. Gara had the ability to turn the simplest conversation
with a wayward Catholic into a desire to return to their faith. His
spirituality was foremost, as even his will, more often used exclusively
as a legal document for distribution of estate, included a thank you for
the gift of the priesthood.
Evidence of his effect on the town of Sierra Madre
can be found in many areas. As the procession moved from St. Rita’s
to Pioneer Cemetery for the burial, people lined the streets with heads
bowed. At the City Council meeting following his passing, City Council
Members noted his passing, and the loss to the Community. Unofficial
“town historian” Phyllis Chapman noted that though she was not Catholic
and did not know him as well as others did, “If you want to talk about
a person who has done more to unify this town, and bring it together as
a community, that was Fr. Gara.”
Fr. Gara chose to be buried in Pioneer Cemetery
instead of one of the clergy sections of larger, more prestigious cemeteries
because it was his hope that the people who knew him in town would see
his grave and stop to say a prayer for him. In honor of Fr.
the Cemetery has begun plans to create a memorial to him that will include
a map of the plots in the Cemetery, allowing visitors to find the memorial
they are looking for. Plans for the memorial are in the beginning
stages, look to this paper for more information as it becomes available.
Fr. Gara and his contributions to Sierra Madre and
its residents cannot be measured, and we mourn his passing, celebrate his
life, and can only hope to live up to his expectations for us.
Quotes/Thoughts/Remembrances of Fr. Robert Gara
Cardinal Roger Mahoney - "You always knew where you stood
with Fr. Gara. There were no lights and shadows." "He was a
good and wonderful man. He may have had a rough exterior, but inside
he was a big teddy bear."
Sierra Madre City Councilman Doug Hayes at the June 12th
City Council meeting - "You couldn't talk to Fr. Gara without having a
Phyllis Chapman - "If you want to talk about a person
who did more to unify this town, and bring it together as a community,
that was Fr. Gara."
Marilyn McKernon - "He loved a good, I think they call
it a donnybrook, a spirited debate. And of course Bill was happy
to oblige. I remember there were times when we would be at dinner
and he and Bill would go at it and people at the tables around us would
be looking at us to see if everything was going to be okay. Sometimes
he would set people up for them. I remember one time when a meal
was over and he sat back with a great big smile and said "There's nothing
like a good scrap over dinner."