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Monsignor Robert L. Lawler dies at 83

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The Rev. Msgr. Robert L. Lawler, a well known and respect member of the Roman Catholic community throughout the north country, died at St. Joseph’s Home, Ogdensburg, Thursday. He was 83.

Msgr. Lawler served the Catholic Church for over 60 years, the majority of which he spent helping people throughout the region.

“This man of God was dearly loved by all who knew him,” Bishop Terry R. LaValley said Friday in an emailed statement. “I am personally grateful for his wise counsel, generous spirit, inspiring priestly witness and cherished friendship. He will be greatly missed.”

After graduating from Oneonta High School, he attended College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts for a year, then studied at Wadhams Hall Seminary, Ogdensburg, for three years beginning in 1949.

The Rev. Richard Sturtz was a classmate and lifetime friend of Msgr. Lawler. They met at College of the Holy Cross.

“We were always very close,” Father Sturtz said. “I felt responsible for a time for him being a priest. What a wonderful man he was and a blessing he was. On Tuesday, we talked about our early days, and both of us said our priesthood was very happy and fulfilling.”

Rev. Sturtz said Mgsr. Lawler gave up a career teaching English at seminary to study social work, which led to his later work with Catholic Charities.

“I think I wouldn’t be a priest if it weren’t for him,” Rev. Sturtz said. “He kept me on the straight and narrow. He was a wonderful priest and great friend.”

The Rev. Msgr. Harry K. Snow remembers being a student at Wadhams when Msgr. Lawler would visit, years after he had finished his studies.

“I first met him in 1969,” Rev. Snow said. “He was a frequent visitor to the hall. He served as confessor and readily came to the seminary to visit friends and faculty. He was a confidante for many seminarians and well-respected.”

Msgr. Lawler served his first years in the priesthood as assistant pastor at Holy Family, Watertown, where he was also appointed assistant secretary of Catholic Charities.

“Those first years were very stressful,” Father Sturtz said “He was in charge of establishing nursing homes across the north country. We often talked about it, but he was up for the challenge.”

In 1957, Msgr. Lawler became executive secretary of Catholic Charities in Ogdensburg and worked with St. Joseph’s Home.

He was made papal chamberlain in 1967 with the title of monsignor, and in 1976 he was named hrelate of honor of His Holiness.

During his tenure with Catholic Charities, he served as diocesan director, where he was an outspoken advocate for health care and increased welfare benefits.

“He was very generous of those in need of his support,” Msgr. Snow said. “He was always there to promote their best interests.”

He oversaw the construction of 43 apartment complexes for low-income families and the elderly before 1986. That same year, Msgr. Lawler won the Catholic Charities Caritas Award, given annually to those who exemplify a spirit of love and charity.

Msgr. Lawler was named a protonotary apostolic in 1995, the highest honor that can be given to a monsignor.

He held administrative positions with the diocese under Bishops Paul S. Loverde, Gerald M. Barbarito, Robert J. Cunningham and LaValley.

“The tremendous love and respect that the priests of the diocese had for Monsignor was evidenced when, not once, but twice, he was elected to lead our diocese as diocesan administrator when we were without a bishop,” Bishop LaValley said.

He retired in June 2012 as pastor of St. Mary’s Church, Waddington, and St. John the Baptist Church, Madrid.

On March 31, he retired as vicar general for the diocese, a position he has held since 1994.

Msgr. Snow, who is Msgr. Lawler’s successor to the Waddington and Madrid churches, said Msgr. Lawler will be greatly missed by both communities.

“He was a very revered pastor in terms of his deep care and concern for people,” Msgr. Snow said. “He was the kind of person who epitomized two kinds of love throughout his life and work: the love of God with all your heart and strength and love your neighbor as you love yourself and God.”

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