By Jennika Baines
Sun Associate Editor
Father Donald J. Bauer died Nov. 28 at St. Joseph’s Nursing Home in Utica. He was 87 years old.
Father Bauer grew up in West Utica and attended Sacred Heart Church. He came from a hard-working family and it was this background that prepared Father Bauer to commit his adult life to issues of workers’ rights, civil rights and the Respect Life cause.
As a young priest in 1965, Father Bauer participated in the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala.
“That walk from Selma to Montgomery was a real moment in his life that was very, very strong,” said Father Donald Karlen, a retired priest who was a good friend of Father Bauer’s.
But Father Karlen said that few people know that when a woman was shot and killed during the march, Father Bauer travelled to the funeral home where her body was taken. “His first concern was ‘Did anybody give her the last rites?’” When he arrived at the funeral home, staff there told him he should leave because the woman had already died. “And he said, ‘She has a right to the last rites and I’m not leaving until she gets them.’ So he camped out there.” When the funeral home saw that he had no intention of leaving, they allowed him to deliver the last rites.
“That’s typical Bauer,” Father Karlen said, laughing. “When they said he couldn’t, he said, ‘Oh, yes I can.’”
This devotion to rights and freedoms came to be a defining characteristic of Father Bauer’s ministry as a priest. It would lead him to fight for labor unions and civil rights.
He picketed for workers’ rights at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Utica, St. Joseph’s Hospital in Syracuse, St. Peter’s in Albany. He also picketed at Niagara Mohawk power company, at the telephone company, even at Matt’s Brewery in Utica so that African Americans could have the right to work there.
“Father Bauer was very strongly committed to living out the social teachings of the church,” said Father Joseph Salerno, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes in Utica. “He lived the Gospel as authentically as he could.”
This was a sentiment shared by Bishop Thomas Costello.
“He put himself on the line. He had the courage of his convictions,” Bishop Costello said. “Wherever there was a labor dispute, you could count on him to be there on the side of the workers.”
Father Bauer was arrested and jailed several times for his protests. During a speech at his 50th jubilee, he commented that if one had to choose a place to serve time, the prison in Watertown, N.Y. is probably the best. He served 30 days there for trespassing at a Planned Parenthood.
“He had compassion for people who were hurting no matter who they were, no matter where they were,” Bishop Costello said. “He was especially good to priests who were suffering.”
Father Bauer offered his friendship to priests who struggled with their vocation and to those who had resigned. “I know for a fact that he followed up with them and just kept the door open, hoping he could help them return to ministry,” Bishop Costello said.
Father Bauer maintained contact with former priests who had moved around the country and would offer to visit with them if he was traveling through their area. “There were a couple of priests that I knew of who fell on very bad times and I know he personally, when they died, paid the cost of their funerals,” Father Karlen said.
Father Bauer was also a popular confessor for priests who would take a great deal of time with penitents and would share thoughtful reflections with them. “He never just let you go,” Father Karlen said. “He always gave you a little something to build you up.“
In addition to his work for social justice, Father Bauer was also dedicated to welcoming new people into the Catholic faith. For a while, he appeared on a show on WTVH-5 with Msgr. Jack Shannon.
Father Paul Drobin, Newman Chaplain at Utica College and SUNY Tech in Utica, said that Father Bauer had a wonderful sense of humor, an exceptional ability to turn a phrase and was a master tactician.
At Father Bauer’s funeral, Bishop Costello joked that when Father Bauer took out his pipe he always had a few matchbooks with him because he when he got the pipe out, it was a sure sign he was settling in for a lengthy discourse.
“If someone disagreed with Father Bauer — as many did — he would never take offense at that or take it personally. Nor would he lessen his conviction just to appease someone,” Father Drobin said. “He was a real gentleman.”
Father Bauer was ordained in 1948. He was associate pastor of Our Lady of Pompei in Syracuse, St. Therese Parish in Syracuse, Most Holy Rosary Parish in Syracuse, Holy Trinity Parish in Syracuse, St. Patrick’s Church in Syracuse, Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Utica and St. Paul’s Church in Utica. He served as pastor of Corpus Christi Church in South Onondaga and St. Patrick’s Church in Clayville. In 1972 Father Bauer worked for Catholic Charities. He then worked as the religious consultant for the AFLCIO Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America.
He was pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Utica, administrator St. Mary’s-St. Paul’s Parish in Florence and Redfield, and pastor of St. Helena’s Church in Sherrill. He also served as a temporary administrator and was in residence at parishes around the diocese from 1981 through his retirement.
Father Karlen said that it was difficult to watch Father Bauer’s struggle with Alzheimer’s Disease, but there were still moments in the final months when his old friend seemed to be “typical Bauer.” On a visit to the nursing home, Father Karlen said, “‘Don, would you like to go for a little walk from Selma to Montgomery?’ and he perked right up,” Father Karlen said.
Father Bauer’s funeral Mass of Christian Burial was celebrated Dec. 1 with Bishop Robert J. Cunningham and Bishop Costello. Interment was in St. Mary’s Cemetery in Clayville, N.Y.
Those wishing to make a donation in Father Bauer’s memory are asked to consider making a donation in his memory to the Carmelite Sisters of the Aged and Infirm or the Fund for the Care of Sick and Retired Priests.
Father Bauer often had business cards printed up to hand out when he met someone new. The last card he had printed as he moved to St. Joseph’s nursing home was, Father Karlen said, “typical Bauer.” It read:
“Need help to get to heaven? To stay sober? To have peace with your spouse? Kids? Boss? Quiet priest: Father Donald Bauer. Call anytime (not collect).”