Father Rene Robert, a Franciscan brother turned Catholic priest who retired to part-time service at San Sebastian’s church in St. Augustine, was well-loved in his community. On a Sunday afternoon in April last year, Fr. Rene visited a parishioner in the hospital. Then he disappeared. Four days later, the parish where Fr. Rene once served as an associate priest held a vigil for his safe return. On April 14, 2016, more than 600 people gathered at Sacred Heart Catholic Church to pray for him. Among them were his followers from St. Augustine’s deaf community, the Sisters of St. Joseph, peace and justice advocates, and scores of others whom Fr. Rene had helped over the years. While many suspected the worst, those who gathered could not have known that the missing priest was already dead, shot multiple times and left for dead in the Georgia woods.
The day before, police had found Fr. Rene’s blue Toyota sedan, which had crashed into a tree following a brief, high-speed chase involving law enforcement in Aiken, South Carolina. Hours later, bloodhounds tracked down the driver, who was also the prime suspect in the 71-year-old priest’s disappearance. Within hours of the vigil, Steven James Murray, 28, was arrested in Aiken County, about 45 minutes northeast of Augusta. The following Friday, Murray was extradited to St. Johns County.
Murray led police to Fr. Rene’s body the following Monday night. He’d left the priest’s corpse in a wooded area in Burke County, Georgia, about 45 minutes south of Augusta. Surviving Fr. Rene is his half-sister, Joan McAndrew of Cambridge, New York, and several nieces, nephews, grandnieces and grandnephews.
Murray, who has professed having “mental problems,” and whose family has confirmed drug addictions and formidable childhood abuse, had been seen in the priest’s presence on several days leading up to the older man’s disappearance. Parishioners say that Murray was one of the many downtrodden individuals whom
Fr. Rene endeavored to help.
When church officials retrieved Fr. Rene’s personnel file to contact family members about funeral arrangements, they found something remarkable: The priest had signed a “Declaration of Life.” The document, filed away two decades before, made clear that in the event he was murdered, Fr. Rene did not want the state to pursue the death penalty in the prosecution of his murderer.
The request demands Fr. Rene’s friends, followers and relatives undertake a task that many still find abhorrent: Work to spare the life of his murderer, Steven Murray, and forgive him.
A community in mourning finds its own pace, its own rhythm, says Father John Gillespie, parish priest at San Sebastian Catholic Church in St. Augustine. We are sitting in his small, book-lined office on a mild, spring day, talking about the life and loss of his friend, Father Rene Robert.
When the conversation turns to forgiving his fellow priest’s murderer, Fr. John is quick to advise:
“I wouldn’t start at a finish point,” he said.
Grief, both personal and collective, must come first.
“Those who are affected by the tragedy, their responsibility is to grieve in a healthy fashion,” Fr. John said, noting that a sudden death like Fr. Rene’s complicates the healing process.
“Friends attempt to assume responsibility. That’s part of a healthy society, for friends to think, ‘I cared for him. Why couldn’t I save him?’”
For the priests at San Sebastian’s, that sense of responsibility hit hard. Fr. Rene had a reputation for giving away money, and for lending his car to near-strangers; he’d then walk home in the dark of night, sometimes miles, often from desperately poor, risky neighborhoods.
“We told him for 25 or 30 years, ‘You’re going to get yourself killed,’” Fr. John said.
But Fr. Rene’s Franciscan devotion to the poor won every time. The Franciscan Brotherhood values simplicity, nature and aiding the poor. It’s a devotion that, for Fr. Rene, spanned more than five decades. Just after graduating from Catholic Central High School in Troy, New York in 1962, Fr. Rene entered the Conventual Franciscan Brothers Seminary in Watertown, New York. He made his vows as a brother three years later. In committing his life to service, he never expected to be ordained as a diocesan priest.
“Rene probably felt almost guilty having money that he didn’t really need. Anything beyond that would be for somebody else,” Fr. John said. “He would wait for someone with that need and conclude that’s who God wanted to have that money.”
The same applied to Fr. Rene’s car. Routinely, Fr. Rene would leave the building after eating dinner at the parish, only to walk back inside and ask, “Could someone drive me home?” His practice, Fr. John explained, was to leave his keys inside his car in the church parking lot in case someone else needed to use it. After dinner, the car would be gone.
Fr. John doesn’t recommend that everyone serve in the way that his friend did. “Care for the poor but do it in a way that is authentic to yourself. Don’t do what Rene did.”
Fr. Rene’s fellow priests worried about his risk-taking, but they also admired it. “In many ways, that is the thrust of the Gospel that Jesus came to teach us,” Fr. John said.
“He trusted God more than I trust God. He’s a prophetic figure. Prophets make everybody—clergy, social workers—uncomfortable.”
And, he added, despite all their warnings that the unthinkable could happen, “It didn’t happen for 30 years.”
Steven Murray had been released from jail in Jacksonville, news accounts say, prior to when Fr. Rene began helping him. Fr. Rene’s work with prison inmates and ex-offenders had grown from his work with the deaf community. Fluent in sign language, he would routinely visit jails and prisons when they needed an interpreter. Often, he would get to know inmates’ families.
But the majority of his ministerial life was dedicated to serving deaf people, Fr. John says, recalling Fr. Rene’s service as Chaplain at the Florida School for the Deaf & the Blind in St. Augustine.
“Of all who suffered loss, nobody suffered more than the deaf community,” Fr. John said. “They’ve expressed their pain clearly and repeatedly. They are bereft of the attention of a priest.”
While there are other, non-clerical sign-language interpreters, Fr. John says, “It’s not quite the same.”
Veronica “Roni” Fiolek, whose 26-year-old daughter had attended FSD&B off and on since elementary school, agrees that Fr. Rene’s loss is devastating. Over coffee at DOS Coffee & Wine in St. Augustine, Roni explains that a priest fluent in sign language is irreplaceable for deaf churchgoers. She signs to her daughter, Ashley, as she speaks.
“Looking at a priest and not an interpreter is a huge difference,” Roni says.
Many of the Catholic students at FSD&B, who hail from all over the state, have grown up going to church, she explains, but without sign language interpreters.
In the school chapel, Fr. Rene brought church to life for deaf students. The children in his Catholic formation classes would gather at the altar for juice-and-cracker communions, as he signed prayers and songs with them.
“He voiced and sang everything,” Roni said. She was recruited by Rene to help with classes in 1998, and volunteered at the school for several years afterward.
The Fiolek family agreed to have their youngest child baptized at the FSD&B chapel so the students could watch. While students had undoubtedly seen baptisms at their home churches, this one was different.
“They got to see the words connected this time,” Roni said.
Before Rene, Roni had always been “a little afraid” of priests. But Rene was easy-going and funny. “He would tell jokes all the time.”
He also was adamant about her participation in mass. At San Sebastian’s adult services for the deaf, he insisted that Roni help interpret. “He pulled you in. I was afraid to approach it, but he said, ‘No, no, you’re capable, you need to.’
“He’d just grab me and make me do the talking and signing,” Roni said, referring to their times at the school chapel.
Encouragement from Fr. Rene was hard to resist. “His expression was warm and friendly even if he was chewing you out, trying to convince you to do something,” Roni said.
Ashley, who was born deaf, met Fr. Rene when she moved to St. Augustine at age 8. She is now a retired motocross champion, and works to get more girls and women involved in the sport. She signed her interview responses to her mother, who interpreted.
“I was so shocked because he could sign. He was so helpful,” Ashley said. “He was an amazing guy.”
He taught her that competency in life can take you only so far.
“Father Rene helped me to focus on my faith. He taught me to pray to God to keep me safe,” Ashley said, signing. “[Motocross] racing is dangerous. He helped me to trust God. I do my thing and the rest I leave to God. Father Rene helped me be that person.”
Fr. Rene would often joke with Ashley about her becoming a nun, and wouldn’t take “no” for an answer when he asked her to help with communion.
“He was fun,” Ashley said.
The mother and daughter recalled how Fr. Rene would provide carnival tickets to the students for the Cathedral’s annual festival and rent a van to take them there. It was a ritual the children looked forward to every year.
Fr. Rene served deaf people for 50 years, having begun his ministry with the deaf in 1966 in the Diocese of Albany, in
his home state of New York. Later, he obtained advanced degrees in deaf education. He was part of the deaf community in St. Augustine for more than three decades, and helped build San Sebastian Church, one of the area churches that ministers to deaf parishioners.
“The deaf community really needs someone who understands their culture,” Fr. John said. “Rene understood and appreciated that.”
His understanding was particularly important for students being confirmed and taking their First Communions, Fr. John said. The most challenging task for deaf students was having them make confession as part of their training—which is nearly impossible without a priest fluent in sign.
Roni says the Catholic education program at FSD&B has dwindled since Fr. Rene’s death. “We can’t replace him at all. I worry about the Catholic deaf community.”
But she’s clear on her calling to keep serving, and plans to go to Miami to interpret a student’s confirmation. “Father Rene would have driven down,” she says. “I know he would pester me to do it.
“You can’t say ‘no’ to him. Even now. I know what he’d do. He’d go to that mass and he’d interpret.”
As for Fr. Rene’s request that his murderer’s life be spared, Roni is less certain.
“I struggle with it. I’m still angry,” she said. Roni says she always thought of herself as being against the death penalty—until Fr. Rene’s murder. “He’d done so much for that man.”
She couldn’t bring herself to sign the petition, circulated among her fellow parishioners, to spare Murray’s life.
“I didn’t sign it. I don’t want to see anyone put to death, but it’s very, very hard,” Roni said. “I’m still not sure how I feel about it.”
Ashley was still coping with the shock of Fr. Rene’s murder. “I couldn’t believe it,” Ashley said, signing. “Why would it happen to him? Especially him. He’d help anyone
Nancy O’Byrne worked with Fr. Rene on social justice issues. She chaired the Diocesan committee on Justice and Peace for 13 years, and crossed paths with Fr. Rene regularly: in prisons, on death row, in their mutual work with the homeless, in their work teaching young people nonviolence. She took to the streets of St. Augustine and Jacksonville with Fr. Rene to protest executions in Florida.
“We started execution vigils all across the diocese. He was one of the faithful clergy members who showed up,” she said. “They [other priests] admired him but didn’t have the courage that he had to take a strong stand on these issues.
“We have a long-held belief on respecting life,” she said. And when it came to Fr. Rene’s stance on the death penalty, “He strongly believed that this was included—and it is.”
“He not only was standing up against the death penalty, but he would reach out to
ex-offenders, prisoners, to homeless people—he was dong the thing that others were just too afraid to do. He believed that God was going to be his rock and his security. We’re all so afraid of taking risks but he wasn’t. He just wasn’t afraid of the things most people are afraid of.”
O’Byrne says that finding Fr. Rene’s “Declaration of Life” 22 years after he signed it was miraculous in light of the way he left the Earth. But it was perfectly in keeping with his character to ask, in writing, for his loved ones to fight to allow his would-be killer to live.
“I think Fr. Rene wants us to fight the death penalty now more than ever. I don’t doubt it one minute. That is the good that comes from this,” she says. “We stop putting people to death and we start trying to rehabilitate and start trying to address mental health issues. There’s a whole list of things we need to be doing besides killing the killers. And he believed that, too.”
O’Byrne understands her fellow parishioners’ anger, and that it’s not directed at only Fr. Rene’s killer. Others have expressed loving frustration with the priest himself, for behaving recklessly.
“It was shocking that it was happening,” O’Byrne said, recalling the days that Fr. Rene was missing, before his body was recovered. “But then people would say ‘he just took too many risks.’
“I kept saying to people, he wouldn’t be anywhere else. That just wasn’t him. He didn’t play it safe. I can’t fault him for that. It’s what he believed in.”
Like Fr. John, O’Byrne acknowledged that Fr. Rene’s unconventional ways of serving others worked for decades. “He had a pretty long run at it.”
She remembers the press conference held by St. Johns County Sheriff David B. Shoar, with Fr. John at his side, before Fr. Rene’s body was found. News accounts confirm that Shoar knew the priest personally; Shoar is a parishioner at St. Anastasia’s Catholic Church in St. Augustine where Fr. Rene often helped out. When reports of his murder reached her, O’Byrne was as angry as anyone else.
“Of course I was at first angry that this person wasn’t more loyal to Fr. Rene, who was really just trying to help him, and how ungrateful he must have been. But then I saw him [Murray] on TV … They were bringing him into the courtroom. He looked into the camera and he smiled. I knew then the man was not in his right mind.
“I think he was high on drugs and mentally imbalanced,” O’Byrne speculated.
“It was then I decided there’s no reason to stay angry at someone who wasn’t in their right mind and who didn’t understand the ramifications of what he’d done.”
But O’Byrne believes that there are other reasons the justice system should spare Murray’s life. She echoes other death penalty opponents: The death penalty is not a deterrent to murder, it’s not pro-life, it’s very stressful for the victim’s family, and it’s expensive. (See “Cruel and Unusual Punishment,” Folio Weekly, Sept. 16, 2015.)
Fr. John, while acknowledging the deeply held pro-life convictions of the Catholic Church, brought up the financial argument during a press conference on the subject in Georgia. On Jan. 31, on the steps of the Augusta-Richmond County Courthouse, he stood with numerous other priests from Florida and Georgia, as well as Bishop Felipe Estévez from the Diocese of St. Augustine and Bishop Gregory Hartmeyer from the Diocese of Atlanta, to deliver Fr. Rene’s message to prosecutors.
“I was there to save the people of Georgia $4 million,” Fr. John said, referring to the average cost of carrying out a single death penalty sentence.
He recites the tenets of his church that support life, and says that one mark of civilization is a justice system that rejects the actions of vigilantes. “We have rejected personal vengeance. The hallmark of society is to reject personal vengeance.”
But he cautions against abrogating the process that the criminal justice system has laid out, which simultaneously allows
Fr. Rene’s family and others time to grieve him. “Never ask the people who are victimized for the solution,” Fr. John says.
“If I’m being honest, I don’t have a lot of compassion for Steven Murray at the moment. But I see where I’m going,” Fr. John says. “Part of me is already there, part of me is coming more slowly off the mountain.”
According to Fr. John, Fr. Rene’s friends and followers still have to work through the feelings that tell them, in light of his death, “I’ll be damned if I help anyone again.” They have to listen to each other’s stories about the man, how he helped so many different people, and reaffirm the values that he stood for before they can reanimate those values. They’re working, in effect, to resurrect Rene in their own lives.
The pastor likens a community to an organism: The antidote to sadness and doubt—the immune response—is found somewhere in the group.
Reassembling memories of Fr. Rene is part of the healing, he says. “We tend to tell those parts that are more acceptable, more humorous, more self-affirming for us.”
At the one-year anniversary memorial mass for Fr. Rene, people gather at San Sebastian Catholic Church to share their memories of the man. One parishioner shares a story about Fr. Rene always leaving people’s homes with leftovers after dinner. Many other attendees had privately professed to Fr. John, “I’m the one Fr. Rene would bring that food to.”
There was the time that a church member rode with Fr. Rene in a car that had no seatbelts. When she warned him it was dangerous, he said, “You sit there quietly, and pray.” Quiet laughter warms the congregation.
Sister Loyce, from the Sisters of St. Joseph, has fond memories of seeing Fr. Rene ride up to the sisters’ retirement residence on a bicycle. “In 60 years of service to the church, he’s the only priest I knew who came to do mass on a bicycle!”
And when he didn’t have a bicycle, he’d walk. When Sister Loyce’s twin, Sister Joyce, was in the hospital, he walked two miles to visit her.
“I still feel anger,” Sister Joyce says during the anniversary memorial service, “but I know I have to forgive.” The Lord doesn’t want
Fr. Rene’s murderer to die without grace, she explains. She calls for prayer, so the murderer can live.
“He was a healing priest,” her twin, Sister Loyce, declares. “His outreach was tremendous.”
The sisters aver that Fr. Rene was a “martyr to charity,” because he was murdered while trying to minister to someone who needed his help. And they believe in the miracles a grandmother professes in the wake of Fr. Rene’s death. Her daughter, who was paralyzed after a stroke caused her to give birth prematurely, has completely recovered. And, after eight days of prayer to the imperfect but saintly priest, the daughter’s newborn baby, thought to be completely deaf, became sensitive to some sound during the third round of medical tests.
A year later, the grandmother says, baby Abby is “singing back to me.”
During communion, a gentle guitar accompanies a small choir singing, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” After communion, Fr. John prays for Fr. Rene to make his desire for healing known, solemnly cautioning the congregation that we are bound to adhere to his calling.
The ceremony is all part of what Fr. John described in his office, weeks before. It is only after the community comes together to heal their loss—to revivify the deceased, in effect—that they can begin to understand the transformation that their loved one’s passing asks of them.
“These are the steps we have to creep through to ultimately feel compassion for Steven Murray.”