Fr. Rabe was drawn to the faith through literature

By Beth Donze, Clarion Herald

Father David Rabe, whose conversion from atheism to Catholicism ultimately led to his ordination to the priesthood at age 36, was remembered at his funeral Mass as a brilliant scholar and pastor who had a special love for the poor, elderly and infirm.

Father Rabe, a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, died May 21. He was 72.

“His ‘yes’ was a true testament to how there is a lot to be learned about what the Holy Spirit can do to someone’s life after being raised secularly. He had a totally secular upbringing,” said Melanie Saunee, who worked as Father Rabe’s DRE from 2010-15, the years of his final pastorate at St. Anthony of Padua Church in Luling.

“He did not take his baptism lightly,” Saunee said. “He always said that if you can accept that God became man, then you can accept any other teaching of the church, such as real presence.”

Read St. Thomas Aquinas

Born on May 12, 1947, in Kansas City, Missouri, Father Rabe was raised as the son of a prominent surgeon in Leavenworth, Kansas. The family of three children claimed no religious affiliation.

As he was earning his undergraduate and master’s degrees in English literature at Kansas University in Lawrence, Father Rabe enrolled in humanities classes that instilled wonder and sparked truth-seeking in students by teaching them the “Great Books” of classical literature. Until the college-age Rabe was introduced to the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, he would quip that his only exposure to Catholicism was when “the Catholic children would come to school with ‘dirt’ in their foreheads on Ash Wednesday.”

When a fellow humanities student gave Rabe’s name to a local Catholic pastor – so they could probe further into the faith – the unchurched Rabe feared the priest might show up on his doorstep unannounced, in the fashion of a Jehovah’s Witness. As a pre-emptive strike, the inquisitive Rabe enrolled in the priest’s parish-based “Inquiry Classes,” the precursor of today’s RCIA program.

Within days of concluding his studies, the 22-year-old was baptized Catholic.

Recruited by Abp. Hannan

Rabe was two years into theological studies at St. Patrick’s College – a seminary in Thurles, Ireland – when visiting New Orleans Archbishop Philip Hannan encouraged him to transfer to Notre Dame Seminary. The persistent archbishop got his wish, and Rabe was ordained to the local priesthood on May 14, 1983. Enriching his formation was a summer at Yale studying Latin, and a licentiate in sacred theology from the Angelicum in Rome.

During his nine years as Notre Dame’s moral theology professor, Father Rabe earned a reputation as the seminary’s go-to bibliophile. His love for the writings of William Shakespeare led him to co-found a discussion group called The Groundlings.

Father Patrick Williams, vicar general and pastor of St. Pius X Church, remembers taking an elective Father Rabe taught in 1989 called “The Moral Imagination.”

“He said he only taught it because he wanted an excuse to re-read ‘The Divine Comedy’ by Dante,” said Father Williams, paying tribute to his late professor’s “keen intellect” and passion for the classics during the homily of Father Rabe’s May 27 funeral Mass at St. Anthony Church.

A friend to the poor

Father Rabe’s diocesan assignments included serving as associate pastor at St. Clement of Rome in Metairie, parochial vicar of St. Cletus in Gretna and parochial administrator of Our Lady of Prompt Succor in Westwego. His pastorates were at Our Lady of Prompt Succor in Westwego, and a dual assignment as pastor of both St. Anthony and St. Mark in Ama.

Saunee said Father Rabe was particularly supportive of St. Anthony’s CCD and youth programs, and adamant about establishing a food pantry, now called St. Anthony’s Manna, on the parish plant.

“If we ran out of food to give to (the needy), he would give cash out of his own pocket and he never expected any reimbursement for it. He would carry around $5 bills to give to the beggars on St. Charles Avenue!” Saunee said, recalling that whenever the parish staff would tell Father Rabe he was putting his life at risk by handing out money on the streets, he would shrug his shoulders and say, “Well, if it happens, that’s how a priest is supposed to go.”

Dedicated to visiting seniors

In his final months at St. Anthony, impaired by failing eyesight and the effects of a stroke, Father Rabe tenaciously accompanied parishioner Susi Zeringue on her rounds around Luling to take Communion to the homebound.

“I just felt so good to see how he responded to the people as well as their response to him. He was so compassionate with these homebound, and the homebound really looked forward to his visits,” said Zeringue, who also helped Father Rabe set up the altar for the weekly Mass he celebrated for the elderly residents of Luling Living Center.

“He got to know them personally,” Zeringue said. “He would call each one by a special name and hug them. He knew their stories.”

His other special ministries included hearing the confessions of the incarcerated at Hahnville’s Nelson Coleman Correctional Center and serving as spiritual director of S.A.V.E., a provider of post-abortion counseling, and on the board of New Orleans Right to Life.

“He saw God in everything around him,” noted Kerry Hotard, St. Anthony’s administrative assistant, recalling how the lives of the saints – and the power of God’s mercy in those biographical accounts – often would bring Father Rabe to tears.

“He saw the beauty in all of God’s creation – in nature, in music, in the talents of others,” Hotard said.

Father Rabe is survived by two nephews: Josh and Christopher Rabe. Interment was at St. Louis No. 3 Cemetery.

Father Rabe’s service to the church included a leave of absence from New Orleans to care for his ailing parents. During that time, he was a parochial administrator at four churches in the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kansas.

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