Fr. Robert Sandoz, OFM

Fr. Robert Sandoz, OFMThe fourth of six children, Fr. Bob Sandoz, OFM, recalls his childhood in Omaha, Nebraska as a “simple life. It was very routine. You went to school every day. My father went to work and my mom was a stay-at-home mom.” On Saturdays, Bob went to music school, which included piano lessons, music theory, and clarinet lessons.

The Sandoz family owes its Nebraska roots to Bob’s grandfather, who came to the United States from Switzerland and wanted to farm at a time when the Homestead Act was still in effect. Although Bob’s own father did not continue the family farm (he worked as a printer), the family remained in Nebraska.

Growing up in such a large family had its advantages. “There was always someone around, and it was always a lot of fun.” His fondest childhood memory was Christmas when he was 7-years-old. “I got a sled for Christmas. It was a … uh … a something ‘Flyer’ and my father took me sled riding. That was fun.”

Of course, a large family also had its drawbacks. “Whenever we went anywhere, we went as a mob. If we went out for dinner, you needed six or seven chairs, and if you added a grandparent, you were up to eight or nine.” He says his neighborhood itself was like a “Catholic ghetto.” Although there were only about five kids that he “ran with” on a regular basis, there were about 100 children living on the same street. Bob said of himself, “I was a brat. I was between two sisters, and I constantly teased them. Of her three sons, my mother still can’t believe I’m the priest.”

Bob had priestly aspirations from the time he was in grammar school. “There was a Benedictine monastery near our home and I wanted to be a Benedictine monk. When I hit adolescence, I sort of forgot about those things—things religious.”

Apparently, however, God would jog his memory through an accounting teacher in high school who asked him what he was going to do after he was graduated. When Bob said he was going to attend the University of Nebraska to study music, she said, “Oh, I always thought you would be a priest,” and for whatever reason, she told him there were some priests near the university that he should visit when he got there. They were Franciscans, and the rest of the story follows a predictable progression.

After one year of study, at the University of Nebraska, Bob began attending Our Lady of the Angels Franciscan Seminary in Quincy, Ill. In 1975, he took his initial vows while continuing his music studies. By 1977 he had earned a bachelor’s degree in music from the University of Saint Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. In his spare time, Bob enjoys hiking, and his favorite spot in New Jersey is High Point State Park. With both short and long trails, he can always find one to fit his time constraints. “They’re great views. You can see for great long distances. And there are very difficult areas and very flat areas,” as well.

According to Bob, people hike for different reasons. “Some people are weather freaks. . . I’m a tree freak. I love trees.” One of our parishioners appropriately gave him a New Jersey tree identification guide, which he sometimes takes to identify the trees he sees along the way.

Although he likes hiking, his ideal day would be on a beach in Aruba. As to whether that would include an umbrella drink, “Oh, yeah!” he said. Bob also enjoys reading and listening to music. The things he chooses to read and listen to depend on his mood. “You know how sometimes you get in the mood for a certain food, and you can eat it day after day for a week? Well, sometimes I get Tchaikovsky deprivation, and I’ll listen to Tchaikovsky for a week. I do the same thing with my reading. When I met James Michener (in a class he was teaching), I read through all of Michener, and when I met Maya Angelou, I read all of Angelou. I guess I’m a groupie.”

When it comes to music, sometimes it’s classical. “I find the order and predictability enjoyable. Other times, I want to crank up the radio” with opera and “scream my head off.” And there are “still some rock groups that make some social commentary. I like that.”

Bob says the easiest thing about being a priest is “being with people”; the hardest thing, “being with crabby people.” He enjoys ministry more than any other part of the job–“people letting me into their lives – sharing very significant experiences.” The worst thing is that when you’re a priest “sometimes people don’t allow you to be a full human.”

Showing this human side came easily to Bob as he related his most embarrassing moment. He was playing in the marching band at the University of Nebraska when somebody wound up in the wrong spot, and Bob got hit in the nose with the slide of a trombone. “It broke my nose, and I had to go to homecoming with a broken nose.” If he had to be something other than a human being, Bob said he would like to be “a fish because I love to swim. Bird would be a close second. It’s the tree thing again.”

Had he not become a priest, Bob says, he’s not sure what he’d be doing. Maybe he’d be a teacher because that’s what he studied to be, but he couldn’t be sure “because the world has changed so much.”

Bob’s first ministry as a Franciscan was in fact in high school education where he taught music, literature and religious studies in Cleveland, Ohio. Part of the reason he became a teacher was because he had many good teachers himself. Bob said he had a favorite teacher and then he added, “but I can’t remember her last name – it was Sr. Carol, though. Nuns didn’t have last names back then,” he said with a smile. Then with a wistful look he said, “Sr. Carol taught me sophomore English, and when I was editor of the yearbook, she was yearbook moderator. She taught me how to write. She taught me different styles of writing.”

After his ordination in 1986, Bob spent another five years in high school education. Along the way, he had already earned a master’s in education administration from St. Louis University, after which he completed his master of divinity in word and worship at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.

Bob still uses his teaching skills here at Holy Angels, often team teaching adult faith formation classes for those involved in the various ministries at Holy Angels with Fr. Greg Gebbia, OFM. Bob says he hopes to advance the spirit of stewardship at Holy Angels. “That would be the most significant contribution I could make to lay spirituality,” he said. With this in mind, he said that the one person he might like to meet, if it were possible, is St. Peter “because he was a companion of Jesus, and he was the one who set the vision for the new community. I think we need a new vision for community today.”

Before coming to Holy Angels, Bob had many other community experiences. From 1991 to 1994, he brought his talents to the Saint Francis Retreat Center in Rye Beach, N.H. It was here Bob said he learned about “community building and discernment of spirits” while preparing conferences and talks on “the qualities and characteristics of the Franciscan person.”

After the closing of the retreat center in 1994, Bob was assigned to Providence, R.I., where he assisted in the establishment of the St. Francis Chapel and City Ministry Center, which included a Catholic bookstore, a clinic, counseling services and other outreach ministries. There he honed his skills in education administration, liturgy and music as he served in the capacities of director of liturgy, director of development, vicar of the community and assistant director of chapel ministries.

His last assignment before coming to Holy Angels was as parochial vicar at St. Francis Parish in Raleigh, N.C., a lively, active parish, which was excellent preparation for his appointment as pastor at Holy Angels in 1999. Bob said he likes New Jersey, and he enjoys the cultural diversity. He then added that despite the jokes about New Jersey around the rest of the country, he thinks it’s a beautiful state and deserving of its nickname, “The Garden State.” Of Holy Angels itself, he said, “I like the vitality of the parish. People have a lot of ideas.” Then he added, “I never have enough time to do everything I have to do.”

— This essay was written in 2002 when Fr. Bob was serving at Holy Angels Church in Little Falls, N.J. It later appeared in the September 2002 issue of The Anthonian magazine.