Father David Maher wore his cross from Madonna House on his heart.
It symbolized that he had emptied himself, renounced all attachment to earthly possessions and learned to live and pray like the poor people of that secluded Catholic community in Ontario, Canada.
“I have to go out like the Prophet Jeremiah, and say, ‘The Lord has been good to me. I’ll be good to you,’” Fr. Maher stated in 2015, shortly after visiting the Madonna House community.
“I’m not a saint,” he would tell friends who tried to puff him up. “God has some work left to do on me.”
Fr. Maher, 74, a retired priest of the Jefferson City diocese, who had ministered in Marshall, Hannibal, Canton, LaGrange, Kirksville, Taos, Jefferson City and California, died on Nov. 10 in Westphalia.
The concelebrated Mass of Christian Burial was celebrated on Nov. 15 in the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Jefferson City, with Bishop Emeritus John R. Gaydos presiding and Father John Groner preaching the homily.
A Memorial Mass was celebrated on Nov. 16 in St. Joseph Church.
Burial was near his parents in the Slater City Cemetery.
Voice of reassurance
Friends remember Fr. Maher as soft-spoken, self-effacing, deeply spiritual and fully committed to the priestly ministry he had been summoned to from the moment of his baptism.
Like one of his role models, St. Pio of Pietrelcina, who bore the wounds of Christ but kept them covered, Fr. Maher bore his sufferings cheerfully, even through the progression of Parkinson’s disease.
“No matter what happened, Fr. Dave looked for the good in whatever another person was doing,” observed Fr. Groner, a seminary classmate and longtime friend.
“He was a very kind and gentle man,” said Mary Jo Hitz, who worked with Fr. Maher when he was pastor of St. Peter parish in Jefferson City.
“He was a happy priest who loved his vocation,” said Pat Lehr, who worked with him at Mary Immaculate parish in Kirksville. “And we knew he loved us — in his words and smile, his laughter and hugs, his encouragement and deep acceptance, his faithful presence and even in his tears with us.”
“He shared Christ’s example of what He wants us to be,” said Mary Jo Henke, a member of St. Francis Xavier parish in Taos.
“His voice was calming, loving,” said her husband, Keith. “If we knew what Jesus sounded like, I think Fr. Dave would be pretty close.”
Fr. Maher was born on April 7, 1945, in Kansas City, one of 10 sons of the late Vincent and Gabriella (Spellman) Maher.
Growing up two blocks from St. Joseph Church in Slater, he served at Mass often and rang the Angelus bell three times a day.
Sensing early in life that God was calling him to Priesthood, he attended St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary in Hannibal and continued at Conception Seminary in Conception.
On June 5, 1971, in St. Joseph Church in Slater, Bishop Michael F. McAuliffe, now deceased, ordained him to the Holy Priesthood.
“1971 was a good year for me,” Fr. Maher once recalled during a visit to his hometown. “I began my life as a priest that year, but I started out many years before that by serving here and being part of this community.”
He ministered as associate pastor of St. Peter parish in Marshall for three years before the bishop sent him to pursue a master’s degree in religious education from The Catholic University of America.
Upon returning, he served for 18 years as a member of the faculty and formation team at St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary high school.
For the last three of those years, he was also pastor of St. Joseph parish in Canton and the Notre Dame mission in LaGrange.
He was then appointed director of the Kirksville Newman Center, pastor of the St. Rose of Lima mission in Novinger and associate pastor of Mary Immaculate parish in Kirksville.
Fr. Maher then served as pastor of the Kirksville parish; then of St. Francis Xavier parish in Taos; then St. Peter parish in Jefferson City; then Annunciation parish in California.
Having been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, he retired from active ministry in 2013 and moved to Westphalia Hills Senior Living in Westphalia.
That became his parish. He continued offering Mass and administering the sacraments.
“Fr. Maher was such a comfort for the sick,” Kelly Harden Meyer commented on the diocesan Facebook page. “His visits made a big difference in their lives.”
“Be always little!”
Fr. Groner believes Fr. Maher’s visits to Madonna House over the years helped focus his worldview and relationship with God.
“The simplicity of life, the giving up of everything, including yourself, to God — I think that influenced him a lot,” said Fr. Groner.
Visitors to Madonna House receive a loaf of bread, a jug of water, a Bible and a small, secluded cabin with enough firewood to stay warm.
They read, meditate and pray in silence.
Some who stay longer also help cultivate the land and keep the community running.
In the process, Fr. Groner noted, “you give up yourself for God. You surrender everything — riches, building yourself up, saying you’re dependent on anything except God.
“I think that’s the way Fr. Dave lived,” he said.
Both priests once made a pilgrimage to Italy. There, they visited the monastery of St. Pio of Pietrelcina — commonly known as Padre Pio — who had not been declared a saint yet.
“Fr. Dave knew all about Padre Pio from his research,” Fr. Groner recalled. “I think his example added to Fr. Dave’s character and spirituality. Like, ‘Don’t build yourself up. You’ve got to be humble before the Lord.’
“And I think that whole idea of bearing the wounds of Christ but not letting them be seen — I would say Fr. Dave was like that,” said Fr. Groner. “He bore a lot of pain and suffering, but he would never, ever complain.”
He was also a “doggoned good computer genius” who in the early 1990s could assemble components into powerful machines and connect to what would come to be known as the Internet.
“He was way ahead of his time in computer technology, and he used it for the good,” said Fr. Groner.
Vocation to love
Fr. Maher arrived in Kirksville at a difficult time in Mary Immaculate parish’s history.
“He helped us heal,” said Ms. Lehr, the parish’s director of religious education. “His joy and laughter healed us. His delight in life and serving in little ways healed us. Being around a happy priest was salve for the soul.”
Fr. Maher quickly chose a quote from St. Thérèse of Lisieux to be the parish motto: “Our Vocation is Love.”
“It appeared in our bulletin week after week, month after month, and it formed us in subtle ways over the years,” said Ms. Lehr. “When all else might be confusing, difficult or conflicting, we returned to our essential call: to love — yes, imperfectly, but with tenacity.”
He was quick to acknowledge and even joke about his mistakes and shortcomings.
He was a master of appreciating people and helping them feel appreciated.
“He cherished the creative talents of others,” said Ms. Lehr. “He loved music and art, literature and computers. He was a connoisseur of beauty and pointed it out in others as well as all that’s around us.”
“Keep bouncing back”
As soon as Fr. Maher arrived in Taos, Keith and Mary Jo Henke recognized his humility.
He brought calm and reconciliation to St. Francis Xavier parish during a time of tumult and discord.
“Coming from a big family, I think he was raised to be aware of others and to not want anyone to feel left out,” said Mrs. Henke. “He brought what his parents taught him to his parish family.”
In confession, he was fond of telling people that to be human means making mistakes.
He more or less advocated for having “a rubber posterior” in order to “just keep bouncing back up” and moving forward.
Mr. Henke’s brother died of a sudden heart attack on April 7, 2009.
It was Fr. Maher’s birthday, and the priest and his brothers were celebrating in the rectory.
He dropped everything and went to the hospital.
“I can’t think of a single thing Father said that night,” said Mr. Henke. “It was just his presence. It was very comforting.”
Father Roberto Ike, administrator of St. Andrew parish in Holts Summit, pointed to a widening chasm among members of American society.
“And Fr. Dave was a bridge,” stated Fr. Ike, a priest of the diocese of Okigwe, Nigeria, who lived for seven years in community with Fr. Maher in the Taos rectory.
“He harbored no prejudice against any human being,” said Fr. Ike. “He loved God, and he knew that you cannot be a lover of God while not being a lover of the people He created.”
He said Fr. Maher exemplified unity and reconciliation and was “an example of a man who genuinely worked to include everybody.”
He said Fr. Maher embodied sincerity, honesty, genuineness and faithfulness, not only to his priestly calling but also to his interior relationship with God.
“He had the strength and disposition to accept things in life that he could not understand or change,” said Fr. Ike, “because he believed that was how God meant for it to be.”
In word and deed
Fr. Maher was a fearless traveler and an avid reader.
He loved his Irish heritage, especially its literature and culture.
He often prayed for the heavenly intercession of St. John Vianney, patron saint of parish priests.
“Fr. Maher was a hero to me as he truly embodied what I believe Jesus to be — kind, merciful, gentle, loving,” said St. Francis Xavier parishioner Paula Sanning. “He preached the Gospel through his actions.”
Preceding him in death were his parents and a brother, Terry Maher.
Surviving are eight brothers: Patrick, Phil, Dennis, Paul, Bill, Dan, Tom and Bob Maher.