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Rev. Msgr. Kenneth W. Roeltgen

Deceased: 2002-04-07


Seminary Graduation Year: 1979

Monsignor Kenneth W. Roeltgen, 54, the pastor of St. Stephen Martyr Catholic Church in Washington who was known by his peers as a “priest’s priest” for his combination of charisma, humor and compassion, died April 7, 2002 at Sibley Memorial Hospital.

“Father Ken,” as he preferred to be called, was making preparations to assume a post at Church of the Annunciation in Washington when the cancer that had gone into remission two years ago returned. He celebrated Easter Mass last month before being hospitalized.

As the rector of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., from 1988 to 1997, Monsignor Roeltgen was known nationally as a successful advocate for the priesthood at a time when the number of young Catholic men pursuing religious lives was in decline.

At one of the largest seminaries in the nation, he presided over the education and investment of more than 200 priests from more than 40 dioceses across the country, many of them from the Washington and Baltimore regions. Monsignor Roeltgen initiated programs of screening and testing that were among the first of their kind in the Catholic Church.

He was said to have an infectious zeal for the priesthood that many of the seminarians carried into their careers. He was “the person that made becoming a priest such a spiritually spectacular experience,” said the Rev. Daniel Leary, who studied at Mount St. Mary’s in the early 1990s and who is an associate pastor at St. Martin of Tours Catholic Church in Gaithersburg.

As an Archdiocese of Washington official in the 1980s, Monsignor Roeltgen was responsible for the recruitment of young men to the priesthood and for the matching of priests with parishes, a task for which he was uniquely suited.

“He was clearly a role model,” said the Rev. J. Wilfrid Parent, the archdiocese’s vocations director. “There was a holiness there that was inspiring.”

At St. Stephen Martyr since 1997, Monsignor Roeltgen practiced an attentive brand of pastoring, opening his door at any hour to grieving relatives, fretful spouses and joyful new parents.”Whomever came through the rectory door, the world stopped for that person and he made them feel like royalty,” said the Rev. Rob Panke, Catholic chaplain at George Washington University, who lives in the quarters at St. Stephen Martyr. “He always had time for people.”

Monsignor Roeltgen also was known for his strong attention to detail, from planning the menus at the frequent dinner parties he hosted to initiating policies for priestly training to articulating the details of his own funeral.

Among his proudest recent achievements was a $250,000 beautification of the church, which included the addition of a stained-glass window and the relocation of the altar closer to congregants.

Monsignor Roeltgen, a native of Irvington, N.J., received a bachelor’s degree in history from Catholic University, a master’s degree in education from Massachusetts State College in Worcester, Mass., a master’s degree in psychology and counseling from Worcester College, and degrees in theology from the University of St. Thomas in Rome.

He was a member of the Xaverian Brothers in the 1960s and 1970s and taught high school in Massachusetts in the 1970s.

He was associate pastor at Church of the Little Flower in Bethesda from 1979 to 1984, then archdiocesan director of vocations until 1987.

During his years as an administrator at Mount St. Mary’s, he continued with the performance of such priestly functions as baptisms, weddings and funerals of the hundreds of friends he made.

He had served in various posts in the archdiocese over the years, including advocate on the marriage tribunal, director of continuing education for clergy and member of the priest personnel board.

At St. Stephen Martyr, Monsignor Roeltgen sought an expanded relationship with the Catholic student community at nearby George Washington University, and he expanded the activities of the parish youth group.

As his illness returned, he continued his priestly duties joyfully, friends said. Paraphrasing the poet W.B. Yeats, the Rev. Val Keveny said, “Ken, for sure, when he died, he came proud, open-eyed and laughing to the tune, and I find that very appropriate.”

Survivors include his mother, Madeline Roeltgen of Morganton, N.C.; a brother; and a sister.