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A giving spirit Msgr. Robert Wurtz balances the roles of businessman, administrator and priest at Our Lady of Victory Basilica

The daily ritual for Msgr. Robert C. Wurtz begins before dawn. He's up at 5 a.m., then walks slowly from the rectory at Our Lady of Victory in Lackawanna to the famed basilica.

Once inside, even the burly figure of a 6-foot-2-inch priest seems dwarfed against the physical and spiritual grandeur of the church that is a national shrine.

Alone, Wurtz begins praying at the front altar, near a towering, glistening white marble statue of Mary holding the infant Jesus. Wurtz, usually dressed in a traditional priestly black garment, accented by his sliver white hair, will walk through the church for the next hour, in personal and spiritual contemplation.

He is responsible for running OLV charities, with a budget of over $50 million to help thousands of children and adults. Despite those daunting executive responsibilities, the role Wurtz cherishes most is pastor of Our Lady of Victory. At heart, he remains a parish priest.

But there is another duty for Wurtz, one that makes him best known to Western New Yorkers: leading the movement for two decades to bring sainthood to Msgr. Nelson H. Baker, who built the Basilica and OLV's charities.

Now 73, Wurtz knows he is carrying on Father Baker's work. After three decades at OLV, he feels "permeated" by Baker's spirit.

Each day, even during this busy Christmas season, Wurtz ends his early morning hour of prayer and contemplation then stops by Baker's tomb, located near the front of the church. Many of the orphans raised by Baker have told Wurtz how they always asked Father Baker, "Daddy, take care of me." Before he leaves the church, Wurtz makes one personal request in a hushed whisper: "Daddy, take care of me."

It's hard to label Wurtz.

"Outside, he comes on like John Wayne; inside he's a big teddy bear," said Beth Donovan, director of public relations for OLV.

"I'm no social worker, I'm no businessman -- I'm a priest," Wurtz has often said.

He can be gruff, demanding, impatient, warm, funny, sensitive and loving. Wurtz is a big man, with huge hands and a frenetic passion for work. He is a dominating figure who fills a room, has a steel-like handshake grip, a biting, quick wit and little tolerance for mediocrity. He is also selfless: visiting the sick, helping friends and strangers, dedicating himself to children with little thought of his endless service or lack of personal material possessions.

The people who work at Our Lady of Victory know all about the many sides of Msgr. Wurtz.

"He's very demanding, but I don't know of any other priest in the diocese who has all the responsibilities he has," said James Casion, chief executive officer of Baker Victory services. "He's responsible for so many people's lives, and this is a national church. He has a way of serving others that is inspiring.

"His job is so draining that he's always being pulled in 20 different directions. He can be gruff and hard, but he's a loving man. He's a generous priest with a giving spirit, who constantly gives of himself to others. And he's very funny."

"He's an earthy guy and a humble man," said Richard Heist, director of development for OLV Homes of Charity. "He is totally committed to Our Lady of Victory and carrying on the work of Father Baker."

Cancer and knee problems (he needs knee replacement surgery) have failed to slow down Wurtz.

"Msgr. Wurtz slow down? You've got to be kidding," Heist said. "He's like a locomotive, he just keeps on going. His illness has impacted him but his day is still full. He does everything and he knows everybody.

"At the heart of it all he remains a priest. Being a pastor comes first for him; that's the integral part of his own identity. He's a very savvy business person and leader, who knows how to delegate authority. But, above all else, he has a warm, caring, paternal and pastoral presence."

>Man of many duties

Wurtz grew up on farms in Orchard Park and East Aurora. He was consumed by two passions: religion and animals. As a child, he grew to love horses and his love for the animals has grown throughout his life. ("If I could, I would get on a horse everyday.") He contemplated either becoming a veterinarian or a priest. Eventually, after two years at Canisius College, he joined the seminary to study for the priesthood.

Wurtz was ordained in 1958. He served in several parishes and was known for his administrative skill and business acumen. In 1974, he came to work as an assistant to the general manager for Our Lady of Victory Homes of Charity.

OLV and its charities were going through difficult times in the mid '70s, but Wurtz was able to turn things around. He has many titles: executive vice president and treasurer of OLV Homes and president of Baker Victory Services.

In those roles he oversees an organization that helps thousands of children, families, orphans as well as the sick and needy. In 1994, he was appointed pastor of Our Lady of Victory National Shrine and Basilica.

OLV and Baker Victory Services has more than 1,000 employees, and the parish has more than 2,400 families. Baker Victory Services offers educational and residential programs to over 3,500 youth and families.

Wurtz's constant challenge is to balance the roles, of businessman, administrator and priest. He can send a business memo to the staff, but he signs it Father Bob. He's the kind of boss who will give a stern lecture to workers, but often hug them if he meets them one-on-one in the hallway.

As an administrator, the thoughest part is "to say no," Wurtz said. "I'm here to manage this part of God's kingdom. Sometimes you have to manage with your head and not your heart."

As a priest the best part is "helping people, especially the children," Wurtz said. His eyes beamed with joy as he talked of placing orphans with families, saying Mass for children and just hanging out with kids, talking or shooting pool."

Personally, Wurtz's favorite pastime is riding his horse, Renny, which he has had since 1971. When the pressures of the parish and OLV becomes too much, he takes off to the hills on Renny.

>Finding strength

After morning Mass, Wurtz spends much of the day in his office. Hanging above his soft, black leather chair is a huge portrait of a horse grazing by a barn in a farm scene. It was given to him when he was ordained as a priest.

On the tough days, maybe he finds refuge staring at that portrait, so reminiscent of his farm-boy youth. There have been many tough days of late, especially with cancer. For Wurtz, suffering is a part of his priestly mission.

"I think God is using me in another way for his people," Wurtz said. "Yes I have sickness, but I'm not afraid to say I have cancer. Because of what I'm going through, I may bring some people courage and strength to face it in their own lives."

Sometimes, his voice is weak and homilies are short. Other times, Wurtz displays renewed physical strength and endurance. "I said a strong Mass yesterday (Sunday)," Wurtz said earlier this month. "My voice was strong and I felt good."

Wurtz still has one goal.

"I want to see Father Baker beatified," he said, and then added: "wait a minute. I guess I should say I want to die in a state of grace, so I have two goals. But I have never lost faith that Father Baker will be beatified (a major step towards sainthood)."

Wurtz says Mass every morning he can. He said there is something mystical about "standing in the same pulpit as Father Baker, especially at Christmas. When you look at that (manger) and think what Father Baker did for these kids..." his voice trails off.

They are men of different physical stature. Wurtz is tall while Baker was a small, wiry man, about 5-feet-5-inches tall. "When I'm in that pulpit, I think of that little priest," Wurtz said in a wistful tone of voice, tinged with emotional everence. Baker came to OLV in the late 1800s and served until his death at 94, in 1936. These are different times, but when it comes to carrying on the tradition of service by Our Lady of Victory, there's a lot of Nelson Baker in Robert Wurtz.

"No one can be Father Baker," Richard Heist said, "but Msgr. Wurtz has created his own legacy."

e-mail: aviolanti@buffnews.com

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