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The Rev. Wurtz remembered as a beloved pastor 1,500 crowd Our Lady of Victory to commemorate life of the monsignor

Monsignor Robert C. Wurtz hoped to live long enough to see Father Nelson H. Baker beatified in Our Lady of Victory Basilica, a ceremony that would likely fill the huge Lackawanna church beyond capacity.

But it was Monsignor Wurtz himself who attracted parishioners, fellow priests and women religious in droves to the basilica Saturday morning.

About 1,500 people came to remember the beloved pastor and head of OLV charities during a 90-minute Mass of Christian Burial inside the basilica where Wurtz daily prayed the rosary, visited the Stations of the Cross and ended his early-morning holy hour at Baker's tomb.

The monsignor died Tuesday of cardiac arrest in Mercy Hospital at age 74.

In his homily, Bishop Robert J. Cunningham of the Diocese of Ogdensburg described himself and those in attendance as "better Christians because Monsignor Wurtz touched our lives."

Wurtz juggled a variety of weighty responsibilities -- including heading a $50 million human service agency and leading the cause for canonization for Father Baker -- but at his core, he was a simple pastor, said Cunningham.

In the days before he died, he had caught up on some important things, the bishop said.

"He mailed his Christmas cards, he had dinner with friends, he helped prepare a couple for marriage, he visited a wake, he called a friend," said Cunningham. "He was a parish priest, father and friend to his last breath."

Wurtz also was remembered as the "ultimate uncle" in remarks by John Koelmel after the liturgy.

Koelmel's father and Wurtz were cousins, and Koelmel knew the priest as a popcorn-loving, pinochle-playing uncle who had driven him home from college in Boston, Mass., each year.

Wurtz stayed close to Koelmel and his wife and children. "I had the incredible good fortune for the past 54 years of experiencing him simply as 'Uncle Bob,' " Koelmel said.

The funeral ceremony included a procession of 115 priests and an honor guard of Knights of Columbus and Knights of St. John.

Outside, on Ridge Road and South Park Avenue, two Erie County sheriff's deputies rode on horses -- a nod to Wurtz's days as part of the mounted patrol unit.

Draped with a white cloth, the casket was sprinkled with holy water, and a Book of Gospels and a cross were placed on top of it.

Cunningham recapped Wurtz's priesthood, which began with an appointment to the missionary apostolate of Holy Family in Machias.

"He learned the importance of generous and faithful availability to the people he was called to serve," Cunningham said.

Wurtz next served as a young priest at Our Lady of Pompeii parish in Lancaster, where in 1960 he baptized a baby named David LiPuma.

LiPuma was ordained a priest in 1987 and now serves as secretary to Bishop Edward U. Kmiec. In a cyclical twist, LiPuma administered last rites to Wurtz in Mercy Hospital.

Before arriving at Our Lady of Victory, Wurtz served as procurator at St. John Vianney Seminary, now Christ the King Seminary, in East Aurora.

He was buried Saturday afternoon in Christ the King Seminary Cemetery, next to his parents, Charles and Ruth.

Both Cunningham and Kmiec used the funeral as an opportunity to ask that people listen to whether God might be calling them to a vocation.

"We need more Monsignor Wurtzes and more Father Bakers," Kmiec said.

e-mail: jtokasz@buffnews.com

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