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Rev. Ronald W. Sams, St. Michael's priest who was known as 'Father Gambit' at Canisius

Dec. 29, 1928 – June 27, 2017

The Rev. Ronald W. Sams was 75,  an age when most priests are thinking about retirement, when, for the first time in his long religious vocation, he took on duties as a parish priest in 2003.

Father Sams joined the Jesuits soon after he graduated from Canisius High School in 1946. He had a long career teaching in Catholic high schools, serving a mission in the South Pacific and raising money for various Jesuit missions before serving as pastor of St. Michael's Catholic Church on Washington Street in downtown Buffalo, where he nurtured varied interests, most especially his devotion to the sacrament of confession.

Father Sams died Tuesday in Kenmore Mercy Hospital after suffering a stroke on June 18. He was 88.

Born in Buffalo, Father Sams grew up in the Grider Street neighborhood. He was ordained a priest in 1959 and took his final vows as a Jesuit in 1963. Early in his vocation, Father Sams taught at several Catholic schools, including his alma mater, Canisius High School. He also taught at Regis High School, a Jesuit-run institution in Manhattan, in the early 1950s.

He was part of the original Jesuit staff that opened McQuaid Jesuit High School in Rochester in 1954, after James E. Kearney, the fifth bishop of Rochester, invited members of the New York Province of the Society of Jesus to form a high school there for boys in his diocese.

In 1970, Father Sams began a mission which would last nearly four years on the island of Guam in the South Pacific, where he was in charge of the Jesuit pre-novitiate house. When he returned to Buffalo in 1974, he took on duties as director of development at his beloved Canisius High School, where he also helped create the foundation for the school's fundraising efforts and served as coordinator of GAMBIT, the school's annual dinner auction. Father Sams became so identified with the charity, he was known as "Father Gambit" to many in the high school community.

The Rev. Richard Zanoni, a former pastor of St. Michael's Church, said Father Sams remained active in the fundraiser up until his death.

"It's a very good community builder," Zanoni said of the dinner auction. Father Sams "was involved in the last one at the end of April. It's a way to fund the various schools and help pay tuition for some students."

In 1983, Father Sams returned to the South Pacific, specifically Micronesia, where he served as secretary to the Jesuit bishop there. The Rev. Benjamin Fiore, a friend and current pastor of St. Michael's Church, described him as patient and self-effacing.

"He had a nice sense of humor. I mean, he always laughed at himself because he tried to speak in the native languages, of which there were many, many different ones on the islands there. What he thought he was saying often ended up being very different from what he had intended," Fiore said. "It was sort of embarrassing, but I think they credited him with at least trying."

Father Sams returned to Buffalo in 1995 and resumed his work at Canisius before he became pastor of St. Michael's Church in 2003.

"He started as pastor there at an age when most pastors would retire. He was 75 when he started. He was a man of tremendous energy and he did the job for 10 years," said Zanoni, who first met Father Sams in 1969, when the priest was director of the upstate office of the Jesuit Seminary and Missions Bureau.

"It's hard to imagine that he's gone because he was just so upbeat and active and young at heart," Zanoni said.

"He just had lots of interests. He was open to everybody. I have not heard anything negative ever come out of him, and I've never heard anyone say anything negative about him. He's just one of those positive people who make you feel good after you've been in his company. In the midst of a catastrophe he would say, 'I wonder what great good God is going to bring out of this tragedy.' That's the kind of person he was. It would be very hard to not like Ron. He had no pretensions," Zanoni added.

A  Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated at 10 a.m. Saturday in St. Michael's Church, 651 Washington St.


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