By Anne Marie Amacher
BETTENDORF — For the past four months, Father Robert McAleer has been on the road toward relief from incapacitating pain, which has meant adjustments for him and his parish.
The pastor of the 1,600-family St. John Vianney Parish experienced loneliness and isolation from being cooped up in the rectory for more than two months prior to surgery in June for back-related problems dating back to the 1970s. And he’s still in the recuperation stage.
Sitting in his favorite, back-friendly chair in the parish’s administration center last week, Fr. McAleer talked about the frustration of being unable to celebrate Mass with the parish prior to surgery and having to return to ministry slowly.
Fr. McAleer said he has had back problems since 1974. “I lifted too much and hurt it,” he said. Plus his family has a history of back trouble. He’s had six surgeries over the years, the latest one in June.
He arrived at St. John Vianney in 1999, four years after his last back surgery. Pain resurfaced over the years in differing degrees. “I was in constant treatment for years.”
On April 7, “I crumbled.” He got out of bed that morning and something happened. “I couldn’t get out of the house for Holy Week.” That was upsetting.
Other priests pitched in to preside at Holy Week services: Father John Hynes, a retired priest who assists at the parish; Msgr. Francis Henricksen, a retired priest and former pastor there; and Msgr. Drake Shafer. Fr. McAleer’s staff made arrangements to cover Masses after that.
His doctor referred him to a Minnesota hospital. Fr. McAleer’s sister, Joanne McAleer, went with him. The doctor there gave Fr. McAleer hope. Testing followed in Bettendorf and surgery was set for June 22.
Meanwhile, as strength permitted, he did office work. “Mary (Kelly the office manager) would wheel me across the parking lot in my wheelchair,” he said.
Kelly joked that one time she was bringing Fr. McAleer back to the rectory prior to surgery in his wheelchair and it started to hail as they began out the door. “I ran as fast as I could. We were both laughing.” Fr. McAleer claims Kelly “dumped me at the front door.” Both laughed.
Throughout the good and bad times of Fr. McAleer’s ordeal, the staff took over many responsibilities and did a great job, he said.
“How did the parish survive without its pastor? It did,” he said proudly. “They communicated with me, which is a key.”
Kelly said she and the administrative staff make sure priests cover the daily and weekend Masses, that the church was unlocked for the visiting priests and that if a priest was required for anointing of the sick or other needs that it got done. “We did what we had to do.”
Doctor-imposed restrictions on Fr. McAleer were challenging. “My isolation was unbelievable. It was difficult. You always want to be a part of what is going on. But I couldn’t. … I was wanted, but I knew I couldn’t do it.”
Now he has a better understanding of how people with temporary disabilities must feel. At times he wondered if he would be able to celebrate Mass again. “I couldn’t image what life would be without being a pastor.”
And he doesn’t like to be dependent. “I’m not good at accepting help — I have to admit it,” he said.
On June 22, Fr. McAleer and his sister traveled to the Twin Cities Spine Center in Minneapolis for his surgery. Doctors performed a double fusion on his spine, put in rods, plates and screws (removing some of the old screws from past surgeries), placed spacers between vertebrae and put in a buttress to “hold everything steady.”
Although he has considerably less pain, he has not received the green light to return full-time to work. A follow-up visit at the Minneapolis hospital is set for Sept. 24.
He puts in time at the office, visits the sick and celebrated his first Sunday Mass in late July, which brought him joy but also exhausted him.
Although he would love to get back into the thick of it, he knows he must take it slowly.
As he feels up to it, Fr. McAleer celebrates one weekend Mass. This week he expected to try the daily Mass schedule as a concelebrant.
One adaptation the parish had to accept during the past several months was the loss of one Sunday Mass. That schedule will continue until Fr. McAleer is ready. And he’s looking at new ways of working. “I can’t work 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day plus meetings.” Prior to surgery, he rarely took time off. Things will change, but he isn’t sure what that entails at this point.
“It’s been a long, lonesome summer. But I set a goal to be back for the Feast of St. John Vianney (Aug. 4).” He did, and then celebrated the 11 a.m. Mass Aug. 9 to close out the week-long Vacation Bible School. He also attended the annual parish hog roast that followed.
“I don’t want to do too much, too soon, but decisions have to be made as we head into the busy season here at Vianney,” he said.
Next summer he hopes to get back to his favorite hobby — golfing. “It’s been a while.”