Family events and celebrations, such as this wedding of Bishop-elect McElroy’s sister, Kathy, in 1986, brought the family together.
Early years: new bishop is described as fun-loving, adventurous, with an interest in the priesthood
September 1st, 2010
By Valerie Schmalz
Bishop-elect Robert McElroy’s interest in the priesthood started early – somewhere around second or third grade, with a decision to enter the minor seminary at 14 setting him on his way.
But the piety was leavened by humor and imagination, his siblings said in answer to a series of written questions from Catholic San Francisco.
“Bob has a penchant for practical jokes, so be wary,” says Bishop McElroy’s brother, Walter Joseph McElroy III or Bud, the youngest of the five children raised by Walter and Roberta McElroy.
Bishop McElroy’s older sister Mary recalls the “Mass” that she, her friend and her brother enacted. “I put towels on our heads for veils as if we were nuns and Bob celebrated a ‘Mass’ with Necco wafers and distributed them to us on our tongues,” she said.
But the new auxiliary, a middle child, doesn’t remember his youthful self as all too saintly. The new bishop recollects comparing pieces of cake with his sister and his mother telling him that St. Teresa of Avila, always took the smallest piece. The future bishop’s wish? That St. Teresa was his sister!
Her son’s interest in the priesthood was expressed early, said Roberta McElroy.
“Whenever people would ask Bob what he wanted to be in life, he would answer: a priest. He never wavered in this,” said Mrs. McElroy, who said her son has many qualities that make him a good priest and will help him continue as a good bishop. Among them: “Kindness, caring, compassionate, a good listener, a good negotiator, always trying to be helpful in difficult situations; mindful of the worries and sorrows of those involved,” Mrs. McElroy said.
At the high school seminary, Bishop-elect McElroy was an outstanding student – but one who was always willing to help out another student, with a unique ability to help others navigate through problem solving, said Father Ray Sacco, rector of the Cathedral of Christ the Light in Oakland, who counts the auxiliary as a close friend. “My experience of him has always been he’s been a person with a big heart.”
The newest bishop for the Archdiocese of San Francisco is a fifth generation San Franciscan, born in the city Feb. 5, 1954. Until the age of 10, he lived in Our Lady of Mercy Parish in Daly City. He and his family then moved to Our Lady of Angels Parish in Burlingame where he completed grade school.
After completing the eighth grade, he entered the now-closed St. Joseph College, a seminary high school, at the age of 14.
Bishop-elect McElroy is a Bay Area native through and through. Several of his paternal great-grandparents moved to California right after the Gold Rush. Three of his grandparents lived through the 1906 earthquake. Bishop-elect McElroy’s paternal grandfather Walter McElroy Sr. fondly recalled the six months when school was cancelled after the quake destroyed their San Francisco home and the family decamped to Larkspur, while maternal grandmother Irene’s family took temporary refuge in Golden Gate Park.
Both of his parents grew up in St. Cecilia Parish in San Francisco.
“Bob has always been very fun-loving and enjoys a good laugh,” says younger sister Kathy Schreiner. “He showed early skills as a leader, or more aptly a ringleader in many of the adventures we undertook as kids.”
“Bob was always game for fun, learning and adventure,” recalls youngest sister Patti Merriman, one of three sisters and a brother. “I think he can easily relate to sinners because there were so many times when we were growing up that he played practical jokes on his sisters and brother.”
“Despite his priestly manner, Bob is very competitive. If he played the board game Risk with the devil, Satan would be surrendering all the souls in Purgatory as Bob took over the underworld after ruling all the earthly continents. I’m glad Bob is on our side,” Merriman said.
“While his academic achievements are voluminous and extremely impressive (he graduated summa cum laude from Harvard in three years), I think it’s important to note he was a well-rounded child,” says brother Bud McElroy.
“From participating in grammar school basketball and baseball to being captain of the high school tennis team, he bonded with his classmates and experienced life in a way that helps him give counsel and comfort to a wide variety of parishioners, regardless of age, ethnicity or socioeconomic status.”
“Bob has an incredible gift for balancing objective insight, empathy, grounded realism, wisdom and a touch of humor to continuously counsel people through the most challenging and rewarding moments in life and death and the promise of eternal life,” said Merriman. “Bob related to people of all walks of life. He rallied parishioners to provide shelter for those who are homeless, helps families struggling with unexpected death, personalizes the countless weddings he blesses, and guides many through life transitions.”
Still, those practical jokes keep popping up in family recollections.
“Bob also loves practical jokes, coached a varsity baseball team even though he knew next to nothing about baseball,” wrote Merriman, “and makes wonderful fudge (not because he likes cooking, but because he likes to eat it.)”
From September 3, 2010 issue of Catholic San Francisco.