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A Revered Priest’s Final Lesson: How to Die With Grace

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the perfect stillness of dawn, a weary, gray-haired man settles into an easy chair and gazes, perhaps a little longingly, out past the tilting telephone pole and between the crowded buildings to the sea just beyond. At sunrise, he savors the splendor and slips effortlessly into long and deep prayer.

He is sick with inoperable cancer in his pancreas, this aging priest who now confronts his own mortality not only in theory or theology but in fact.

Yet it’s not so much how he struggles for life, but rather how he gracefully accepts death that has moved Orange County parishioners to tears, inspired their faith and evoked an extraordinary outpouring of love and tribute.

After all, this is Father Kenneth Krause, once spotted sitting on a curb sharing his sandwich and a thermos of coffee with a homeless man. Father Krause, with a pocketful of puns, many of them bad (Question: “How do you feel, father?” Answer: “With my fingers.”) Father Krause, who for 34 of his 63 years has stood in joy or in sorrow at the cradles, the weddings and the graves.

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“When I had any kind of crisis or need--the death of my mother or a boyfriend who hurt me--he was always there,” said Linda Gagnon. “He is the father I never had.”

Said Jennifer Conforti: “Father Krause makes me see the goodness in myself.”

So it’s no wonder that when Krause reluctantly disclosed his illness, which some had begun to suspect, to the congregation of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Newport Beach during an early Christmas Eve Mass, worshipers gasped and were overcome.

“The way he announced it was with strength, courage and confidence,” said Greg Kelley, a parishioner for 19 years. “I think I stood there and cried for five minutes.”

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Over the years, Krause’s kindness has touched many lives. People always remark upon his profound spirituality. Now, not just by sermon but by example, he is teaching them how God works. He is showing them how to fight to live--and maybe how to die.

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Wearing a cardigan sweater and slacks in his small office, Krause looks more like Mister Rogers than a priest. He introduces “Charlie,” as he christened it, a small contraption on his side that pumps chemo 24 hours a day through a plastic line and into a vein in his arm. He has also received radiation treatments.

About a year ago Krause’s back hurt. His 89-year-old mother, Dorothy, suggested that at 220 pounds, maybe his problem was his bulging front, not his back. Then came sharp pains and burning in the stomach and weight loss that has now reached 50 pounds.

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The devastating diagnosis came in December. “We know in most cases this is fatal,” he said. “This cancer is inoperable and incurable.” And so began a different kind of dialogue between the priest and his God.

Krause was scared. He asked, “Why me?”

The reply: “ ‘I’m God. I do what I want to do. Everything I do is good, because I am God.’

“I made it up in my head, or it really was God,” Krause said.

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But the cancer, frightening and monstrous, has also given him an abstract sort of relief. Krause’s father died of leukemia at age 63. The priest lost a brother, one of his four siblings, last year. Now, Krause said, he doesn’t have to wonder how his own earthly journey will end and eternity will begin.

“I was very grateful I found out my life span was limited,” he said. The issue has become, “How do I spend my last time? I have to spend it well.”

When he speaks, his words tumble out in a rush. He is naturally emphatic and energetic, but these days even talking soon fatigues him, and he must retreat to the church rectory, where he keeps the rust-colored corduroy easy chair and a Steinway piano in his little prayer room, the one with the narrow view of the sea.

“The ocean has always been a joy to me,” he said. “It’s calmed me down, put me in touch with God.”

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The groundswell of love for Krause has brought two very different congregations together in hope, prayer and respect.

At St. Joachim Church in Costa Mesa, where Krause was pastor for 15 years, a special prayer service was held for his birthday last month and 1,200 people jammed in. “Everybody decided to pray in great numbers and ask God to see fit to allow him to be among us for more years,” said Beatriz Soto, Krause’s longtime assistant at largely Latino Joachim.

Meanwhile, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, where Krause has been pastor only 18 months for a congregation that includes many single people and senior citizens, conducted a prayer vigil.

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St. Joachim members “came to our prayer vigil. They had a birthday Mass for him, and we went there. We share our love for him,” said Joanne Stewart, a parishioner at Our Lady of Mount Carmel. “His faith has touched our hearts beyond words.”

It has also caused those whose lives he has changed to pause and reflect on the depth of their feeling.

Conforti was raised Catholic but fell away from the church for 27 years. She survived cancer, began attending Our Lady of Mount Carmel and found herself, like many others, the focus of her pastor’s seemingly undivided concern.

Krause gently emphasized that God loves Conforti unconditionally, but she must also love herself and do for herself.

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“He brought me back to my faith,” she said.

This time of sadness and remembrance has also conjured up a legion of stories about Krause--about his legendary playfulness, patience, toughness and sometimes maddening stubbornness. And about his fondness for tart apples, Oreo cookies and sipping Scotch in long conversations with friends.

Father Joseph Robillard, now pastor of St. Joachim, arrived a freshly minted priest in 1984 and became Krause’s associate.

“Here I am, newly ordained, I don’t know anything and he would listen and be respectful,” he said. “Sometimes he frowned and looked funny at me, but he always went along with it.”

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But do sloppy work, fail to give the congregation the full measure of devotion or come to him with an ultimatum and Krause can be blunt, demanding and unmovable.

“We called him ‘the German,’ ” chuckled Father Steve Sallot, rector of Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, where Krause was once the principal.

“He’s very strong, intellectual and a commanding figure,” he said. “A lot of times priests live alone and die alone. When they get sick it’s in privacy. One of the great gifts Father Krause has, he’s allowed people to enter into his suffering.”

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It is a different day and Krause, now relieved of “Charlie” and the radiation treatments, seems less drawn and more buoyant in his embrace of what he fervently believes is God’s will. But that doesn’t mean he’s passive about it.

“You’ve got to say, ‘What I’m here for is to live, not to die,’ ” he said. “I’m going to fight it even if it’s inevitable.”

For a strong-willed, old-fashioned pastor, conceding frailty and physical limitation is almost a warp of character. He is used to being in charge. To ministering to others. Now he understands the joy of letting others help him. And the priest is learning to let people also see the man.

“I’m finding it’s OK to be me,” he said. “I have always believed, since I was ordained, we should be an example and show the way. There is some pressure now. Are you going to stand strong? I don’t have to put on a show [that] I’m strong when I really am strong.”

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He has found that strength has many manifestations.

“I broke down in tears once in the pulpit. I was talking about how I’m going to deal with the ending of my life. I kind of broke down, asking for their prayers.”

The bulwark of his life is faith. It has not abandoned him now.

“Faith is doubt overcome,” he said. “How do you overcome the doubt? You believe.”

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