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Inspiring Strength and Guiding Faith

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. 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.

Most priests grow old and die alone and in private. This one is publicly sharing his struggle for life--and his acceptance of death--and he has moved Orange County parishioners to tears, inspired their faith and evoked an outpouring of love.

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 pocket full 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 of his flock.

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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 disclosed his illness, which some had begun to suspect, to the congregation of Our Lady of Mount Carmel 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 faith works. He is showing them how to fight to live--and maybe how to die.

“He’s very much at peace,” said Father Steve Sallot, who has known Krause, a close friend, for nearly 30 years. “His faith isn’t shaken. And he’s by no means beaten.”

Scared by Diagnosis of Incurable Cancer

Wearing a cardigan sweater and slacks in his small office, Krause looks more like Mr. 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’s also received radiation treatments.

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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.

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.’ ”

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

But the cancer, frightening and monstrous, has also given him an abstract sort of relief. Krause’s father died of leukemia at age 63. He lost a brother, one of his four siblings, last year. Now, Krause said, he doesn’t have to wonder when and 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. He’s 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.

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

“The beauty God put in nature and what it puts in my soul--it’s so wonderful to be alive.”

2 Congregations, Common Love

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

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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 the largely Latino congregation.

She sent him a card on Valentine’s Day. “I still cannot believe this happened,” she said. “I’m having a very hard time.”

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

“They [St. Joachim] 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 Mount Carmel. “His faith has touched our hearts beyond words.”

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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 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.

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

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She went to the prayer vigil.

“Usually I’m a shy person,” she said. “I sit in the back. This time I sat in front. Everybody loves him.” She dropped her head and softly wept.

This time of sadness and remembrance has also conjured 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.

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“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.”

He recalls Krause’s irrepressible wordplay. “You’re either rolling on the floor or ‘Oh, would you please stop.’ ”

However, do work that is sloppy, 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 Sallot, rector of Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, where Krause was once the principal.

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“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.”

Krause is comforted by his spiritual advisor, Father Gordon Moreland, who politely declines to discuss him because of the confidential nature of their relationship.

“I think the world of him,” Moreland allowed.

‘Fighting the Inevitable’

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It is a different day and Krause, now relieved of “Charlie” and the radiation treatments, appears more robust and 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’s 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 I’m strong when I really am strong.”

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He’s found 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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His associate, Father Patrick Doherty, has undertaken Krause’s primary duties and acts as a sentinel with a brogue, screening calls and helping regulate visitations, most of which are kept fairly short.

“He has good days and bad,” said Doherty, who describes Krause as a “hands-on” pastor who normally “likes to do most things himself.”

Krause’s younger sister, Marcia Krause, is a nun. He calls her “sister sister.”

She’s there three or four a days a week, on leave from teaching upper division math at Mission San Gabriel. She and her brother are close and have gone to religious retreats together.

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“It’s just been a really blessed relationship,” she said. “When he feels up to it we’ll play backgammon. I talk and read to him. We pray the Eucharist together.”

She is amazed at the response to his cancer.

“He’s been blessed to know how much he has affected the people,” she said.

Their mother, who lives in Los Angeles, where Krause was born and raised, is badly shaken. “She’s trying to be really strong,” said Sister Marcia, “but it’s really taken the stuffing out of her. She tries to see it in God’s plan, but it’s very hard for her.”

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Inspiring as a Living Example

It’s hard for everybody trying to put aside their grief and worry over Krause, but many are managing to draw from this exemplar’s courage and fealty.

“He’s brought the congregation face to face with what mortality means,” said parishioner Kelley.

Added Stewart: “We are in awe of his perfect faith.”

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Cards and letters, hundreds of them, are arriving at Mount Carmel, where they are opened, read and lie scattered around Krause’s apartment.

Over at St. Joachim, Father Robillard is keeping up the pressure on God.

“I make it a point to make sure people pray for him every day,” he said. It’s working. “They’re coming at all hours of the night.”

But with all this prayer, all this energy, all the hope being poured into the cause of their pastor, what if God somehow doesn’t hear or doesn’t grant Krause more life? What will people think if their prayers aren’t heard?

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Krause has tried to put them at ease.

At the prayer vigil, Stewart recalled, “he put one hand out [and said] it’s great you’re praying for a miracle. Then he put the other out and said, ‘Be praying for God’s will.’ ” Conforti brushed away her tears and said, “So many beautiful things have come out of this.”


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