Community mourns loss of ‘cowboy priest,’ veteran chaplain

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Fr. Kenneth Kleiber (1941-2015)
Fr. Kenneth Kleiber (1941-2015)

Fr. Kenneth Kleiber, who served at numerous parishes around the Valley after he arrived in Arizona in 1977, died Sept. 28 in Phoenix after a lengthy illness. He was 73.

Fr. Kleiber was the longtime chaplain at the Veterans Administration hospital in Phoenix. He also served at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in Glendale, St. Patrick and St. Maria Goretti parishes in Scottsdale, St. Catherine of Siena and St. Thomas the Apostle parishes in Phoenix and Queen of Peace Parish in Mesa.

Fr. Kleiber was born on Nov. 6, 1941 in Chicago to Raymond and Lucille (Prudzik) Kleiber. He was ordained May 2, 1968 in Mundelein, Illinois.

“This man was such an inspiration, especially to men,” said longtime friend and lifelong OLPH parishioner Flora Dean. “We called him our cowboy priest because he would come to Mass in his cowboy boots.”

He also was an author and deep thinker, according to friends. He used the pen name “John Raymond” in the Catholic press.

“He was a very complex man,” Dean said. “I used to tease him, ‘You’re our masquerading thinker.’”

As for his service as the chaplain at the VA hospital, “They couldn’t have picked a better person for that. He was a rough, tough, no-nonsense man. He was not a veteran but he sure did understand them.”

On occasion, he would fill in for the hospital’s rabbi when a Jewish veteran was seriously ill and the rabbi was unavailable. “He would don his yarmulke, and do prayers in Yiddish,” Dean said.

Perhaps the most amazing aspect of Fr. Kleiber’s career is that for years he would say Mass at 6:15 a.m. every weekday at OLPH in Glendale. He did so even though he lived on the east-side, Dean said.

“Now you tell me if that’s not dedication!” she said.

The Mass became something of an institution on the west-side. “We even had people who were not of our parish who would attend our Mass because it’s so early in the morning, and they could get to work.”

On Sunday, he took the 6:30 a.m. Mass, Dean said. Only on Saturdays did he get a break.

He did all this even though he was frequently feeling ill. “He would tell us, ‘If I have to dash off the altar, don’t panic, I’ll be back,’” Dean said.

Donna Rowe, another longtime friend, said, “His great love was ministering to the veterans.” In addition, “He loved animals. He loved life. He loved music.”

And after saying Mass, “People felt they could just walk right up to him and talk to him about anything,” she said. “He identified with hurting people.”

Fr. Kleiber is survived by his brother, Lawrence A. Kleiber. He is preceded in death by his parents and sister Barbara Kelleher.

2 COMMENTS

  1. I knew Fr. Ken there at St. Catherine parish where he served when Fr. Doug Nahava was Pastor. God rest his soul also. They where both easy to talk with. He would tell e about addiction because he was an former alcoholic himself. So he understood where i was coming from. He once told me that I could have my addiction back anytime but expect the misery that comes with it again. Those words helped keep me sober now for 27 years. Loved that man. May God rest his soul.

  2. Eternal rest grant unto him O Lord and let your perpetual light shine upon Fr. Kenneth Kleiber.

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