Monsignor Robert Armstrong, the longest-serving rector at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in North Baltimore, died of heart failure March 1 at the Stella Maris care facility in Timonium.
He was 81 and a beloved fixture of the prominent parish in the Archdiocese of Baltimore.
Monsignor Armstrong served the parish in Wyndhurst for 25 years before his retirement in 2009, and colleagues said he worked tirelessly to increase the trust fund for the immense cathedral. A devoted priest, he read the liturgy by candlelight during Hurricane Isabel in 2003 and relished sharing a bushel of crabs with parishioners.
"He was just as comfortable discussing theology as he was telling a joke, just as comfortable in the pulpit as he was eating crabs and drinking beer," said his former student Monsignor Robert Jaskot, a pastor in Frederick County.
Monsignor Armstrong hired the first woman to serve as director of religious education at St. Michael the Archangel in Overlea, and he supported revising the word "brothers" in biblical readings to be more inclusive of female parishioners — a matter of debate within the church by the late 1990s.
"It is a little difficult to read the Scriptures when you're talking to a congregation of men and women and you're addressing the 'brothers,'" he told The Baltimore Sun in 1997.
When health problems forced his retirement after a quarter-century serving the parish, Monsignor Armstrong was honored with a standing ovation from the congregation, according to The Catholic Review.
"I was embarrassed," he told The Catholic Review. "I never expected that. It kept going on and on."
That year, Pope Benedict XVI conferred on him the high title protonotary apostolic supernumerary.
"From every assignment, certainly ever parish assignment ... guys liked him and wanted to emulate him," said Monsignor Jaskot, who is pastor at Holy Family Catholic Community and at St. Francis-St. Mary Catholic Parish.
Robert Adrian Armstrong was born in Altoona, Pa., to Joseph Armstrong and Nadine Roessler. He was the eldest of five children.
He attended seminary boarding school in New Jersey and New York before obtaining a bachelor's degree from Villanova University in 1958. He studied philosophy at Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg and was ordained in May 1962.
He later received a master's degree in religious studies from the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
Once ordained, he began work as an associate pastor at Immaculate Heart of Mary in Towson. He was also assigned to serve as chaplain at the old state reformatory, the Maryland Training School for Boys. He then taught religion from 1963 to 1965 at the old Seton High School.
Monsignor Armstrong also worked for about a decade in the office of The Confraternity of Christian Doctrine before being assigned as pastor at St. Michael the Archangel parish and school in Overlea in June 1978.
After he served six years with the parish, the school nuns were reassigned. Monsignor Armstrong wept as he broke the news to families.
"I feel so badly as pastor these sisters are leaving," he told The Sun. "There is a feeling of emptiness, a void no one is going to fill."
In October 1984, he was assigned to the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, the massive brick and limestone church erected to seat nearly 2,000 people. The cathedral was finished in 1959 and demanded frequent maintenance and repairs by the 1990s.
"There's not a day that work orders don't come in," Monsignor Armstrong told The Catholic Review. "I've learned all kinds of things about engineering."
He was named monsignor by Pope John Paul II — now St. John Paul II — in 1990. In 1995, when the pontiff visited Baltimore, Monsignor Armstrong welcomed the pope to the cathedral, standing beside him during prayers. He continued to serve at the cathedral for more than a decade.
"He really was the perfect person for the job, which was why he was there for so long," said Sean Caine, spokesman for the archdiocese. "He would have baptized and confirmed many of the parishioners, who then he would marry — he grew up as part of their families."
Monsignor Jaskot recalled feeling nervous and irritable before his first time hearing confessions. Then Monsignor Armstrong approached with blunt advice.
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"He goes, 'Look, it's not about you. It's about them; it's about God's mercy. You forgive them, you listen to them, and you assure them of God's love,'" Monsignor Jaskot recalled.
Monsignor Armstrong also served the archdiocese on the Senate of Priests and Priests' Retirement Fund, Clergy Personnel, Catholic Education and Christian Formation boards. In retirement he lived at Mercy Ridge in Timonium, but returned often to the cathedral in Baltimore.
"His last couple years, he couldn't serve as he wanted to," Monsignor Jaskot said. "It was very difficult for him."