Father Robert Kaeding greets parishioners following the Mass of Thanksgiving he celebrated in Precious Blood Church, Monmouth Beach. Father Kaeding now stands among the distinguished list of the Diocese’s retired priests.  Rich Hundley photos
Father Robert Kaeding greets parishioners following the Mass of Thanksgiving he celebrated in Precious Blood Church, Monmouth Beach. Father Kaeding now stands among the distinguished list of the Diocese’s retired priests. Rich Hundley photos

Father Robert F. Kaeding’s 46 years of full-time ministry officially culminated with his July 1 retirement, but just days after a weekend of festive celebration marking that milestone, Father Kaeding was back at work, overseeing activities as usual at The Center, the support facility he founded in Asbury Park for those with HIV/AIDS.

As executive director of The Center, Father Kaeding looks forward to days of service assisted by volunteers from parishes, congregations of varying faith traditions and nonprofit agencies whose dedication he describes as profound. Two of the parishes with active involvement are St. Anselm, Wayside, and Precious Blood, Monmouth Beach, both of which he served as pastor. Also involved are volunteers from St. Catharine-St. Margaret, Spring Lake.

“Our volunteers are family and have been since The Center was founded in 1992,” Father Kaeding said. “Those living with HIV know they are safe here and well-treated.”

Answering The Call

When the Mass of Thanksgiving for his years of priestly ministry was celebrated June 23 in Precious Blood Church, hundreds turned out in an “outpouring of warmth and affection.”

“It was packed,” Father Kaeding said. “The music was beautiful.”

Looking back now, this long priestly ministry was nothing he would have expected growing up.

The son of William and Elizabeth Kaeding, he was born in Plainfield and went to St. Joseph School, North Plainfield, where he was taught by the Sisters of Mercy. He had the opportunity to attend a Catholic high school but opted instead for North Plainfield High School.

“The experience did broaden my horizons,” Father Kaeding said, adding that he encountered fellow students, parents and teachers of all backgrounds, which “affected my life choices in many ways.”

He attended Seton Hall University, South Orange, and Assumption College, Worcester, Mass., earning both a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts and a graduate degree in French literature. When he felt called to the priesthood, he thought for a time about entering the Paulist Fathers, a missionary order.

“But I look back and see the way God works. I realized that as a Paulist, I could be posted anywhere in the world, and I wanted to be close to home,” Father Kaeding said.

He prepared for the priesthood in St. Francis Seminary, Loretto, Pa., and was ordained a priest May 26, 1973, in Trenton’s St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral by Bishop George W. Ahr.

In the years that followed, with one brief break, he served on the faculty of St. John Vianney High School, Holmdel, as chaplain until 1982, when he took a sabbatical leave for advanced studies in the Jesuit School of Theology, Berkley, Calif.

In January 1983, Father Kaeding was assigned as parochial vicar in St. Ann Parish, Lawrenceville, then served in St. Veronica Parish, Howell. In 1984, he was appointed pastor of St. Anselm Parish, Wayside, where he also served as a chaplain in the Monmouth Detention Center, Freehold. In 1987, he was assigned to a three-year term as director of the newly established diocesan Office of Parish Life.

In St. Anselm from 1984 to 2004, he came to know the community that steadily grew from 200 families to more than 2,000. As its population grew, the emphasis on social ministry, under its founding pastor, Father Joseph Miele, and then Father Kaeding, also grew.

Interfaith Neighbors, which served the homeless, and the Stephen Ministry, serving community members in need, were among the initial programs. He presided over a major expansion of facilities and community outreach, and a pledge of five percent of parish income became dedicated to needs outside the community.

Meeting A Need

In the early ’90s, friends who worked at the AIDS clinic in Neptune’s Jersey Shore Medical Center reached out to see if the parish might be of help to the growing number of those affected with HIV/AIDS, Father Kaeding said.

The parish responded, posting a welcome sign and hosting an information session by Laura Lee Kent-Smith, a noted advocate of helping those with HIV/AIDS.

“About 50 to 60 people came just to see what we could do. Housing was a real critical need back then,” said Father Kaeding. “Everyone knew someone who was dealing with AIDS in some way. In some ways, this was an interfaith effort.”

That first step would eventually lead Father Kaeding and his volunteers to founding The Center in Asbury Park. Originally located on Mattison Ave., the organization purchased property on Third Ave. that enabled the nonprofit to expand its facilities, including 25 long-term housing units, dining area, meeting rooms, an emergency food pantry, referral services and education.

By 2004, Father Kaeding sought and received permission to resign as pastor of St. Anselm Parish to accept the position of full-time executive director of The Center, which he held while returning to parish ministry in 2011 as pastor of Precious Blood Parish.

There, he would shepherd the parish through a period of growth, which would see the parish grow to 1,182 families and nearly 400 religious education students by the time the community celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2016.

Before reaching that milestone, he had set about building an infrastructure of social concerns ministries as he had in St. Anselm. “It was a wonderful experience,” he said. “The people were so responsive … from food drives to help with housing the homeless, to spirituality groups.”

The effort would stand the Monmouth Beach community in good stead when Superstorm Sandy riled the coastline in 2012.

Though the church was not badly damaged when Sandy struck, a number of people were left homeless, Father Kaeding said. “People responded, people were all over the street offering help,” he said. “It was so amazing.”

It was, he said, one more indication of what he has found all throughout the years of his priesthood – that people are hungry to put their faith into action. “When asked, they respond so beautifully,” he said. “They know that it’s about a lot more than just going to church on Sunday.”