LIGUORI, Mo.—Father Arthur B. Klyber, a Jewish convert and longtime missionary to the Jews, died Oct. 10 at the Redemptorists' nursing home in Missouri. He was 99.
Father Klyber served as domestic missionary, pastor and novice master during his 67 years as a priest, but his favorite ministry was his Jewish apostolate. Even as a seminarian, he dreamed of bringing Christ to his people.
He also sought through articles, booklets and lectures to make Catholics understand and appreciate the Jewish roots of their faith, and to reject hostility toward Jews. He once estimated he had distributed more than 800,000 copies of his writings.
Father Klyber contributed to several Catholic publications, including the Register. He was a friend and occasional subject of longtime Register columnist Paul Hallett, who said that Father Klyber had “done more in the cause of winning Jews for Christ than probably anyone else in recent times.”
He was born in 1900 in New York's Lower East Side to a family of observant Orthodox Jews. He and his two brothers lived in a Jewish orphanage in Harlem after his father left home and his mother died. About 1914 he moved in with an Orthodox aunt and uncle in the Bronx.
Knew of Prejudice
“I know all about Christian prejudice against Jews,” Father Klyber said in a 1977 profile. “I remember as a boy walking across the street from a church where the Catholic boys used to hang out and being pelted with stones. They would yell, ‘You damn Jew, get outta here!’ But I was too young to know why they did it.”
He volunteered for the Navy just before the United States entered World War I. While stationed in Southern California, the future priest was attracted to the Catholic faith. He was baptized Feb. 8, 1920. For his confirmation name he took Bernard, after the 12th-century Cistercian reformer and defender of the Jews.
Several months later, Klyber felt called to the priesthood. After being rejected by the Jesuits and the Franciscans, he was accepted by the Redemptorists.
Leaving a promising career in the Navy, he started at the Redemptorists' minor seminary in Kirkwood, Mo., in 1921, and professed in 1927. He was ordained a priest in 1932 in Oconomowoc, Wis.
While carrying out his regular Redemptorist duties, Father Klyber ran his Jewish apostolate on the side, with permission of the order.
He was an early member of the Edith Stein Guild of America, and won the organization's second Edith Stein Award in 1957.
In 1976, when he was having heart trouble and thought he would soon die, Father Klyber co-founded Remnant of Israel Inc., a nonprofit organization, to carry on his Jewish apostolate.
When at age 79 he was officially semiretired, Father Klyber went from Chicago to Northern California, to become chaplain of a lay Dominican community whose members had formerly belonged to a hippie commune. In 1983 he moved with the community to New Hope, Ky., living for a while in a mobile home behind a winding dirt road without clean running water.
He gave his last lecture in Louisville in 1990, but continued to write into his early 90s.
In 1996, when his memory was failing, he moved to St. Clement's Health Care Center, the Redemptorists' nursing home in Liguori, Mo. He was living there when he died, apparently of a heart attack in his sleep.
“He was a true Redemptorist,” said Father James Keena, one of Father Klyber's novices during the 1950s, during his funeral sermon Oct. 13.
Father Keena, now the provincial vicar of the Redemptorists' Denver Province, recalled Father Klyber as a compassionate novice master with a great sense of humor. The novices always looked forward to the priest's Sunday talks, which reflected his deep study and feel for the Old Testament of his forefathers and the New Testament of Jesus, Father Keena said.
Trying to explain what he described as Father Klyber's extraordinary kindliness, Father Keena said it must have come from great suffering, particularly the rejection by his family when he became a Catholic. Though Father Klyber eventually reconciled with many of his relatives, his baptism caused some members of his family to treat him as though he were dead, following the Orthodox practice of disavowing apostates.
Father Keena said Redemptorists trying to restore the order's charism of working with the poor and abandoned would do well to consider the lives of older Redemptorists such as Father Klyber.
He wrote six booklets, including four that are still in print: Once a Jew, This Jew, He's a Jew! and Queen of the Jews. A collection of his booklets and articles, titled The One Who Is To Come, will be published later this year by Remnant of Israel. A biography is also scheduled to appear next year.
Father Klyber was buried at the Redemptorists' cemetery in Liguori.
Matt McDonald is based in Mashpee, Massachusetts.