“I feel I’ve known (the) Rev. Sauers all my life,” I said to my wife as I headed off to meet with him at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Hughestown a couple of weeks ago.
Turns out I was right. The Rev. Robert Sauers told me he became pastor at St. Peter’s in 1956. I was born in 1949. And since my mother’s family is from Hughestown, the Rev. Sauers has been in and around my world for all 36 years he served as pastor at St. Peter’s and the 27 since he “retired” in 1992. That’s 63 of my 69 years. Or for all intents and purposes, all my life.
The Rev. Sauers didn’t use “air quotes,” by the way, when he said the word “retired,” but his eyes did. They told me a man of the cloth never truly retires. Indeed, as we met on a Friday afternoon, he was preparing to preside over services at St. Peter’s that Sunday. He’ll be 93 in October.
I made it my business to track down the Rev. Sauers ever since P.J. Adonizio, the funeral director, casually mentioned to me that the Reverend recently noted the 65th anniversary of his ordination. There was something in particular I wanted to discuss with Rev. Sauers, which I will get to in a minute, but I also wanted to congratulate him and learn what I could about his life story. It came as no surprise that he graciously agreed to make himself available.
The Rev. Robert Sauers was officially honored by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America on April 30 in Allentown but said the actual date of his ordination was June 13, 1954. On the certificate presented to him that day, I noticed the brief but perfect Lutheran mission statement: “God’s Work, Our Hands.” It fits the Rev. Sauers to a T.
Robert Sauers was born in West Hazleton on Oct. 20, 1926, to Harry and Florence Nolan Sauers. He said he basically grew up at Trinity Lutheran Church, just a couple of blocks from his home. “I had a wonderful father, a coal miner, who taught me to love others,” The Rev. Sauers said, “but the pastor at the church in West Hazleton sort of adopted me. From the time I was 9 or 10 years old, I spent most of my time around the church. ‘Who is that young boy with the red hair?’ the parishioners would ask.”
Robert Sauers had grown to a strapping 6-feet-2 inches tall and weighed 190 pounds by the time he graduated from West Hazleton High in 1944 and promptly enlisted in the U.S. Navy. He spent two years at an on-shore facility in the Philippines. He still carries his Navy identification in his wallet.
After his discharge, he enrolled in Muhlenberg College in Allentown from where he graduated in 1951 with a degree in Philosophy and Theology. From there, he entered the Philadelphia Lutheran Seminary.
The Rev. Sauers’ first call was to serve as assistant pastor at a large church in Wilmington, Delaware, but he had always hoped to return “home.” That’s what it felt like, he said, when he was invited to Hughestown.
The late Charlie Burkel of the parish council interviewed him over lunch, the Rev. Sauers recalls, and then invited him home to meet his wife, Elizabeth. “She said, ‘I hope you didn’t drive him past that big culm bank,’ and when Charlie admitted he had, I told her, ‘Where I come from, we have culm banks that could swallow that one.’”
The Rev. Sauers conducted his first service at St. Peter’s on Ash Wednesday in 1956 and remained on the job until 1992.
He said he had offers from other parishes, including some prestigious ones in big cities, but “Hughestown is where I wanted to raise my family.”
The Rev. Sauers and his wife, Thelma, whom everyone called Sally, raised five children: Robert, Avoca; Sharon Pane, Concorde, North Carolina; Linda Getson, State College; Robin Balent, Charlotte, North Carolina; and Leslie, Plains Twp.. Sally died in 2015. They had been married 62 years.
The Rev. Sauers has 11 grandchildren and 9 great grandchildren. A grandson, Robert, is pastor of a Lutheran church in Wisconsin, and a grandson, Scott, is a Baptist minister in Indiana, Pa.
What I especially wanted to talk about with the Rev. Sauers was the spirit of ecumenism he brought to Hughestown long before the practice became popular. There were two churches in Hughestown, St. Peter’s Lutheran, in the heart of town, and just down the road, Blessed Sacrament, a Catholic church originally opened as a chapel of St. John the Evangelist parish of Pittston. I was baptized at Blessed Sacrament.
From the time the Rev. Sauers arrived, any barriers that may have existed between the two parishes rapidly melted away. “When I came here,” he said, “we began celebrating two baccalaureate services for the graduates of Hughestown High, one at 8 a.m. at Blessed Sacrament, and another at 10:30 a.m. on the same day here at St. Peter’s. All the graduates came to both.”
The Rev. Sauers said right from the start half the attendance at his summer Bible School was children from Blessed Sacrament. He became friends with each of the four pastors of Blessed Sacrament during his tenure, particularly with the late the Rev. Charlie Rokosz. “They were all good neighbors,” he said.
The Rev. Sauers and the late Dr. Joseph Lombardo were “best of friends,” he said. It started when a parishioner was ill and had no doctor. “I told her I met a nice young man that very morning and I’d take her to see him. Dr. Lombardo treated her and we were friends ever since. We got together for breakfast every Christmas morning for 51 years.”
“Rich” is the word the Rev. Sauers uses to describe his life. “So many things,” he said. “I even shook the hand of John F. Kennedy.”
The Rev. Sauers said life comes down to one thing: love. “Jesus told us to love one another,” he said, “and that’s why I became a clergyman. I love people. It’s my nature.”
And our good fortune.