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Published: Monday, 2/4/2008

Priest founded parish, charmed Blade readers

Kirtland Kirtland
BLACK / BLADE Enlarge

The Rev. Robert Kirtland, founding pastor of the University of Toledo's Catholic parish and a law school instructor who wrote wine and restaurant review columns for The Blade, died yesterday in St. Vincent Mercy Medical Center. He was 78.

The death was the result of a stroke, friends said.

Father Kirtland served as the university's Catholic chaplain from 1970 to 1982, and was selected his first year to establish a campus parish for University of Toledo students and faculty that became what is known as Corpus Christi University Parish.

He went on to become the new parish's pastor as he continued to offer his chaplain services to students of any religious denomination, said Stephen Goldman, a longtime friend and UT professor.

"His office was open to any student on that campus regardless of their tradition," Mr. Goldman said. "His respect for religious traditions other than his own was boundless, and that's what made him so exceptional."

In 1979, Father Kirtland helped spearhead the movement to establish the University Interfaith Council, which includes religious communities throughout the Toledo area, said the Rev. Jim Bacik, current pastor of Corpus Christi and a council member.

Father Kirtland, who spoke Latin and fluent French and traveled throughout Europe, also was known for his wide intellectual interests.

"He was one of the bright intellectuals in the priesthood of the Diocese of Toledo," Father Bacik said.

Father Kirtland held a doctoral degree in constitutional law from the University of Michigan, and had expertise in English common law.

"He was a man who was fascinated by the English legal system and he became an expert on its history," said John Robinson Block, co-publisher and editor-in-chief of The Blade and Father Kirtland's longtime friend.

Father Kirtland taught legal history courses at UT's law school in the 1970s and '80s, and helped to establish the university's chair of Catholic studies.

Toledo attorney Jim Caruso, a deacon at Our Lady, Queen of the Most Holy Rosary Cathedral, recalled taking Father Kirtland's class in English legal history in law school.

"He was a fantastic teacher," Mr. Caruso said. "He could lecture for an hour without notes and he kept you engaged the entire time."

Father Kirtland, a Toledo native and the son of an attorney, was graduated from Central Catholic High School and later Providence College in Rhode Island. He attended St. Meinrad, St. Peter, and Mount St. Mary seminaries, and in 1955 he was ordained at Rosary Cathedral, where he celebrated his first Mass.

He later served as pastor at St. Joseph Parish in Maumee and during the 1960s at Blessed Sacrament Parish in Toledo, where he met his mentor, the late Msgr. James J. O'Toole.

Following his time at Corpus Christi, Father Kirtland was a pastor at St. Clement Parish in Toledo, and in the early 1990s, he was an associate pastor at St. Rose Parish in Perrysburg. He continued to preside at the church's early morning weekday Mass until 2006, a shorter 7 a.m. liturgy that he designed to finish in time for churchgoers to get to work.

Parishioner Jack Sculfort recalled attending Father Kirtland's Mass every morning.

"I felt it was a privilege to be there and spend a part of the day with such a knowledgeable person," Mr. Sculfort said. "He would establish a theme and build on it from week to week. I gained insight of not only the Bible, but of Western culture. He spoke on ethics, fun, wine and food, government, legal issues, and more."

Father Kirtland made forays into civic service as well, and was tapped by the city of Toledo in 1977 to serve as its volunteer coordinator of a task force to develop a new five-year housing plan for the city. The plan he helped devise called for nearly doubling the amount of publicly assisted housing units in the city.

"I would like to see a point of some public tolerance for public housing, and I think if we can get a breather, we can build a good project, and turn around attitudes," he told The Blade that year.

Father Kirtland brought his knowledge and appreciation for fine food and dining to a wider audience during the 1990s and 2000s as The Blade's restaurant and wine critic. While his name, and often his photograph, ran beside the wine column, readers did not always know that it was Father Kirtland writing the Bill of Fare restaurant reviews.

He considered both responsibilities great fun, as evidenced in his "restaurant critic's confession" published in 1990.

"Is there an adult alive who has not at least once or twice complained of a restaurant meal?" he wrote. "At times like that, the professional critic of restaurants and their service may be envied. Who else can air their gripes to the world and be paid for doing it?"

In 1995, Father Kirtland was honored by the Academy of Wine Communications for his general excellence in the field of wine coverage.

There are no immediate survivors. Visitation and services are pending.



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