January 13, 2009

Outer Banks Catholics mourn the death of beloved retired pastor  


The Rev. Joseph Klaus, 80, of Southern Shores, who was instrumental in the growth of the Catholic Church on the Outer Banks, including the establishment of Our Lady of the Seas parish in Buxton, passed away Dec. 30, 2008.

Klaus died of a heart attack a couple weeks after surgery for skin cancer at Duke University Hospital.

He served as pastor of the old Holy Redeemer Catholic Church in Kill Devil Hills from 1963 to 1972, many years before it was destroyed by an arson fire.

“Father had a way of wrapping his arms around your heart,” said friend David Parks of Duck recently. 

Klaus was a “priestly man,” according to the Rev. Bill Walsh, pastor of Holy Redeemer by the Sea Church in Kitty Hawk.

“His love and care for the young and old and for needy families and his love for the Catholic Mass and his sense of humor truly defined him,” Walsh said. “He could tell a story and hit that punchline. He had good timing.”

Father Klaus retired in 1981, but never stopped ministering. He most recently celebrated Mass and anointed the sick at Britthaven and Spring Arbor and helped with Masses at St. Ann Catholic Church in Edenton (where he was twice the pastor). He also set up an altar and said Mass in private homes in Corolla. A number of parishioners in Corolla have found it difficult to attend Mass in Kitty Hawk, especially during the traffic of summer.  Walsh said Father Klaus seemed the happiest in his life over the past four years while tending to Jesus' flock with the Corolla Masses.

Even the Bishop of Raleigh, the Most Rev. Michael F. Burbidge, who presided at Klaus’ funeral Mass on Jan. 5 at St. Ann, noted his “missionary zeal.” The church was filled to overflowing for the funeral, with dozens of people traveling from the Outer Banks to Edenton and rows of clergy from throughout the state. The Bishop was moved by the love shown for Klaus and the priesthood.
Walsh said Fr. Klaus' “astuteness in real estate” also led to the Diocese of Raleigh purchasing properties in Nags Head and Buxton, which are now the sites of the Holy Trinity by the Sea Chapel, and Our Lady of the Seas Church, respectively.

Klaus also served as chaplain at the former U.S. Navy Base in Buxton.

According to the history published by Our Lady of the Seas, “Bill Dillon, a member of our Catholic community, introduced Father Klaus to Mr. Lietner who owned the Quidley tract  located off Highway 12 north of Cape Hatteras School.  This 11-acre property was purchased in 1971 as the future site of Our Lady of the Seas facilities.”

Klaus also purchased the residence next to Holy Trinity with his own money and donated it to the Diocese for a rectory. And in 2006 he offered his own home at 197 Ocean Boulevard to his brothers of the Annunciata Council of the Knights of Columbus/Outer Banks. The Knights is a worldwide fraternal organization dedicated to church and community service and spreading the word of the Gospel.

Former Grand Knight Mike Kopnski of Duck said, “Father would travel anywhere, any time, to give anyone last rites (The Sacrament of the Sick). I believe Father never missed a day saying Mass in his entire life.”

Kopnski recalled two long trips that Klaus had taken, including one to Rome.

“And when he got off the plane, the first thing he did was find a church in which to say Mass,” he added.

Kopnski also expressed gratitude for the generosity of Father in giving his residence to “The Klaus Association,” a 501-c3 non-profit organization comprised of the Knights of Columbus members. The association is renting the home and using the net proceeds to help support a number of worthy local charities and one special project. Kopnski said the Knights are sending donations to Peru to reconstruct a church that had been destroyed by an earthquake. “It couldn't be done if it weren't for Father,” he said.

Roc Sansotta, president of Cove Realty in Nags Head and executor of Klaus' estate has been an altar server most of his life. His first encounters with Klaus were in assisting him during Mass. Sansotta said he was struck with Father's humor and his passion to help the sick and the poor.

“I'd take him to eat and he would always ask for a doggy bag so he could feed someone else,” he said.

Sansotta added that Klaus came across as a man of modest means, and he would try to solicit the restaurants for gift cards that he could give away to others in need.

In fact, Klaus was not only an astute judge of real estate for his Diocese, he had invested wisely locally himself.  Sansotta said the priest had as many as 40 properties, including an inn and a partnership in a local shopping center. But he bequeathed everything in his will to his beloved Catholic Church.

Some of the proceeds will go toward the evangelical television programming of Mother Angelica. Klaus would say that his monthly bill for satellite TV was the best investment he ever made because of the revitalizing holy news lovingly bestowed 24 hours a day. He recommended it constantly to his fellow Christians.

Sansotta said it was also Klaus’ hope that some of his estate would go towards the purchase of land and construction of a church or chapel in Corolla – or for the purchase of an existing structure there for a church.

“This is the kind of man he was,” said Sansotta. “He didn't invest for himself. All his investments were designed to help other people. He was always giving, no matter what.”

David Parks is also a lawyer and represented Father in business matters. He affirmed Sansotta's observations.
“He had the means to live quite comfortably, but he chose a Spartan existence. I asked him about it and he said, 'I didn't take a vow of poverty, but I live a life of poverty,'” Parks said, adding that “Father felt firmly that everything he earned was God's.”

He recounted that even those who were close to him never saw Klaus buy anything for himself. The priest would love to joke that he could squeeze an awful lot out of the buffalo on a nickel. Parks said he was personally aware of individuals and families that father helped with food, rent, and education.

“Father said he knew from age 4 he wanted to be a priest,” Parks said. “He cared for sick people since he was a child. He cooked for them, washed their clothes, and there is nothing he would not do for you in his ministering of the needs of people.”

Klaus served as a priest for more than 50 years. And he did it with great humor, his friends said. It was not unlike him to crack a joke, break into song or dance a jig without notice, they said. “Have I scandalized you yet?” he would ask. He had a slight accent from his upstate New York, Polish-German heritage. He was brought up in a Jewish neighborhood near Buffalo by two women who cared for him after his parents died when he was a child. He worked in the Jewish market as a boy.

“He was the only priest I ever knew who spoke Yiddish,” Monsignor Gerald L. Lewis said at Klaus’ funeral. “He was lively, welcoming, funny, friendly and prayerful…. Jesus destroyed death forever. Life has not ended but has changed. Father Klaus never doubted this and he intended to go to heaven. May perpetual light shine upon him.”
Klaus was a graduate of Canisius College with a degree in English and was ordained in 1954 after attending St. Bonaventure University's Christ the King Seminary. He had a robust career serving in churches throughout the state. He is interred at St. Ann Catholic Cemetery.

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