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NN Minister Remembered by Those He Helped
By Dave Schleck, Daily Press

Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2000

NEWPORT NEWS - Kevin Wright was hungry, and Father Bob fed him.

Bessie Powers was sick, and Father Bob cared for her.

Lisa Porter needed shoes, and Father Bob found a pair for her.

Some of the neediest people of Newport News are mourning the loss of the Rev. Robert Steilberg, who died Friday after a sudden illness. He served St. Paul's Episcopal Church in downtown Newport News for about six years.

A block away from St. Paul's Church on Monday, people gathered for a free lunch at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church on 33rd Street and talked about the 68-year-old minister they knew as "Father Bob." They described a man who was a living example of Jesus' words:

For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. ... I was a stranger and you invited me in. (Matthew 25:35)

Father Bob's heart was bigger than a church building, said Kevin Wright, a homeless man who sought help from the minister about four years ago. "The first time," Wright recalls, "I didn't have anything to eat. And he fed me. The second time, I was on drugs, and he sent me to get treatment. I've been at his home. I laughed with him and ate a meal at his table."

I was sick and you looked after me. (Matthew 25:36)

"I will never forget him," said 79-year-old Bessie Powers, who used to ask Father Bob tough questions -- like why God let her survive two strokes. "He said the Lord kept us here for a reason," she said. "He called me Ms. Bessie. He didn't slight nobody."

I needed clothes and you clothed me. (Matthew 25:36)

Lisa Porter came to Father Bob last week, needing shoes so she would look good for a court appointment. "He opened up the clothes closet at the church," Porter said. "He offered to call the judge on my case to tell him I was on the right track. He was a very good man. He's going to be missed."

The Rev. Steilberg earned the respect of his peers in the ministry, said the Rev. Pamela Webb, an Episcopal priest in Smithfield. "Bob, he didn't just talk about what the Gospel commands us to do -- he really did it," Webb said. "He reached out to people that society usually classified as outcasts."

Steilberg spoke openly about the challenge of opening up the church to the poor while at the same time respecting the needs of longtime congregation members. A ministry partner with his wife -- the Rev. Isabel Steilberg, who is rector of the parish -- Father Bob started several outreach programs, including a weekly "Good Friday" party at the church to keep recovering addicts from spending their paychecks on drugs. He started a "Christ Over Cocaine" program and volunteered for Freedom House, an inner-city ministry in Richmond. Father Bob was an active participant in the homeless shelter program of the Living Interfaith Network (LINK), a Newport News-based charity.

Participants in a meeting of the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Virginia in Williamsburg last weekend read a statement honoring the Rev. Steilberg.

St. Paul's Church parishioner Cathy Penfield said she would remember Steilberg for his meaningful sermons and caring attitude. "I was born and raised at St. Paul's," said Penfield, who is 42. "I've always loved my minister. But Father Bob and Isabel are the first ministers that I've ever really been able to relate to."

The Rev. Steilberg was checked into the hospital Thursday and died of multiple health problems just before noon on Friday, according to friends of the family.

Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. (Matthew 25:34)

Wright, one of the many people who seek food and shelter from St. Paul's Church, said he hopes God rewards Father Bob's generous spirit. "If there's any such thing as a better place, a heaven, Father Bob is there," Wright said.

A funeral service for the Rev. Steilberg was held at 3 p.m. on February 15 at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, 221 34th Street, Newport News. The Rt. Rev. Donald Hart, assistant to the bishop of the Diocese of Southern Virginia, was the celebrant. The Rt. Rev. Frank Vest, retired bishop of the diocese, delivered the sermon.

The Rev. Steilberg was buried at 11 a.m. Wednesday, February 16, in Wicomico Episcopal Church Cemetery in Northumberland County.


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