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Father Robert Bob Fessler fills in as a substitute servant
Retired priest spends one day a week at Northeast Georgia Medical Center's hospitals
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Robert “Bob” Fessler is a member of St. Gabriel’s Episcopal Church in Oakwood. Recently named Northeast Georgia Medical Center’s Chaplain of the Year, the retired priest visits the sick in the area’s two hospitals. Fessler also acts as a ‘supply priest,’ filling in for vacationing preachers. - photo by Erin O. Smith

Father Robert “Bob” Fessler started and ended his career in the same way.

“When I was ordained in Milwaukee (in May 1965), I didn’t have an assignment for about five or six weeks,” Fessler said. “Here I am, ordained and raring to go with nothing to do.”

So, at the beginning of his career, when a friend of a friend needed a priest to fill in for a vacationing chaplain, Fessler jumped at the opportunity. He agreed to act as a substitute and offered his services wherever they were needed.

“That lasted less than a week,” Fessler said.

Fifty years later, Fessler is still happily filling this role. And he’s good at it. The 76-year-old took home Northeast Georgia Medical Center’s “Chaplain of the Year” award in August at its volunteer banquet.

“I was just taken aback,” he said. “I broke into tears. I was greatly humbled and pleased.”

Fessler picked up the responsibility when he found himself bored and out of a job in 2011 because of unforeseen circumstances.

Four years ago, Fessler was rector at St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Milwaukee. Then he turned 72, which is the magic number for retirement in the church’s Constitutions and Canons.

“I was head of a parish,” Fessler said. “I was active in it. I was going strong, and then all of a sudden they pulled my plug.”

He didn’t want to retire or leave his church.

“Either I was never told about the 72-year rule, or I forgot it,” he said. “It came to me as a big surprise. So I reluctantly sent in my letter of resignation.”

He officially stepped down 12 months later. Then, Fessler and his wife, Pat, decided to move to Georgia to be closer to their daughter, Karen Sternitzky, who lives in Suwanee with her husband, John.

“It was unsettling for me having no place to serve,” Fessler said.

So he and his wife started looking for a new church in their new home of Hoschton.

“We went church shopping,” Fessler said. “I was a little lost sheep, and then found my way.”

His “way” landed him at St. Gabriel’s Episcopal Church in Oakwood. He checked it out one day after looking at three other churches.

“St. Gabriel’s is a wonderful, caring, loving place,” Fessler said. “It’s just a wonderful place to be. All of a sudden I had a place to serve. This parish just took me and my wife in and loved us deeply.”

He said he likes St. Gabriel’s because of its open-minded attitude, among other things.

“Everyone is welcome,” Fessler said. “I’ve never seen them turn someone away.”

While the church has had an effect on Fessler, his loving personality has had an effect on the congregation.

“Father Bob’s compassion and caring are evident from the first time you meet him,” the Rev. Rich Sanders, interim priest in charge at St. Gabriel’s parish, said in a press release. “His open and gentle ministering effectively shares the love of God to all. And he is such a gift to our parish, counseling and comforting those in need.”

But Fessler was not content with helping St. Gabriel’s congregation.

“I needed more things to do in the service of the Lord,” he said.

Then Fessler answered a call to serve at Northeast Georgia Medical Center and became a volunteer chaplain. He is one of 40 chaplains who help at the hospital regularly.

“The camaraderie with the ministers there is awesome,” Fessler said. “Ministers of every persuasion, all Christian, we act as a unit. We are all doing the exact same thing.”

Before becoming a chaplain at Northeast Georgia Medical Center, he went through a one-day orientation.

“I had to shadow another chaplain three different times before they gave me my badge to do it myself,” Fessler said.

As a hospital chaplain, the priest’s main duty is to visit and pray for the sick at Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville and Braselton. Fessler heads to both locations at least once a week, usually Wednesdays, and receives a list of people to pray for and visit. At the Braselton hospital, Fessler said he sees “the whole place.”

He and a team of other chaplains also prayed for the Braselton hospital before it officially opened.

“We went into every single room and anointed the doors of every room in the hospital,” Fessler said. “We prayed and that was exciting.”

He and two other chaplains also anointed the hands of the nurses, doctors and other staff when the hospital opened in April. The staff asked him to return on Nurses’ Day to repeat the process.

“The nurses still talk about it,” Fessler said.

But being a chaplain means more than the praise and perks.

“A chaplain comes bearing Jesus, and Jesus’ healing power,” Fessler said. “It’s an opportunity to bring the healing of Jesus to those who need him.”

Along with his chaplain duties, Fessler acts as a “supply priest.”

“I’m around here now when the priest is gone for some reason, either sickness or vacation or whatever,” Fessler said. “I can jump in and fill in, which I’ve done.”

He has substituted for churches in Toccoa, Dahlonega and various places in Georgia.

“My name is out there,” Fessler said. “Whenever they need a priest, I’m on the list.”

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