Fr. Ken Steiner poses for a photo about the time of his ordination in 1962. (Sentinel archives)
Fr. Ken Steiner poses for a photo about the time of his ordination in 1962. (Sentinel archives)
" He wades into a group of strangers and soon he knows their names, all their relatives and who they’re connected to.
" Jesuit Fr. Craig Boly on Auxiliary Bishop Ken Steiner
After hearing that Auxiliary Bishop Ken Steiner had been a priest for 60 years and a bishop for 44 years, one enterprising grade-schooler did the math and presumed the man standing before the class was 104 years old.

The 85-year-old bishop guffawed then explained that bishops remain priests. It’s the kind of amusing and human story Bishop Steiner treasures.

“It’s been about the people,” he said of his priesthood. “It helps to recognize the uniqueness and holiness of each and every person.”

Archbishop Edward Howard ordained the young Nebraskan May 19, 1962 at St. Mary Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. Bishop Steiner’s memories of ordination day are thin. He recalls that everything was in Latin and that Archbishop Howard was 85, which seemed impossibly old.

What sticks in the mind is subsequent ministry to people in need. He learned early on from Father Emil Kies that it’s vital to get to know parishioners and love them.

A highlight of Bishop Steiner’s priestly career was outreach to separated and divorced Catholics, who were so honest with their struggles and their need for God. Young Father Steiner also ran a pre-marriage program, inviting top counselors and doctors to speak, all of whom were married and could teach from experience.

Sometimes, he looks back and wonders if he has accomplished anything worthy. Then he remembers all the small moments with people and his heart feels full. “People are the best signs of God,” he said. “God is in his created and redeemed people.”

Bishop Steiner has a liking for small town parishes and so has served happily in places like Coos Bay, Roy and North Plains. He answered the phone late at night to go on hospital visits. He helped paint the parish hall and allowed homeless people to camp in his yard.

“He always puts the people first, ahead of himself,” Father Peter O’Brien said in 2018. “He is a devoted, holy priest. He has a heart for the people of God.”

“I learned a lot from him about parish administration and ministry,” Father John Kerns said in 2018. “He has so much compassion. It is just who he is.”

Father Michael Vuky, pastor of Visitation Parish in Verboort, says Bishop Steiner leads not just from the front of the flock but sometimes from the back, allowing the flock to signal where the shepherd is needed most.

“I have only known him as a bishop who with a shepherd’s heart has counseled, guided, directed, prayed, listened, exhorted, admonished and modeled for me how to love and serve the people of God,” Father Vuky said.

Often thought of as the Catholic leader who specially engages the area south of Portland, Bishop Steiner now is known for raising funds for important Catholic causes like seminary education and charity work in the Salem area. People appreciate the relationships as well as the numbers.

“He is like a Catholic magnet who draws people together in faith,” said Josh Graves, executive director of Catholic Community Services of the Mid-Willamette. Bishop Steiner has been so supportive of Catholic Community Services that the agency named its headquarters after him.

“If you call Bishop Steiner he picks up the phone and talks to you,” said Graves, who was confirmed by Bishop Steiner in Tillamook in 1989. “If he is needed at an event, he is there. He works so hard for the community.”

Among Bishop Steiner’s heroes is Kansas City Archbishop Edwin O’Hara, a Portland priest who in the 1920s emerged as a dynamic and famed leader in liturgy, social justice, labor, education, rural life and college ministry.

Bishop Steiner frequented All Saints Parish where another hero, Msgr. Thomas Tobin, was pastor in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. The liturgy and social ministry were bold, rooted both in tradition and the future. Lay involvement was vibrant.

Another hero was Archbishop Charles Seghers, who in the 1880s trekked around the massive Archdiocese of Oregon City on horseback and on foot, meeting people on the peripheries.

Those who know Bishop Steiner say he encapsulates much of these visions in his friendly way.

“He is a great spiritual leader,” said John Murphy, a member of St. Thomas More Newman Center in Eugene who’s had Bishop Steiner officiate at the weddings of five of six children.

“He has a quiet method of sending a message. It’s always good,” said Murphy, who sees young people respond well to the bishop. “He is a very holy inspirational man to people young and old.”

Bishop Steiner remembers retired priests and visits them regularly. Late in his priesthood he became a zealous prison minister beloved by death row inmates. He gives away so much money that the IRS has audited him.

Bishop Steiner’s longtime friend, Jesuit Father Craig Boly, said the bishop retains the spiritual touch of a country pastor.

“He’s the most available priest I’ve ever met,” Father Boly said. “If you need him, he’s there. What characterizes his ministry is joy and humor. He wades into a group of strangers and soon he knows their names, all their relatives and who they’re connected to. He is a great, compassionate confessor, relentlessly upbeat and hopeful.”