Father Don Kribs: "Called, Consecrated, Sent"

“Sharing and receiving: That’s what the Gospel is all about.”
– Reverend Don Kribs

Father Don Kribs, a native Angeleno, stands 6 feet 6 inches tall; and as a priest of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles for the last 50 years, he has stood for Gospel justice and peace. On April 25, Father Kribs celebrated the Golden Jubilee of his ordination.

After ministering in archdiocesan parishes for the first 15 years of his priesthood, he devoted the second half to people in dire need: homeless alcoholic men on Skid Row in Los Angeles, critically ill patients in county hospitals, and the “poorest of the poor” affiliated with Mother Teresa.

“People asked, ‘How do you stand it?’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’ It was pure Gospel as far as I was concerned. I could not not do it,” Father Kribs said. “I’ve always said social justice is the best kept secret in the Catholic Church. I was absolutely thrilled to do it; and I never regretted anything.”
Father Kribs is one of the retired archdiocesan priests; and the story of his ministry provides an example of what one man, one priest, can do to spread the Gospel.

Father Don Kribs: “Called”

Born in 1934, Don Kribs attended Catholic schools. He noted that his father was a daily Communicant:  “I wasn’t, but my dad was,” Father Kribs said. “He was an insurance broker, so I thought that’s what I’d do.”

As a business student at Loyola University, he had not yet heard the call to ordained life. “I dated. I was in a fraternity. We had a beach house. I was enjoying myself, having a great time,” Father Kribs said with a laugh. “Then, all of all of a sudden, the long and the short of it was that I was drawn to being a priest. And I was surprised, because I had been dating for five years,” he said.

“I eventually thought, ‘What in the world is going on?’ I saw the chaplain at Loyola University and discussed it with him. He told me he thought I was being called to the priesthood. And then I said, ‘I’ll try it out.’ So I applied for seminary and got in.”

Father Kribs endured his rigorous priestly formation. “In those days, it was all about studying and praying in Latin. All our textbooks and theology were Latin. It was a whole different scene, and just something to get through. I realized God does things strangely, but God is in charge, leading me.”

Father Don Kribs: “Consecrated”

Father Kribs recalled his Ordination Day in St. Vibiana Cathedral in 1961: “I was scared to death. I knew it was a big thing. It was very formal. Very sacred,” he said. “I only had a select number of invitations, so just close friends and family were there.”

Father Kribs said he remembers lying prostate on the altar. “It was a sacred event, but I was asking myself, ‘What the hell are you doing, Kribs? What in the world is this all about?’ I do remember being astonished.”

Only two priests—both from Cathedral Chapel Parish—were  ordained that day for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. The other was Cardinal Archbishop Justin Rigali of Philadelphia.

Father Kribs celebrated his first Mass in Cathedral Chapel Parish in Los Angeles.   

Father Don Kribs: “Sent”

Ordained life led the young priest to parish life.  “For my first 25 years, I was assigned to different parishes; and it was the policy to transfer priests around, so I was in Precious Blood In Los Angeles, St. John of God Parish in Norwalk, St. Raphael in Goleta, and St. Paschal Baylon Parish in Thousand Oaks. “I loved it,” said Father Kribs.

Father Kribs joined the archdiocese’s first Jesu Caritas group for priests. He restored himself along the Pacific Ocean that always provided refreshment for his spirit. He marched to support Civil Rights in the 1960s.

“In the Seventies and Eighties, I was quite involved in Central American issues: refugees and human rights abuses,” said Father Kribs.

He served on the board of the Southern California Interfaith Task Force on Central America. The 1980 murders of Archbishop Oscar Romero and the four churchwomen, followed by the 1989 murder of 6 Jesuits, their housekeeper and her 16-year-old daughter, devastated him.
“I marched with hundreds of people downtown to the federal building; and we demonstrated by locking our arms together to block entry of all the doors, protesting U.S. involvement in the violence in El Salvador,” Father Kribs. “I was arrested every week for 10 weeks.”

Father Don Kribs: Converted

 “About half way through my priesthood, I went through a conversion-type experience. I had a Dark Night of the Soul, several years of real conversion. I found out what the Gospel was all about, and I converted into ministry with the poor, and social injustice that keeps people poor,” Father Kribs said.

“From that point, I knew I had to give my life to the direct service of the poor, oppressed, sick, and other marginalized people. After my conversion experience, I went to Bishop Johnson and said, ‘I have to get into full-time ministry with the poor. I have to do that.’ I couldn’t stand it any longer. That was where the calling went.”

The calling led Father Kribs to what many people might consider the depths of some of the most despairing places in the City of Angels: Skid Row and county hospitals.

“In 1975, they got me an assignment at St. Vincent’s on Skid Row. I lived in residence at the old cathedral. St. Vincent de Paul Center was the largest daytime facility in the largest Skid Row in the U.S. My ministry was just to be there. I ended up being director.”

Among the downtrodden, the priest felt uplifted by his ministry. Father Kribs said that at the mission, he typically saw 400 to 600 men a day: “All homeless. All alcoholic. Now, it’s a lot of drugs, but this was in the Seventies, and it was alcohol and mental illness. I loved every minute of it when working on Skid Row.”
His joy stemmed from his trust not in his own work, but in the Gospel and the hand of God.

Father Kribs said. “I’d be asked to give talks to Knights of Columbus or parishes. People would ask me how many men we had rehabilitated. I told them that if we were there in order to get our jollies rehabilitating men, we’d quit. Our work is just to do the Gospel. We provided showers, shaves, clean clothes, social work, day-time sleeping arrangements. We didn’t control the outcome,” Father Kribs said. “If somebody got sober or mentally healthy, that was God.”

Asked whether he ever envisioned ministry to the vulnerable, Father Kribs said, “I don’t understand it. All I know in my life is that God works in strange ways.”

Father Kribs expressed gratitude for the educational experiences of his priesthood—not just in seminary, but in active ministry, especially on Skid Row: “I learned so much! I learned that I had administrative abilities. I learned how to deal with a crowd. I had to pay attention. It was very tense and stressful sometimes. I had to be on. I had to listen and know what noises meant.”

A peacemaker among so-called “least among us” men, Father Kribs became a brother, a leader, a priest. God’s calling had led him home to a place where his heart felt open and full enough to share Gospel patience with the marginalized, as Jesus had done. The men struggling against homelessness and alcoholism valued the priest: “I was highly respected by the men – and, thank you God, because I didn’t go to school to learn how to work with people under these circumstances,” Father Kribs said.

“I learned you have to have some rules, but very few; and you had to stick by them. They had to have some boundaries—like don’t bring in a weapon. I learned that if you really care about them, they can accept the ‘no.’”

The ministry fulfilled his priesthood: “I loved it. They were lovely. I learned not to be judgmental. I wore my black. I didn’t wear a collar, but I always had it sticking out of my shirt pocket. That was a running joke.”

Father Don Kribs: Silver Jubilee in jail

To celebrate his Silver Jubilee, Father Kribs engaged in an act of civil disobedience.
“I didn’t want to do the craziness of a fancy hotel dinner,” said the priest. “It was my 25th anniversary of my ordination, and I decided to be who I was. I wanted to hook into the Franciscan tradition in the desert. I sent out hand-written invitations. About 80 people came from L.A. to Las Vegas.”

Plans called for the priest to engage in nonviolent civil disobedience at the Nevada test site for nuclear weapons, about 60 miles north of Las Vegas.

“I celebrated Mass in the poorest parish in Las Vegas. And then six of us went out and did civil disobedience,” Father Kribs said. “We participated in the prayer service organized by the Franciscans every Friday during Lent, followed by nonviolent civil disobedience. I was there in silence, and I got arrested for trespassing. Bishop Johnson even came to support me in my act of civil disobedience and watched me be arrested.”

The priest went before a judge in court a month later. He served a sentence of six days in a small jail. “It was kind of like a retreat.”

Upon his release Father Kribs went on to serve people in need.
The priest’s Skid Row ministry focused on men. “Men and women had to be separate; that’s just the way it is,” he said. But he eventually helped the founder of the Downtown Women’s Center establish the facility that continues to provide ministry and services to females in need.

Over the five decades of his priesthood, Father Kribs also ministered for five years as Chaplain at Rancho Los Amigos. At the long-term rehab facility, he ministered to paralytics, people who had suffered gunshot wounds, head trauma and other critical ailments.

At Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center, he was pastor of St. Camillus Delellis Center for Pastoral Care, where he led seven full-time chaplains. And at Martin Luther King Hospital, Father Kribs served for 3.5 years as Catholic chaplain.  “I became fluent in Spanish to serve people in the county hospitals,” he said.


Father Don Kribs: Friend of Mother Teresa

 Through a roundabout way initiated by his charitable contribution to Mother Teresa, Father Kribs met with an American associate of the Calcutta nun devoted to serving the “poorest of the poor.” At the time, the U.S.A. branch of the International Co-Workers of Mother Teresa was forming.

“I was asked to be vice-chair serving the West Coast region. Through this involvement, I was with Mother Teresa many, many times, often for days at a time. We became friends. We had quite a correspondence,” Father Kribs said.

“When we’d gather for meetings, often in Minneapolis, Mother Teresa would come in a few days early; and we’d all be there together. I’d say Mass,” Father Kribs said.  “As Co-Workers, we emphasized you can do the Mother Teresa thing in your own place. Do it right where you live, whether married, single, priest, or nun. Do it there.”


Father Don Kribs: Retired

 Like many retired priests, Father Kribs reports ailments. He has undergone four spinal surgeries and suffers chronic pain. Father Kribs lives in Nazareth House. Run by the Sisters of Nazareth, the elder housing ministry serves 100 lay people and 16 priests at the present time.
“At the beginning of my retirement, I used to help at Sunday Mass in two parishes,” said the 76-year-old priest.

Physical disabilities now prevent Father Kribs from standing long enough to celebrate Mass: “But I’m in the pews, participating in Eucharist, and that’s the important thing.”

Now retired, Father Kribs said, “I’ve donated my life to the people, especially the poor in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Everything I’ve done for 50 years – whether ministering in parishes, on Skid Row or as chaplain in county hospitals – has been about people, social justice, and peace. And my ministry has always has been funded by the generosity of the People of God in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. We do it together. We all have our function. A priest is only one function of the People of God.”


Father Don Kribs: On money

            “God gave us money. We’re to use it for good. We live in a greedy society and people don’t want to part with it but that’s not gospel. Try to be open and ask God to grace you with an awareness of what you ought to be doing. It’s up to God to move people. So many people are on the defensive about issues; and we have a recession, and it’s terrible. But I ask people to be honest enough to ask God for some input. Be open to it. Sharing and receiving: That’s what the Gospel is all about.”


Father Don Kribs: On thanksgiving

            “Through this Retirement Fund, people acknowledge priests as part of the community. Without the people, my ministry wouldn’t have happened. I’ve been dependent on people the whole time, and I still am. It’s been the people who have kept me going in retirement. There’s no way I’d be able to live here at Narareth House by myself, so please help. Thank you, people, for supporting retired priests: I’m totally grateful!"

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