Bob Whomsley formally retired on May 16, 2024 — exactly 52 years from the day he began serving the Church of Philadelphia.

Grass flourishes. Trees grow stately. Bands of family and friends join in a faithful pilgrimage to their loved one’s final place of rest.

This is a Catholic burial, in a Catholic cemetery, tended by the unnoticed workers among fields of gravestones and in the offices that keep the cemetery’s grounds well kept, and the families comforted.

Robert Whomsley knows this repeating tableau of death and life perhaps better than anyone in the Philadelphia region.

He is retiring after a career of 52 years employed by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, mostly with the archdiocesan Office of Catholic Cemeteries. That career started in 1972 when as a young man of 19, he began mowing the lawns of Saints Peter and Paul Cemetery in Springfield, Delaware County.

After growing up in Darby, attending Blessed Virgin Mary Parish School and graduating from Msgr. Bonner High School in 1970, he had a dream of someday working in an office.

Brief stints working and attending Shippensburg University led him to the fields of the cemetery.

After taking on more work at Saints Peter and Paul as a heavy equipment operator to dig the burial sites and then as cemetery foreman, Whomsley set his sights on cemetery work at a higher level, perhaps as a director.

For the time being, however, his attention was focused on the work of grave digging.

“I knew I had to move down before I moved up,” he said with his typical Irish wit.

Also, during this time, Whomsley was not letting the grass grow under his feet. In 1973 Bob married Barbara, the girl he’d known from his childhood neighborhood in Darby. Last August they celebrated 50 years of faith-filled marriage.

Within a few years they welcomed three children – Kevin, Joseph, and Elizabeth – into their growing family at Holy Spirit Parish located in Sharon Hill.

Working outside in the brutal winter cold provided motivation for Whomsley to resume his college studies. First at Delaware County Community College, then at St. Joseph’s University. He ate a quick dinner two nights a week before heading to evening classes.

In the meantime, Whomsley was getting noticed. In 1980, the director of the Catholic Cemeteries Office, Msgr. John Jagodzinski, invited Whomsley to interview for a position in a new purchasing office to apply more stringent financial controls.

“I borrowed a suit from a friend for the interview,” Whomsley said. He landed the job, and soon, “I was wearing a jacket and tie in the Cemeteries Office on the 10th floor of the [Archdiocesan Pastoral Center] building.”

As the years of night classes culminated in Whomsley earning his undergraduate degree from St. Joseph’s in 1988, his dedication kept gaining the respect of his colleagues and supervisors.

Succeeding Catholic cemeteries office directors including Msgr. John Breslin and Marie Ryan promoted Whomsley to accounting positions, assistant director, and at last in 1996 to director of the office that operated 12 archdiocesan cemeteries and consulted for dozens of parish cemeteries throughout the five-county region.

“They were great people to work for,” he said of his former bosses and colleagues. “They helped me get to the position of director. They showed me support and patience and I wouldn’t be where I am without them.

“I never thought I’d be named director, but it was one of my aspirations. I was honored, and it was a dream come true.”

Along the way the children grew up and Barbara and Bob’s marriage grew closer.

“Any success I’ve had is due in big part to how she helped me,” Bob said of Barbara. “She gave great support.”

By the early 2010s finances were becoming a serious concern for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. In a move to improve those finances, in 2014 the archdiocesan cemeteries were leased to StoneMor Partners for an initial payment of $53 million.

The Bucks County-based company took over operation of the 12 archdiocesan-owned cemeteries, and consequently, the archdiocesan cemeteries office was closed.

That arrangement meant an end to the directorship that Whomsley had sought and achieved over many years.

“It was very painful,” he said candidly, “and I was heartbroken.”

But it also represented a path to new achievements. Whomsley was named the director of the archdiocesan Office for General Services, along with the dual role of liaison for Catholic cemeteries in the archdiocese.

So, in that sense, “I kept one foot in the grave,” Whomsley quipped.

He had another longtime dream that would not have seemed possible at this point. He’d always dreamed of meeting the pope.

With his new position, however he would soon become a key figure during the visit of Pope Francis to Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families—Philadelphia 2015, as the building was an operations hub for that grand and historic occasion.

While he had much work to do, he unexpectedly received a ticket to the Mass that Pope Francis celebrated in the Cathedral Basilica of  Saints Peter and Paul.

“There I was, in a center aisle seat, and down the aisle walks the Holy Father in his white cassock. He was arms-length away from me. It was a dream come true,” Whomsley said.

Another highlight in his career was supervising the 2018 transferal of the remains of Philadelphia saint St. Katharine Drexel from her shrine in Bensalem to a new shrine in the Cathedral.

Now with his career wrapping up, Whomsley looks forward to enjoying his retirement featuring much walking, reading – he just bought Thomas Merton’s “Seven Storey Mountain” as the first book to dig into – keeping up with a group of 20 close friends and enjoying his eight grandchildren.

He’ll also stay busy as a catechist – he earned a master’s degree in religious studies from St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in 2012 – for the Religious Education Program at St. Madeline Parish in Ridley Park, where he and Barbara remain members.

And a lifelong love of the guitar – “I blame it on the Beatles,” he said – enables him to play contemporary liturgical music with a group at St. Gabriel Parish in Norwood, and with a traditional Irish music band, High Street.

He reflects on his career with Catholic cemeteries where he and his colleagues “not only bury the dead, [but] you comfort the sorrowful, counsel the doubtful, and bear wrongs patiently. Catholic cemeteries is a ministry, whether you’re in the office or the fields.”

“I’ve been blessed to be in the right place at the right time. But now it’s time to hang up my pick and shovel and pick up a book.”

Bob Whomsley formally retired on May 16, 2024 — exactly 52 years from the day he began serving the Church of Philadelphia.