Retired priest joins Habitat workforce

MANATEE -- When workers gather at this particular home construction site, Robert Unger leads them in prayer and provides a sympathetic ear when someone has something that’s been bothering them.

As a retired priest and as a mechanical engineer, Unger brings a unique set of skills to the work of building Habitat for Humanity’s latest home at Hope Landing, near Blackburn Elementary School in Ellenton.

In addition to the prayers and encouragement, Unger is unafraid to get his hands dirty, including helping with everything from digging trenches to putting in rebar.

Unger, 66, graduated as a mechanical engineer in 1970, and worked as an engineer until 1984.

He was ordained as a priest in 1999.

“It was God’s calling,” Unger said of his late life call to the priesthood. “Before that I was out of the church. When it happened I think I was the one who was most surprised.”

Unger came to Bradenton in June from Park River, N.D., to retire and to “thaw out” from the harsh winters.

He had been interested in the work done by Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit, ecumenical, volunteer-based organization for some time.

When he read about the project at Hope Landing in a church bulletin at St. Joseph Catholic Church where he now attends worship and is a member of the choir, he was immediately interested in getting involved.

The typical volunteer usually brings an expert set of skills to the job, or a spiritual passion for the job, said Jim Frame, chairman of the board for Manatee County Habitat for Humanity.

Unger brings both.

“He approaches it with skill and passion, is very detailed-oriented, and is a spiritual man. He’s totally comfortable with that,” Frame said.

Unger’s work ethic comes across as “servanthood expressed through joyful and willing action,” said Ron Turner, executive director of Manatee County Habitat for Humanity.

Unger says it’s easy to come to the Habitat work site with an upbeat attitude.

“It always nice to work with people who want to be there. Everybody who comes here wants to work, they want to do something. That makes the whole atmosphere nice,” he said.

Habitat volunteers are working on two homes at the Hope Landing site and hope to finish four homes by July, Frame said.

“We are also doing A Brush With Kindness project to help existing homeowners maintain their homes,” Frame said. Habitat volunteers, when alerted by code enforcement and congregation members, go to homes where homeowners, due to circumstances beyond their control, have been unable to maintain their homes.

For more information on Manatee County Habitat for Humanity, visit or call (941) 7448-9100.

James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee Editor, can be contacted at 745-7021.