Diocesan Home Campaign is building support for priests reaching retirement age
By Jim Wogan
Long before he was a priest in the Diocese of Knoxville, Monsignor Bill Gahagan thought he had made a deal with the Lord.
It was 1959, and Monsignor Gahagan was a young man serving in the U.S. Air Force. He had just returned from duty in France and had received new orders to report to a military installation in Middle Tennessee. But driving through Knoxville, a tire sprung a leak on his 1941 Buick.
He remembers being stuck on the side of Highway 70 with a flat and in front of an ice cream shop, and the future Catholic priest said, “Lord, if you ever get me out of this, I will never come back here again.”
Sometimes, the Lord answers prayers in ways we don’t expect.
Monsignor Gahagan somehow got out of that jam, got back on the road, reported for duty, completed his military service, and was later honorably discharged at Stewart Air Force Base in Smyrna, Tenn.
After serving his country, he contemplated marriage and family life, but he also considered service to the Catholic Church. On Sept. 27, Monsignor Gahagan celebrated the 50th anniversary of his ordination as a Catholic priest—many of those years have been spent in and around Knoxville, a place he asked the Lord to deliver him from in 1959.
“My ordination date is actually Jan. 31. But every time we tried to do a celebration in the past there was snow and ice, so Bishop Stika asked if we’d move it,” Monsignor Gahagan said during a recent interview at his home in Norris. “I thought there’d be no difference, so we decided to celebrate it on my birthday, which is Sept. 27.”
Monsignor Gahagan, 82, is among 12 priests in the diocese who have stepped out of active ministry after a lifetime of service to the Church. And while the term “retirement” is a commonly accepted description for most people who have left the workforce, it is not a designation that comes easy to the Catholic Church.
“I think the mistake, if there is one, is using the word ‘retired.’ Many dioceses do not use that term. They just say they are ‘senior priests,’ which I think is much more descriptive and accurate than ‘retired,’’’ said Father Thomas O’Connell, 81, who will mark 56 years as a priest in December.
Father O’Connell has served as a music and English teacher at Knoxville Catholic High School, was a pastor at Holy Family Parish in Seymour for 12 years, and also taught at the former Knoxville College. He most recently was the chaplain of the former St. Mary’s Medical Center. When the medical center was closed by its owners in December 2018, Father O’Connell stepped out of active ministry, but he won’t say he’s retired.
“I suppose it’s because we don’t look at it as a career, or we shouldn’t, but rather as a way of life, and so in a sense retirement doesn’t really exist. It means as we advance in age our ministry is going to change depending on situations, health, and things of that nature. But it is a way of life, not a career,” he said.
Father O’Connell said even in retirement a priest’s connection to the sacraments, and especially the Eucharist, is “of paramount importance.”
Priests retire from active ministry for different reasons.
“It was just time for me. I wanted to spend time with my family. They are all getting older, and I am the only one out of the six boys that do not live in Nashville, so I wanted the opportunity to spend time with them,” said Father William McKenzie, 66, who retired in July after 36 years in the priesthood, most recently as pastor of Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Alcoa.
“I was tired; I was ready for it,” he acknowledged.
For Monsignor Gahagan, being ready for retirement has been less certain, leading to some good-natured ribbing from Bishop Richard F. Stika, who attended Monsignor Gahagan’s anniversary Mass.
“He likes to retire,” Bishop Stika said. “He likes to retire and then come back. And then retire again, and then un-retire. It’s been about nine times since I’ve been here,” Bishop Stika joked.
This time, it appears to be final.
In 2004, the monsignor had major heart surgery. He was encouraged by then-Bishop Joseph E. Kurtz to retire. Initially, Monsignor Gahagan agreed to slow down. But after a few months he found himself back in active ministry. He developed more health issues in 2018 and decided to make retirement official, at least as “official” as he could.
“Canonically I am retired, but so far in my head and heart, I am not retired,” Monsignor Gahagan said. “I have always enjoyed the priesthood and the blessings of service I have given to the Lord. Of course, like in every profession, we are confronted with the reality of life and the challenges that come with it.”
Father Joseph Brando is another diocesan priest who has confronted his share of health challenges in recent years. Father Brando has been a priest since 1972, and even in retirement he remains a popular figure in the Diocese of Knoxville. On Sept. 22, parishioners at Our Lady of Fatima Church in Alcoa gathered for a farewell celebration before he moves to the Chattanooga area, where he has served as a pastor at three different parishes.
“We’re sort of married to the Church, and there is a responsibility there,” Father Brando said. “I am very much aware that my ministry is to the people of God, and I hope this will be a new way to express that relationship.
“Retirement isn’t stopping me from doing anything. Retirement has a meaning that whatever we’re doing is ending, and there are a lot of things I haven’t done yet that are just beginning.”
Father Brando, 75, plans to live at the Alexian Village retirement community in Signal Mountain, and he considers the possibility of celebrating Masses there on a regular basis.
“I don’t think (my vocation) is really stopping, but it is changing. The focus is changing and the direction is, but hopefully it is not changing in intensity,” he said.
Some retired priests of the Diocese of Knoxville remain active in other ways. Father Mike Creson is the chaplain at Memorial Hospital in Chattanooga and continues to celebrate Mass at St. Thérèse of Lisieux in Cleveland. Father O’Connell celebrates Mass most days at Our Lady of the Mountains Chapel at the Chancery; Monsignor Gahagan celebrates Masses at St. Joseph in Norris and elsewhere when needed. Father McKenzie handles some of the Masses at St. Albert the Great in Knoxville. Monsignor Patrick Garrity, who recently retired from active ministry, remains busy assisting Bishop Stika on parish matters when needed.
“The biggest misconception is that (we) don’t do anything,” said Father McKenzie. “For most of the guys who are retired, we stay very busy helping out. For the most part, I think every retired priest wants to. But there comes a point in your life where you just need to back up a little bit and focus on things that are still important to you, like family, and be able to involve yourself in other things that you can’t do when you are assigned to a parish.”
For Monsignor Gahagan, that means focusing on a new hobby. He swims three times a week and has been taking piano lessons for three years. He plays cribbage and often goes to lunch with friends in his home community of Norris. He gets together with some of the other retired priests, and he spends time at home with his new adopted friend, a 10-year-old golden labrador retriever named Barnaby Jones.
“He’s deaf. He’s got arthritis, and he is missing teeth, and we match beautifully,” Monsignor Gahagan joked. “He doesn’t get too excited about things, and I don’t either. It was a moment of grace when I found him at the shelter. God sent him to me, I will tell you.”
Caring for retired priests, and making certain they have the means necessary for a secure and dignified life, is an obligation the Diocese of Knoxville takes seriously. In 2015, the Home Campaign, which funded parish projects, charity, Catholic education, and the construction of the new cathedral, also made supporting priest retirement a priority. The Home Campaign added more than $1.7 million to the diocesan priest retirement account. Additionally, the diocese matches a percentage of priest contributions to their personal 403(b) retirement accounts. While priests pay their own healthcare premiums, the diocese covers out-of-pocket expenses not covered by insurance. Some of the retired priests provide for their own housing. For those who can’t, the diocese steps in to help.
“What I have found with priests is that they are generous, and throughout the course of their lives they often help families or friends who may have unique or special needs. They often do this without concern for their own future. We owe it to them,” Bishop Stika added.
While priests often continue in active ministry well beyond the age of 65 – Monsignor Bob Hofstetter, 91, still serves as the pastor at Good Shepherd Church in Newport – health and other factors often shape their final decision.
And whether retirement is welcome or necessary, priests universally agree that their role in the Church hasn’t changed.
“That is the center of my life, the Eucharist. It (still) brings me to the point of awe,” Monsignor Gahagan said. “The people and the sacraments themselves, I find the bloodlines of what we are all about now – and in the world to come. It’s humbling beyond expression.”