Bishop Stika, priests, deacons gather to honor longtime diocesan priest
By Dan McWilliams
The Diocese of Knoxville bid farewell to one of its most beloved priests in January as it celebrated the life of Monsignor Bill Gahagan.
Monsignor Gahagan passed away Jan. 10 at the age of 85 after serving as a priest for 52 years in assignments at many parishes and as a hospital chaplain in East and Middle Tennessee. Advancing years could not keep the native of Maine from coming out of retirement again and again to serve the people of God. The phrase “a priest’s priest” came up more than once as his friends remembered him.
His funeral Mass was celebrated Jan. 17 at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus with Bishop Richard F. Stika presiding and more than 45 priests and 15 deacons taking part. A receiving of friends was held that morning at the cathedral as well as Jan. 16 at St. Joseph Church in Norris, where Monsignor Gahagan served multiple times and where his remains will be inurned in the parish columbarium.
Concelebrating the funeral Mass were cathedral rector Father David Boettner, homilist Father Mike Creson, Father Peter Iorio, Father Mike Nolan, Father Michael Cummins, and Father Brent Shelton. Father Cummins led the final commendation for his mentor and friend, and Father Nolan sang the “Celtic Song of Farewell” at the end of Mass.
Bishop Stika visited Monsignor Gahagan, who helped found what later became Catholic Charities of East Tennessee, on Jan. 8, the Sunday before he died.
“At one point we talked about Pope Benedict’s last words: ‘Jesus, I love you.’ And Bill had made a comment, not knowing that in two days he would be called home to God, he said, ‘I hope those are the words on my lips when I die: Jesus, I love you,’” the bishop said. “Throughout his years of life, he told Jesus that. He witnessed to that and did it in many different ways. So, today we commend him to Almighty God. We pray for him, and we pray that he might pray for us.”
Before Bishop Stika departed from Monsignor Gahagan, the two shared a special moment.
“As I left on that Sunday, I knelt down before him. I asked for his priestly blessing, which maybe was his last. I got up and kissed him on the forehead. I said, ‘I’ll see you, Bill, next time,’ and he said, ‘God love you,’” the bishop said. “We also talked about death and how he still wanted to get better and maybe return to being a pastor for the 200th time after retirement. But he said, ‘If the good ol’ Lord is ready for me, I’ll be ready for Him.’ A true man of God.”
Father Creson said in his homily that “Isaiah reminds us that our God will destroy death forever.”
“We believe that. We are here around the body of Monsignor Bill Gahagan to pray for him, that he may join the saints in glory. We believe in resurrection and God’s love. I don’t know anyone who preached more about God’s love than Monsignor Bill. It was as constant as his Maine accent.”
Finding the way, the truth, and the life
The future priest graduated from Lewiston High School in Maine in 1955.
“After high school, the 17-year-old Bill Gahagan, following his love for the sea, enlisted in the U.S. Navy,” Father Creson said. “After months of chronic seasickness, he later sought out air and ground service in the U.S. Air Force. His European assignments afforded him an audience with Pope Pius XII, who asked him, ‘What are you going to do with your life?’ The young William replied, ‘I don’t know.’
“Luckily for all of us, Monsignor Bill found the way, the truth, and the life.”
Father Creson quoted John’s Gospel and the promise of the Lord that there would be “many dwelling places” for His people in heaven.
“I think Bill felt everyone had a place because God’s love is so overwhelming,” Father Creson said. “From Hassett to Holly, Monsignor Bill poured out his love on his family of dogs. He would want us to know that if we can love God’s many creatures, how much more God loves us. It is grace and salvation freely given and not earned. It is a pure gift from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.”
Stories about Monsignor Gahagan “are almost legendary,” and everyone—bishop, priest, deacon, seminarian, religious Sister and Brother, and parishioner—“has been affected by one of his tales,” Father Creson said.
“One story from his days as a seminarian illustrates so well who he is. Upon entering seminary for the Diocese of Nashville, Bill was sent to Chicago to study Latin. The priest-professor hands the young William his graded test paper with a perfect zero. After class, he goes to the professor and says, ‘I’ll go ahead and drop the class.’ The teacher responds, ‘I never said you were failing. I’ll see you tomorrow morning.’ Certainly, you don’t want your neurosurgeon to have a zero. But the professor knew the young Bill Gahagan was going to be a fine doctor of the soul, a beloved priest.”
Many of those present at the funeral Mass “have sought out Monsignor’s wisdom,” Father Creson continued.
“Like St. Peter, he may get the details askew, but the big things he gets right,” he said. “He is the Thomas Aquinas of common sense and spiritual insight. Monsignor Bill made life more livable for the rest of us.”
What you see with Monsignor Gahagan is what you get, Father Creson noted.
“I doubt that he ever had a thought on being anything different,” he said. “When you were in the company of Monsignor Bill, you never had to guess what kind of mood he was in or what he wanted. He was simply a man of God who lived joyfully in the lives of his family, friends, and parishioners.
“We love Monsignor Bill because we so often wish we could be more like him. He wants us to know that Jesus is OK with you. You need to be OK with who you are. Smooth out the rough edges, and you are good to go.”
For all of the laity, his parishioners, staff, and friends, Monsignor Gahagan “poured out his life with love for all of you,” Father Creson said. “All of you gave such purpose and joy to his life. Monsignor Bill loved without reason because one can never partition off God’s love. We now give him over to the Lord, faithfully knowing that perpetual light will shine upon him.”
A monsignor and his bishop
At the end of Mass, Bishop Stika said he had been spending “a good deal of time” with Monsignor Gahagan in recent weeks.
“I’ve been filling in in Norris and Clinton as an assisting priest, and he concelebrated with me on Christmas Eve, so it was his last Christmas to be able to celebrate Eucharist,” the bishop said. “He talked a lot about priesthood. He talked a lot about his ‘children,’ the dogs, and his piano, a beautiful—I guess it’s a mini-grand piano—that took up half of a room, that he was playing. He talked about his support group: Father Creson is a member of that, and Father Nolan and Father Alex [Waraksa] and Father [Michael] Sweeney, how much he depended on them for support.”
Monsignor Gahagan wasn’t above visiting a casino now and then.
“He talked about how often he would make a pilgrimage, and I didn’t know there was a shrine somewhere in Cherokee, N.C. He told me he prayed there a lot,” Bishop Stika said.
The monsignor “was a priest’s priest,” the bishop added.
“At the end of any conversation, he would say, ‘God love you,’ and he meant it. I don’t think he ever talked ill about anybody. He didn’t participate in gossip, which could happen amongst people. He just appreciated 52 years of priesthood. He talked about the priesthood—it was almost like a love affair with Jesus, and he actually saw in you, God’s people, the presence of Jesus. He did that in his parish assignments. He did that in his hospital work. He did that when he was a high school chaplain at Knoxville Catholic. He was one of the founders of what is now Catholic Charities, and today I’m announcing that we’re going to formulate an award in his name, in his honor, for someone of charity. I don’t want his name to be separated ever from being truly the face of Jesus to people that he met.”
The earlier years
William Hassett Gahagan was born Sept. 27, 1937, in Lewiston, Maine, to John Thomas and Winnifred Hassett Kearns Gahagan. He was baptized and later confirmed at St. Patrick Church in Lewiston. He attended Jordan Grammar School and Lewiston High School.
As a 13-year-old, the young Bill Gahagan drew newspaper attention when he saved the life of a 6-year-old girl by swimming out to rescue her after she had stepped into a hole off Popham Beach, Maine. The girl’s mother had called the teen’s attention to her daughter’s plight.
The future priest’s Air Force service, which took him to France, brought him to Tennessee in the 1950s when he was stationed at Joelton Air Force Station. In 1962, he was accepted as a seminarian for the Diocese of Nashville. He attended college at St. Pius X Seminary in Erlanger, Ky., before going on to study for the priesthood at St. John Seminary in Little Rock, Ark., and Notre Dame School of Theology in New Orleans.
He was ordained to the priesthood on Jan. 31, 1970, at the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Nashville with Bishop Joseph A. Durick presiding.
That same year, he served as an instructor at Knoxville Catholic High School, as an assistant chaplain at St. Mary’s Hospital in Knoxville, and as director of Knoxville Catholic Charities and spiritual moderator for the Ladies of Charity. In the mid-1970s, he began his long association as pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Norris and St. Therese in Clinton. He continued to serve as a chaplain at St. Mary’s while also being named Knoxville Deanery director of vocations, and his service extended to Our Lady of Perpetual Help in LaFollette and St. Thérèse of Lisieux in Cleveland.
He served as pastor of St. Mary Parish in Oak Ridge from 1984 to 1987 and pastor of St. Dominic in Kingsport from 1987 to 1995, marking his 25th anniversary of ordination in his final year in Kingsport. During that time, in 1988, he became incardinated into the new Diocese of Knoxville. In 1989, he was appointed vicar for charities and established the Columbus Home and Catholic Social Services for the young diocese.
Then-Father Gahagan went on to serve as pastor of St. Mary in Johnson City for many years beginning in 1995, as well as serving as chaplain at East Tennessee State University and as chaplain for Johnson City Medical Center. In the early 2000s, he also served as parochial administrator for St. Elizabeth Parish in Elizabethton and in ministry at the Jesuit House of Prayer in Hot Springs, N.C. In 2005, he returned to St. Joseph in Norris and later served for many additional years as pastor of St. Jude in Helenwood and St. Therese in Clinton.
In spring 2017, the veteran priest was named “a chaplain to His Holiness” and given the title of monsignor. Bishop Stika made the announcement at a meeting of priests at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Lenoir City, and the roomful of clergy erupted in applause at the news.
Monsignor Gahagan is preceded in death by his parents; brothers, Sonny and Jim Gahagan; and his sister, Mary Fournier. He is survived by his nephew, Michael Fournier Sr.; his niece, Linda Doyon; his great-nephews, Michael Fournier Jr. and Michael Derosier; and his great-niece, Cathy Derosier.
At the receiving of friends at St. Joseph in Norris, longtime parish volunteer office assistant Sally Jackson said Monsignor Gahagan “was everything to this parish, everything.”
“He was wonderful. He could address needs wherever they were, and he was there to help you,” Mrs. Jackson said.
Monsignor Gahagan served at St. Joseph and St. Therese in the 1970s as a young priest as well as an older priest in more recent years.
“He came and went and came and went, but he considered us his family, and this was his home,” Mrs. Jackson said. “He came to Norris in the early ’70s for the first time, and that’s when I met him. He would bring Sisters from up north and have summer vacation Bible school for the children, so the Sisters would stay at our house, and we would do Mass in the backyard for all the children, and that was so nice.”
Margaret Donaldson and husband Bill owe their membership at St. Joseph to Monsignor Gahagan.
“If it hadn’t been for Monsignor Bill, we wouldn’t be here,” Mrs. Donaldson said. “We came and met with him when we were finding a church, and my husband was not Catholic and wanted to come into the Church. We met with him, and he was so kind and so welcoming, and that’s why we are here at St. Joseph. That’s been 15 years ago now. It’s remarkable. He’s such a kind and loving man.”
Two large banners hang to the left and right of the altar at St. Joseph. One banner depicts a pair of hands holding the Body of Christ and the other banner two hands holding the Blood of Christ. The hands may look familiar.
“When we were getting ready to do those, I met with Monsignor Bill,” Mrs. Donaldson said. “He sat down with me, and he held those up and modeled, so those hands are modeled after his hands, which is kind of a neat thing for me.”
Jane Carter of St. Mary Parish in Oak Ridge, where Monsignor Gahagan served as pastor, attended the receiving of friends at St. Joseph.
“We loved Monsignor Bill. He was the priest when we first moved here. We’d been here less than a year when he came to St. Mary’s,” she said. “He was so personable and so loving and so welcoming. He’s the one who got me into religious education and started me in the MLF (ministry and leadership formation). The man got me into church with both feet running.”
The Carter family kept track of Monsignor Gahagan even as he went on to serve at St. Mary in Johnson City and elsewhere.
“We also followed him—we never really lost him,” Mrs. Carter said. “Our son was at ETSU when [Monsignor Gahagan] was at Johnson City, and they reconnected. Michael lives in Rhode Island and got engaged here in Tennessee. He came here to get engaged so Father Bill could bless the rings because he was a special priest in his life. We’re all going to miss him, that’s for sure. We went to his 25th [anniversary celebration], his 50th, his 40th—we’ve been to all of them.”
Father Jim Haley, CSP, said at St. Joseph that he had known Monsignor Gahagan for many years.
“I came to Knoxville in 1979 and met him shortly after that. He was a fantastic person,” he said. “His sense of humor and his outreach to other people, the way that he helped so many people, was incredible. He was very personable and very approachable. They talk about a ‘priest’s priest,’ but I think very much he was. He had the respect of everyone, really.”
St. Joseph Deacon Dan Hosford remembered his friend.
“Monsignor Bill was a true parent, a true father to everyone in this parish, absolutely,” he said. “I think the one thing that you can say about him is he was full of joy, full of care, full of all the wisdom that comes with caring for so many people, walking the life with so many people.”
Deacon Hosford said Monsignor Gahagan did not forget the less fortunate.
“One thing that he asked me was, ‘Deacon, have you visited those who don’t have anybody this Christmas? This is what we’re called to do, is to walk with those who have no one to walk with them,’” Deacon Hosford said. “Truly, he walked with this parish and with each member.”
At the funeral Mass, Sister Martha Naber, RSM, and Sister Yvette Gillen, RSM, came to honor their longtime co-worker who served alongside many Sisters of Mercy as a chaplain at St. Mary’s Hospital from the 1970s onward. Monsignor Gahagan “meant so much” to the hospital, Sister Martha said.
“He certainly did,” she said. “The day he arrived there was Valentine’s Day. Sister Assisium got a box of chocolates in the shape of a heart and put it in his room to welcome him. He has always been such a blessing to each and every Sister, all the employees, the patients. He was always there. They organized a pastoral care department, and he was key in getting some chaplains together in order to be able to provide the spiritual care and the support for all the St. Mary’s people. He was one of a kind. He was always in the middle of whatever was going on.”
Monsignor Gahagan could even help fill special requests at St. Mary’s.
“One day, this person up on the oncology floor was dying, a young girl, and she wanted a dog,” Sister Martha said. “So, Sister Yvette called around and finally found a dog, and she and Father Gahagan went to get the dog and managed to get it into the girl’s room up on the oncology floor.”
Father Cummins teared up as he led the final commendation at the funeral Mass. Now the pastor at St. Dominic in Kingsport, the future Father Cummins was a student at ETSU when Monsignor Gahagan was pastor of St. Dominic.
“When I first started thinking about priesthood, he was one of the first priests that I met, and he welcomed me over to the rectory quite a bit at St. Dominic’s, and now I serve there,” Father Cummins said. “In many ways, he was a big influence.”
Father Cummins remembered being invited, in his pre-seminary days, to St. Dominic for Christmas Eve dinner by Monsignor Gahagan.
“I got there a little bit early. He and Father Creson were in there preparing the meal with all of the Masses going on,” he said. “Father Bill got a phone call about a family in need, and so he dropped everything. I went along for the ride. He bought some food for this family, and I think he even got a blanket somewhere. We took the food to the family, and then we just went back to the parish. He never mentioned it—it was just something else in the life, the day, of a priest. But it struck me that there’s something different about the life of a priest, and it’s a life that I wanted, that I was looking for. I think Bill helped me to find that, and so I’m truly grateful for it.”
At the luncheon after the funeral Mass, Father Creson said he was “one of many friends” of Monsignor Gahagan.
“It was a privilege to be here today. I loved him dearly. He was so much of a mentor, an example of what a great priest can be, and I just loved him to death,” he said.
In October 2019, Monsignor Gahagan spoke with The East Tennessee Catholic following the celebration of his 50th anniversary of ordination that September, held a few months early because snow and ice often came during previous celebrations on his actual ordination anniversary in January.
He recalled having heart surgery in 2004 and how then-Bishop Joseph E. Kurtz encouraged him to retire. He agreed to slow down but after a few months found himself back in active ministry. Monsignor Gahagan was retired again at the time of his ETC interview.
“Canonically I am retired, but so far in my head and heart, I am not retired,” he said. “I have always enjoyed the priesthood and the blessings of service I have given to the Lord.”
Monsignor Gahagan said one thing never changed even in retirement.
“That is the center of my life, the Eucharist,” he said. “It still brings me to the point of awe. 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.”