Priest has served Grand Rapids church for 14 years
In the latter role she also noted how the pastor had challenged the church to "do the rite right." She indicated his emphasis on following the mood, settings and celebrations of holy days and the seasons of the liturgical year.
GRAND RAPIDS - For 14 years Father F. Anthony Gallagher has been more than a priest and pastor to the parishioners of a small country church. He will retire next month and preside at his last Mass at St. Patrick Catholic Church on June 7.
"St. Patrick is a better parish for having known you and each of us is a better person for having known you," Brian Seeger told Gallagher in a farewell letter.
"He, by far, has the most well-prepared, well thought-out and deeply spiritual homilies of all the pastors I've encountered," he added.
Seeger, a parishioner since 1997, is serving his second term on the parish council. Because of his job, he has seen many priests across Ohio and beyond, and he has been very impressed with Gallagher.
"He's a real theologian. His understanding is deeper than most," he noted. "He really challenges all of us with his homilies."
Sue Sochacki agrees.
"He has challenged me personally and us as a parish to think less about our own church and more about the global church," she said.
Sochacki, a member since 1989, is the song leader for some services and has chaired the worship committee.
She expressed how Gallagher brought out the nuances of each holy day and its impact on the average person in the pew. He also stressed the importance of thinking beyond boundaries of the church and the community.
She relates his lesson, "We are not just a tiny church in Grand Rapids. We are a vibrant, alive, growing, caring and loving church," she said noting the responsibility they bear, individually and as a parish.
Bev Wilson, a past member of the parish council, noted elaborated on his kindness and compassion, which the others also mentioned.
"He does all this stuff that no one knows about," Wilson said listing several examples of his random acts of kindness done behind the scenes. "He's very caring and helped a lot of us."
As for Gallagher, he will similarly miss the parish.
"Some of the most wonderful people I have met in my life are in this parish. Saying good-bye to them will be an emotional challenge, Gallagher stated. "It will be a bit easier, because I know it's time."
Since he turned 70, he says he has considered retirement, and everything seemed to be right for him to retire at this time.
While he will remain pastor until June 30, he will take time away after his final 10:30 a.m. Mass on June 7. A reception to honor him and his 47 years of service as a priest will follow from noon to 3 p.m. The public is invited.
Gallagher says he is planning a four-month "personal sabbatical" before determining exactly what role he will play as a retired priest. Some options include teaching and filling in from time to time at other parishes.
"I think there is some area where I can make a difference," he affirmed.
"It's a chance for me to catch my breath, get organized," he said of his sabbatical where he hopes to learn some new things.
He has purchased an upright piano; plans to purchase and learn a computer and a cell phone. He also says he wants to learn how to "sew a button on and cook."
He added when its bad weather he will read and organize books; and in good weather play golf.
"After about four months I'll discern in what ways I can be of ministerial assistance," Gallagher said.
"There is only one priest older than I (in the Toledo Diocese) who remains active. That's a little more evidence its time to go," he chuckled.
Father David Tscherne will become pastor as of July 1.
Gallagher was ordained Dec. 20, 1961 in St. Peter's Basilica in Italy. He was educated for six years at North American College in Rome.
Both Sochacki and Seeger think of Gallagher as more than a pastor, referring to him as both a "friend and mentor."
Wilson similarly noted, "For me, he has been a spiritual mentor and an example of strength, integrity and truth."
Most parishioners will cherish fond memories of Gallagher despite his being at the center of a heated controversy in 2000 regarding proposed renovations at the church.
Five years later, those renovations were completed and the parish boasts a beautiful sanctuary which Gallagher touts as a 19th century feel in a 21st century design.
Wilson summarized her impressions calling him a "very special priest and a very good man."
Seeger summed it up well in his first comment about the priest, "First and foremost Fr. Gallagher has been a good shepherd to the parish and to me, personally."
"He's a character, too, he has a great sense of humor," Wilson said. "We'll miss him."
Renovation brought out worst and best in parish
GRAND RAPIDS - One of the most unexpected turn of events during 47 years as a priest for Father F. Anthony Gallagher occurred in the summer of 2000 when protestors lit a media frenzy around the proposed renovations at St. Patrick Catholic Church in rural Grand Rapids.
The protestors termed the plans "wreck-ovations," while this reporter and others in the parish saw the vision as more of a restoration.
After the controversy died down, five years of study, discussion, prayer, collaborative planning, and compromises, the renovation proceeded.
The end result in 2005 was a beautifully restored interior of the sanctuary, which parishioners continue to enjoy.
As the priest retires next month, he leaves behind a worship space which should serve the church for many decades ahead.
Much of the work was done by parishioners and the restored space reflects what Gallagher calls a 19th century feel with a 21st century floor plan.
The original 1845 structure was expanded in 1955. The 2005 "restoration" returned some older items from the church and the new items installed were made to look like the original pieces.
Though nine years have passed, Gallagher's memories of those times are ever present.
"The response of a small core of parishioners abetted by outsiders was traumatic," he recalls. "It was very traumatic for me, traumatic for the parishioners, and for Catholics in this area."
Despite the challenges of the time, Gallagher says the "difficulty did not diminish my convictions that our plans were appropriate."
Bev Wilson, who served on the parish council at the time, also recalls the time and how Gallagher handled the situation.
"We were not allowed to say anything about any of the people who were part of the controversy. We did not talk about them," she stated. "(Gallagher) wouldn't allow any backbiting."
To this day, she wishes she and other parishioners could have done more for him at the time.
"The majority of the parish was just dumbfounded and we were quiet about it," Wilson said.
She indicated the previous parish council had talked about such renovations prior to Gallagher's arrival.
"He was singled out and bore the whole burden. He got the whole brunt and that was so unfair," she added.
Brian Seeger, another council member at the time praised Gallagher for his efforts.
"It could have really exploded, but Father Gallagher showed really good leadership through that time," Seeger said. "He wasn't always the most popular, but he was not afraid to do what he felt was right for the parish."
"That was a time when we as a parish were at our worse," said Sue Sochacki, a parishioner who said that included everyone, including those in favor of the renovation,
"Despite our best efforts, people didn't do our best," Sochacki stated.
"It was a challenging time. What he had to endure was deeply hurtful for a lot of people," she remembered. "It was our own parishioners saying some of those terrible things."
Despite those troubles, it resulted in a happy ending.
"He was a real leader through that process. Not only was he feeling personal pain, he was helping all of us to deal with that," Sochacki said recalling how Gallagher stressed for the parish not to respond with anger.
"We now have a gorgeous worship environment because of that, she added. "It's over and I'm glad it's over."
"It was a wonderful time for us coming together and working together," Wilson said of the eventual renovation work.
Gallagher called the protests and ensuing process "highly uncomfortable" and "tedious," respectively.
But when the parish came together for the final work, he said "The spirit was wonderful. It was a great experience."
He said the whole process brought the parish closer together.
"One of the hallmarks of our parish is the full conscious active participation in the liturgy. The new space facilitates that," Gallagher said.
"The goal was to enhance the way we worship and people have responded to that. We accomplished our goal."
According to the priest it was all made possible due to the maturity of the people of the parish and their willingness to collaborate and to participate.
Highlights of the renovated St. Patrick Catholic Church
Among the highlights of the renovations to the sanctuary of St. Patrick Catholic Church in 2005 were numerous efforts to restore the church to its 19th century appeal.
The construction of a new oak altar constructed on a modernized platform with a ramp for handicap accessibility. The altar was designed to mimic the original altar. It was built by a parishioner.
The altar also features a design to resemble a table to honor the eucharistic celebrations gathered around the Lord's table.
A new oak pulpit was built by another parishioner, designed to replicate the altar.
The old carpet and flooring was replaced in the worship space. The wood pieces installed random width and random length in order to give an older feel. Instead of fully carpeted, a runner was used in the aisle, much as it would have been in the original 1845 church. Similarly area rugs were placed in the areas of the altar and pulpit.
The baseboard height was chosen to look as it did in the 19th century. Pews and kneelers were restored.
One of the more striking changes was made as the previous reconciliation room was converted into a new and carpeted Blessed Sacrament Chapel. The chapel is visible from the sanctuary and features the original wood canopy setting.
Pieces of the original communion rail were also used in the chapel. In addition, the tabernacle was again housed in its original setting. Two of the old ceiling lamps now hang in the chapel.
The newly designed sanctuary also is an improvement to better accommodate a casket for funerals, as well as wedding parties and baptisms.