Former Irish Benedictine monk approved as a full-time Alaskan priest

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An Irish priest who endeared himself to parishioners in Southcentral Alaska during two previous visits is now a permanent member of the local clergy. Father Joseph McGilloway was incardinated into the Archdiocese of Anchorage in June of this year.

Father McGilloway, a 51-year-old former Benedictine, spent years of his ministry at two places steeped in legendary Irish beauty, Glenstal Abbey in Murroe, County Limerick, and Kylemore Abbey in County Galway.

But he told the Catholic Anchor that although he’s seen many beautiful places, “they had a part of my heart, but Alaska got a piece of my soul.”

Father McGilloway has been appointed pastor of Sacred Heart in Wasilla. He’ll also be the canonical pastor of Our Lady of the Lake in Big Lake, St. Bernard in Talkeetna, St. Philip Benizi Mission in Trapper Creek, and St. Christopher Mission in Willow. He plans to spend time in each.

The archdiocese’s newest priest hails from Derry in Northern Ireland, and remembers the sectarian violence which shook the country from the late 1960s until the end of the century.

“I grew up on the border (between the Republic of Ireland and the six northern counties) during ‘The Troubles,’” he said. “I can remember bullets coming into our house, and having to leave our home many times.”

His mother’s family lived just a few miles away in Donegal, across the border, and the family sometimes sought refuge there.

At age 17 the future priest headed to a seminary college run by a missionary order in Cork. After two years, he left to begin a variety of experiences, including running a liquor store and working in a clothing store and a pub. He was elected to the governing board of Fine Gael, the largest political party in the Republic of Ireland and the lead party in Ireland’s present coalition government.

But the call to priesthood lingered, and on his first visit to a Benedictine Abbey, he received a copy of the Rule of St. Benedict, the book of precepts for religious life written by Saint Benedict in the sixth century.

“I was able to read it on the journey home, and I thought, if they’re really trying to live like that I think I’d like it,” said the priest.

He entered the order in 1994, studied in Rome at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, commonly known as the Angelicum, and was ordained in 2003. He spent his years at Glendal teaching in the Abbey’s secondary school for boys and enjoyed living communal life where members shared common tasks.

When he suggested he’d like to learn barbering, he found himself quickly replacing the aged monk whose arthritic hands had actually been trained in sheep shearing.

And the Benedictine love of music, including Gregorian chant, appealed to him as well. He tried to introduce his students to as much live music as possible.

“I didn’t love jazz until I heard it live,” he said.

When he brought the Harlem Gospel Choir to the school, “It was the first time we had to throw children out of church. They couldn’t get enough.”

A casual remark over coffee at the Abbey set him on the road to Alaska the first time. While discussing his plans for a sabbatical, he jokingly said that he might “go to Dakota to be with the Indians or to Alaska to sit in the snow.”

Someone who knew Father Leo Walsh in Anchorage immediately told Father McGilloway that he could put him in touch with the Alaskan priest, and a sabbatical was arranged.

During six months in 2009 and 2010, Father McGilloway served at parishes in Talkeetna, Trapper Creek, Dutch Harbor and Eagle River.

After his sabbatical, Father McGilloway returned to Glendal and then spent a couple of years as a chaplain to a group of Benedictine nuns at Kylemore Abbey.

Although he described himself as “incredibly happy there,” he was also aware of the passage of time and his own gifts. His main duty was to say Mass for the nuns.

“I was getting older but still full of energy,” he said. “I thought, I don’t want to waste what I have.”

And his memories of Alaska and “the holy, kind people” he met there were strong.

So, with the permission of his abbot at Glendal Abbey and Anchorage Archbishop Roger Schwietz, he returned for a year during 2014-2015 to discern his new call to ministry in Alaska by serving at Holy Cross Church in South Anchorage. Parish ministry seemed a good fit, and with permission he left the Benedictine Order to serve the Archdiocese of Anchorage.

He appreciates the way Alaskans are so involved in the life of the parish.

Ireland was for years very dominated by clergy, he said. By contrast the involvement of the laity in Alaska makes for “a much more dynamic church.”

The difficult part is leaving family, particularly his mother.

“I’m the eldest, and she lost me pretty young the first time,” when he left home at 17. “Now, she’s lost me all over again.”

He has five siblings, all in Ireland, and he’s also the oldest of all his cousins.

“I’m sort of the chief of the clan,” he laughed.

But, as he told his mother, “a priest has to go where he’s needed.”


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