After spending a sabbatical here in 2009, Benedictine Father Joseph McGilloway of Ireland has returned to Alaska hoping to make the Far North home.
With the permission of his abbot of Glendal Abbey in Limerick and Archbishop Roger Schwietz of Anchorage, the 48-year-old monk and priest arrived back in Alaska on March 5 “to see if I’m going to stay,” he told the Catholic Anchor in an interview. If a 12-month parish assignment and discernment period goes well, Father McGilloway is slated to be incardinated in the Archdiocese of Anchorage. That means he would no longer be a Benedictine monk but a diocesan priest permanently attached to the archdiocese.
During his stay, Father McGilloway is serving as parochial vicar at Holy Cross Church. There he is learning everything from managing church finances and building maintenance to shepherding the myriad lay groups at work in the parish. Through this period, Sister Loretta Luecke will continue to serve as parish administrator.
The energetic Father McGilloway — who has spent most of his monastic life as an administrator and educator in his abbey’s boarding school — observed that “it’s going to be a big learning curve for me.” But he said, “I’ve got off to a really good start, so from my point of view at least, it’s going really, really, really well.”
To be sure, this is a venture Father McGilloway is embracing with vigor because he views it as an important next step in his life’s work.
“The goal of a vocation is to move towards God, and hopefully bring people with you on the journey,” he said. “So in the sense of what I want to do with my life as a priest, that doesn’t change because I’m in a new place.”
But Father McGilloway believes serving in Alaska, in particular, is the best way for him to fulfill his mission.
“There’s only so much time we’re given to do the best we have with,” Father McGilloway said. “I wanted to be in a place that I personally felt was good for me at where I’m at in my life at this time, as well as that I could bring something of value to where I’m going.”
Discovering the Last Frontier and its people during his sabbatical in 2009 was “fundamental” to his decision to return, he said. During his six-month stay, he served at parishes in Talkeetna, Trapper Creek, Dutch Harbor and Eagle River.
“I wouldn’t have gone home if I could have worked out the paperwork and everything from here,” he added.
“I was really so taken by working here,” Father McGilloway continued. “It’s challenging to work in Alaska, and that’s not got to do with the climate or anything like that at all. It’s challenging because the church is an interesting place to be.”
He noted Alaskan Catholics’ “great sense of community.” That’s an “aspect of church here I find very, very appealing, and a very positive way to live out that call to be Christian,” he explained.
In addition, he sees a great, spiritual “positive need” and a “genuine openness” among Catholics here that causes him to believe he “can be a part of solving the puzzle.”
He said he felt “I wasn’t just going to do something, but I was going to be useful somewhere…that I have a sense of purpose in what I’m doing and that the church wants you to be involved. It’s not just that you’re there as a kind of an ornament, but that there’s actually a need for you.”
At his first coming to Alaska, Father McGilloway said he was “awestruck” by the natural beauty of the state, but the kindness of local Catholics — especially at Holy Cross, in the chancery and among his fellow priests — has moved him the most.
“That’s always impressive when people make you feel welcome and make you feel at home and look out for you like family the way Christians are supposed to do,” he said. “That’s always appealing…and always hugely encouraging.”
Father McGilloway is a great music lover.
“Anything to do with music interests me,” he noted with enthusiasm. In fact, while in the monastery, Father McGilloway produced a music CD titled “Sanctuary” featuring a variety of genres from Irish musicians including Grammy award-nominated Moya Brennan, sister to Celtic singer Enya. In 2008, the CD raised $30,000 for charities helping victims of domestic abuse.
Previously a cantor for his abbey, Father McGilloway would like to share some monastic musical traditions with parishioners of Holy Cross. In conjunction with the parish’s music department, he said, “We’re looking at, maybe over a period of time, developing some Gregorian chant in part of our liturgy so that the congregation would get used to the parts that would be quite common.” Father McGilloway noted that most people “have it [chant] at the back of their mind even if they’re not familiar with it.”
For the past few years, Father McGilloway’s favorite pastime has been sacred harp singing — of four-part hymns and anthems — which is considered the oldest form of modern American music.
“It’s really a get-together for people who like to sing,” Father McGilloway observed. There are no instruments in sacred harp; the term “sacred harp” refers to the human voice “which is the harp that God gave us,” he explained in his own engaging Irish brogue.
Father McGilloway entered the Benedictine Order on Jan. 17, 1994. He was ordained a priest on Aug. 9, 2003. Before becoming a monk, he worked in a bar, a retail clothing store and a liquor store, and he sat on the governing board of Fine Gael, now the biggest political party in Ireland.
To learn more about Father McGilloway and see a video of sacred harp singing, go to holycrossalaska.net and click on “Father’s Corner.”