New Alaska priest trades bulletproof vest for vestments

Father Steve Gallagher, a former police officer in Olympia, Wash., was ordained to the priesthood April 30 by Bishop Edward J. Burns for the Diocese of Juneau, Alaska. Father Gallagher is seen with his daughter Molly, following his Mass of Thanksgiving May 1 at St. Michael Church in Olympia. — CNS photo

Fr. Steve Gallagher now serving Juneau Diocese

By ERIC SZATKOWSKI

Milwaukee Catholic Herald

OLYMPIA, WA — It started out as just another routine day on patrol for Officer Steve Gallagher cruising the streets of Olympia, Wash. At an imposing 6’ 4” and 240 pounds, armed with a .45 caliber Heckler and Koch semiautomatic pistol, handcuffs and pepper spray, he was always ready to respond to the call. Like all cops, his goal at the end of his shift was to make it safely home, which for Steve meant being with the love of his life, his teenage daughter Molly. What would the call be on this particular day back in 2004? Shots fired? Burglary in progress? Domestic violence? Drug dealing?

Looking back at that event today, 58-year-old Father Steve Gallagher can’t even remember. That’s because the call he’ll never forget that day came from a higher authority, so to speak.

“One day I received an emergency call and was running lights and siren to it,” Gallagher recalled. “En route to the call the phone in my patrol car rang — it was Alaska calling.”

Gallagher answered, “Officer Gallagher.” It was not his dispatcher, but  a priest from the Diocese of Juneau Alaska.

With sirens blaring, Gallagher politely but in a Joe-Friday-firm manner, asked the priest to call back in 20       minutes. The clergyman did as the cop requested and they discussed Gallagher’s inquiry about turning in his bullet proof vest for the vestments of a priest. Thus began the final leg of Gallagher’s response to the most important call of his life, the Catholic priesthood.

ORDINATION DAY

Fast forward now to the weekend of Divine Mercy Sunday, 2011 – also the weekend of the beatification of Pope John Paul II. Officer Gallagher’s inimitable faith journey, which began in the Pacific Northwest, was also being followed closely in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. He had spent the last four years at Sacred Heart School of Theology in Hales Corners, Wis., earning his Master of Divinity degree. As part of his formation and to get some hands-on parish experience, Gallagher also spent three months in fall of 2010 as a deacon at St. Jerome in Oconomowoc, Wis.

The vineyard of Gallagher’s call, watered in Wisconsin, bore great fruit this spring. As he describes it, “nothing short of a miracle” took place on Saturday, April 30, 2011, when he received the Sacrament of Holy Orders from Juneau Bishop Edward Burns, followed by his first Mass on the day Pope John Paul II came one step closer to sainthood. The ordination and first Mass took place at St. Michael Church in Olympia, Wash., with representation of the faithful from not only the Pacific Northwest, but Alaska, Milwaukee and Oconomowoc.

DAD ORDAINED A FATHER

St. Michael was chosen by Father Gallagher in part because of his daughter Molly. This is where she attended grade school for nine years, and received her First Holy Communion.

Molly, 22, was front and center, along with Steve’s 90-year-old mom, Mary Helen, among about 300 people in attendance.

But how can a Roman Catholic priest have a daughter?

Molly, a junior at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, is part of a small fraternity of Catholics whose biological fathers are also Fathers of the Roman Catholic Church, and she is overjoyed about it.

“He had to wait his entire life to get what he’s wanted since he was a child and now finally God has given that gift,” she said. “God has given him his own little heaven on earth.”

That little heaven was preceded by a little purgatory, too. Gallagher’s marriage did not work out, resulting in a civil divorce in 1994. He also requested and received an annulment from the Catholic Church. An annulment, described by Sacred Heart School of Theology Vice-Rector Father Thomas L. Knoebel, is a finding by the church that Gallagher’s marriage was not sacramental. In fact, Father Knoebel says that it is not uncommon for seminarians at Sacred Heart to have been married and divorced. However, “They are not even considered as possible students unless they request and are granted an annulment.”

Father Knoebel points out that Sacred Heart, which is known nationwide for its program for second-career candidates for the priesthood, also has many older seminarians who are widowers or men who have never been married. He’s also pleased with the diversity of age in the school’s enrollment, currently at 109, with about 15 to 20 seminarians in their 20s preparing to join the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.

The annulment process took about a year, but Gallagher had no idea that a divorced man could ever become a priest. It was not until many years later when a priest told him during confession. The news opened the door for Gallagher to eventually pursue a dream that went back to 1962.

A CALL DELAYED

The first whisper of the call to the priesthood came when he was in elementary school on a religious retreat, led by a Franciscan friar in his hometown of Port Angeles, Wash.

Gallagher later spent four years at a high school run by the Benedictines of St. Martin’s. The call still remained unanswered after graduation in 1971. He tried a variety of jobs over the next several years, including as a tug boat worker, logger and finally a police officer in Port Angeles, where he stayed for nearly 10 years. The call, however, started getting louder, and he decided to go back to St. Martin’s Abbey. He became a novice monk, but after 18 months of discernment, opted instead for roll call at the Olympia Police Department.

Father Gallagher says his faith journey was much like his days as a traffic cop.

“Like other police officers all over the world, we do not like to direct traffic,” he said. “We know how hard it is to get someone’s attention and make them go in a direction other than the one they have chosen. Imagine how much harder it was for God to give direction to me – not because I didn’t want to go in the direction he had chosen – but because I thought I was driving.”

The next traffic detour was the longest. For 21 years, Officer Gallagher’s vocation was to protect and serve the citizens of Olympia, which he did with distinction. The road was made even more difficult for a stretch in which Gallagher won a bout with cancer. His former police partner and longtime friend, Police Chief Jim Pryde of Gladstone, Oregon, could not be more proud of his accomplishments.

PRIESTLY METTLE

“I know his heart and his gifts,” he said. “Steve was a cutting edge police officer, meaning he understood the importance of relationships and connecting with people.”

The evidence here is much more than circumstantial, found no further than Gallagher’s personnel file. For example, the mother of a child seriously injured in a bicycle-car accident wrote, “What particularly struck me was that when Steve walked into the emergency room and realized I was (the boy’s) mother, he fixed his gaze upon me and really searched for signs of peace or troubling in me, and gently, yet with a firm sense that he could handle my answer no matter how I responded … I was amazed at his presence of mind, empathy and compassion …”

In 1992, Gallagher was honored as the Olympia Officer of the Year, particularly for his work with children. His chief of police cited him for outstanding service in Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE), noting he also “volunteered his off-duty time to help troubled kids and their families deal with the loss of loved ones, sexual/physical abuse and anger control.”

One of Father Gallagher’s former classmates and current seminarian for the Salvatorian order, Michael Hopper, says, “He’s always been protecting and serving people. First as a police officer, now he’s taking it to the next level.”

Hopper also noted that seminarians could guess what Gallagher did in his former career, even if he never said a word about it. Hopper explained that Gallagher often put his cop skills to work at the seminary itself, making sure doors were locked and the building was secure, or intervening as a peacemaker if students got into a heated dispute.

Milwaukee area resident Trish Szalacinski drove with a friend more than 2,000 miles to see Father Gallagher’s ordination. As receptionist at Sacred Heart for the past 3 years, she first got to know him through his gregarious personality and not-so-subtle sense of humor.

“There were many times when I was on the phone, trying to be professional, and Steve would come up to me and make silly faces to try to get me to laugh,” she recalled.

Szalacinski believes that sense of humor will work beautifully with Father Gallagher’s experience as a police officer.

“He’s seen the world for what it is. He’ll make a wonderful priest taking care of people on all sides of the flock,” she said.

OFF TO ALASKA

For Father Gallagher, the flock he is now shepherding, as associate pastor at Holy Name Parish, is in Ketchikan, Alaska. Holy Name is part of the Diocese of Juneau, which sponsored him at the Sacred Heart School of Theology. The appointment of Father Gallagher to this diocese is an answer to the prayers of many of the faithful, since there are only nine priests (including Father Gallagher) to serve an area the size of Florida.

Angie DelMoral and her husband Tony of St. Gregory Parish in Sitka first met Gallagher when he visited during Christmas break in 2008. They are positively thrilled he is now ordained.

Angie says, “As Catholics living in southeast Alaska, it seems we’ve developed a deeper understanding of the term, ‘Advent,’ since many of us live in a constant state of waiting for the arrival of our shepherds. It was with this same, truly joyful hope that we awaited Steve’s ordination and arrival to our diocese.”

COP CONNECTION REMAINS

With that arrival, Father Gallagher has completed the police-to-priest transition, on duty in a precinct of such size that would humble any cop. Even though his police work is now behind him, he will always have a special place in his heart for his brothers and sisters in blue. He’s hoping that his own faith journey might be an inspiration to other officers to deepen their relationships with Jesus Christ.

Father Gallagher knows that while there are other cops out there who have made the same transition he did, the vast majority of Catholic lawmen will not go from getting confessions of suspects to hearing confessions of sinners. Nevertheless, he reminds all Catholic cops, whether on the job or retired, of the importance of using spiritual weapons of prayer and receiving the sacraments to complement their calling to protect and serve.

Father Gallagher is ready to help out, too. He said those who have questions or want to see how they can “Catholic-up” in their law enforcement lives, can reach him at Fr.SteveGallagherinAlaska@gmail.com.

As Father Gallagher recommends, “Stay connected or re-connect to your faith. There’s a lot of evil out there that cops have to deal with on a day-to-day basis, and we’ve got the best partner to team up with. When the Lord says, ‘Come, follow me,’ there is no desperation; it is simply hope. Be not afraid.”

This article originally appeared in the Milwaukee Catholic Herald. It is reprinted here with permission.

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