From bulletproof vest to vestments

From Alaska comes this unusual story of a divorced father recently ordained a priest (shown below with his daughter):

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.

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.

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.

Read the rest. Ad multos annos, Fr. Gallagher!

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4 responses to “From bulletproof vest to vestments”

  1. I attended his ordination (and sang in the choir). Charles served as the MC and was the deacon serving at his ordination and his first Mass.

    He will be a blessing in our diocese. He brings the total number of priests to nine in a diocese the size of Florida, with 21 parishes and missions.

  2. Neat to read this story. Caught my attention as my father had attended Sacred Heart also, as profiled by the Deacon Kandra.

  3. This is truly an inspiring story. I believe it is truly something any man can look forward to. I don’t want to be negative, but I don’t quite agree with the annulment in general for anyone. I don’t know what his situation was, but if you consummate a marriage and have a child there had to be some love in there. I as well as a few friends of mine feel that once a marriage is annulled it basically means it never existed, so does that mean that his daughter never existed? Don’t get me wrong PLEASE. I have afriend that is a priest not only does he have children and grandchildren, but he was also happily married until the he lost his soul mate. It was very sad, but he was able to become a priest after the loss of his wife.
    But you know what? God never let’s anything happen without a purpose. So he must have let it happen for a reason. 😉

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