Priestly Tales

The stories of clerics who left misty, green Ireland to serve in dry, dusty Arizona

On the first Sunday in Lent, March 5, the faithful streamed into St. Margaret's Catholic Church on Tucson's westside, a few stopping first to make the sign of the cross at the Virgin of Guadalupe shrine outside.

They bypassed, for the moment, El Rio Bakery across the street, where they might pick up postres after Mass, and Tania's, down Grande Avenue, where the carne asada was roasting, and Mariscos Chihuahua, where the fish tacos were steaming.

First, they needed spiritual nourishment.

Inside the church, known in some circles as Santa Margarita, they found the statues and altar draped in purple in honor of the penitential season. The multi-generational families filed into the pews and, as the Mass got under way, a baby boy fussed in one, and an abuelita kept an eye on four wiggly young girls in another. But everyone quieted down when the priest began to read the gospel, the Lenten tale of how Jesus prepared for his death by retreating into the wilderness.

"The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert," the priest intoned, "and he remained in the desert for 40 days, tempted by Satan. He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him ... ."

The words were strange, maybe, but familiar. The surprise was in how they were spoken, with the lilting l's and rolled r's of Ireland. In this Mexican-American barrio in the desert Southwest, the priest was speaking not with a Spanish accent, but with an Irish brogue. He told the story of Jesus' temptations in the dulcet tones of Galway, the West of Ireland county that juts out into the North Atlantic.

Father Cyprian Killackey, Irish-born and bred, followed the spirit into the desert as surely as Jesus did. But if Jesus suffered in the Judean Desert for 40 days and 40 nights, Father Killackey has thrived in Arizona's Sonoran Desert, where he's ministered to the Catholics of Tucson off and on since 1969.

"I don't think I'd have been happy in Ireland all my life," the white-haired priest muses the next day, when I meet up with him in St. Margaret's spartan rectory office. "Not once I got a taste of the weather and the freedom in America."

The eighth child in a family of nine, he grew up on a poor farm without electricity or running water, but with "saintly parents" who had him milking the cows by morning and saying the rosary on his knees by night.

"We're similar, the Irish and Mexicans," he says. "We take things easy. I feel an affinity for their families, the large families."

He also served many years at Santa Cruz, one of the poorest parishes in Tucson, in Barrio Santa Rosa. When he arrived in 1969, all the schoolchildren were waiting to greet him in the schoolyard, holding Mexican flags.

"I loved it there," he says, smiling at the memory. "It was very poor, poverty everywhere. But I came from poverty also. It was no news to me. We gave out food and clothing, and we do here, too.

"I've had a happy life. Last week, I was in the hospital, and I was thinking, 'I'm 80 years old, and I've had a happy life.' I love the people a lot."

His parishioners love him right back.

"Father Cyprian is strict but very loving," says Lupita Aguilar, a member of St. Margaret's for 35 years, and a native of Mexico. "He gives so much to the people here."

I know what she means about "strict but loving." Before we got started on his life story, Father Killackey had a question for me: "Where was your husband at Mass yesterday?"

Father Killackey is part of a vanishing breed: Irish-born missionary priests who traveled across the ocean to minister in America. He's one of just six Irish priests still living in Tucson; Killackey's fellow Carmelite, Father Kevin McArdle, lives in retirement at St. Margaret's. A seventh, Monsignor Richard O'Keefe, labors in the Tucson diocese's western outpost of Yuma. Six still serve in the Diocese of Phoenix.

The little contingent of Irish priests is at the tail end of a long line who found their way west to Arizona over a period of about 100 years. Old movies like Going My Way reinforce the idea that Irish priests with disarming brogues led only the dense urban parishes of the Northeast. But Irishmen also journeyed to the Southwest, bringing an unexpectedly Celtic charm--and often a conservative bent--to a region with deep roots in Catholic Spain.

Lupita Aguilar says the faithful don't puzzle over the Irish origins of their priests.

"We take what the Lord gives us. We're grateful that they're here to serve."

Starting with the pioneer priest Michael Murphy, who briefly ministered in Prescott in 1877, and ending with Father Harry Ledwith, pastor of St. Pius X, who arrived in Tucson in the early 1970s, some 112 Irish-born priests left the Emerald Isle to serve the Diocese of Tucson. (The diocese once covered the whole state; in 1969, Phoenix split off to form an independent diocese.)

Between the two World Wars, the Irishmen's numbers were relatively sparse. A Father Patrick Joseph Murphy of County Mayo won the affectionate nickname of the "Irish Father Kino" for his ministry in Casa Grande during the desperate years of the 1930s, before succumbing to cancer far from home at the age of 42 in 1942. (He served in several Tucson parishes and the Veterans Hospital in the 1920s.)

But he would have found little Irish companionship in his desert exile. Most of Tucson's 112 came in the boom years after World War II, in the late 1940s, '50s and '60s.

The abundance of Celtic clerics delighted Irishwoman Eileen Fitzgerald Peach when she arrived in Tucson from Cork as a new bride in 1963.

"I thought, 'Oh, Lord, I'm away out in the desert,'" says Peach, now a secretary to Irish-born Father Todd O'Leary at St. Thomas the Apostle in the Catalina foothills. But the discovery of so many Irish compatriots went a long way toward easing her homesickness. "I found out there were 48 Irish priests in the diocese!": a convivial minority of the 290 priests then serving.

In 1963, Peach could have met Father Jim Kelly of Kerry at St. Ambrose, or O'Leary of Carlow at Our Mother of Sorrows, or Father Patrick Duggan. Or if she'd gone downtown to the old Santa Cruz church, she'd have encountered a Dublin man, Father McArdle. In Phoenix, she could hardly have stepped into any church without hearing the Irish lilts of Father Michael O'Grady or Francis O'Reilly or Thomas O'Dea.

"There were plenty of Irish priests here at that time," says Father Tom Hever, now 69, and the pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Scottsdale. When he arrived in 1962, to follow Murphy's footsteps to Casa Grande, he felt "a big change from Ireland. There was no green grass at all." But the fellowship of his fellow Irishmen helped ease the culture shock. "It was great. I used to come down to Tucson to visit."

When Killackey arrived in Tucson in 1969, to serve at the Spanish-speaking parish of Santa Cruz, he was tickled to find so many Irish priests.

"It was heaven," he says.

This lively group of Hibernians owed their American adventure in part to Bishop Daniel J. Gercke, an Irish-German from Philadelphia who was Tucson's first American-born bishop. After the war, Gercke put out a call for priests to serve his sprawling sun-baked diocese. Priests from all over America responded, and so did the Irish, in droves.

An Irish brigade of 11 arrived in 1947, says O'Leary, marking the first time in some years that Celtic clergy would grace Arizona's churches with their lilting speech. Some 40 or 50 more would come in subsequent decades. The exploding Sunbelt's need for Catholic priests during the baby boom coincided precisely with the height of the Catholic Church's might in Ireland.

"The Catholic faith was very strong at the time," says Father Liam Leahy, pastor of St. Mark the Evangelist on Tucson's northwest side, "between World War I and World War II, but especially after World War II."

For most of the 20th century, Ireland had priests to spare, so much so that seminaries were constructed specifically to train priests for mission assignments around the world. American recruiters, from parish priests like the Tucson diocese's Father John McMahon to eminences like Cardinal Spellman, journeyed regularly to Ireland to regale seminarians with the delights of their American domains.

In the 1950s, when O'Leary was studying at St. Patrick's Seminary in County Carlow, Ireland, Tucson's McMahon turned up on a recruiting trip. He recounted tales of Arizona's burgeoning population and skyrocketing opportunities for priests.

"He told us that during the Second World War, a lot of people had come to work on the planes, military types," O'Leary says. "And they discovered with the advent of air conditioning, they could live quite comfortably in the desert. People were crowding in but not bringing in priests. He told us, 'You guys could be pastors in 10 years.' In Ireland, it would be 50 years."

O'Leary and three others signed on the dotted line. O'Leary, now 71, got all the opportunities promised and more. He's built three separate churches, and today presides over the last of the trio, St. Thomas, the richest parish in Tucson.

Some 40 priests from the Carlow seminary came to Tucson. Another Carlow alum, Monsignor Thomas Cahalane, now 68 and pastor of Our Mother of Sorrows, came to Tucson in 1963; by then, another Irish American, Francis J. Green, had become bishop. Cahalane followed an older cousin, Father Cornelius Cahalane, "my light in the wilderness," who preceded him here by 13 years.

"Out of 28 in my seminary class in 1963," Cahalane says, "one-third came to the United States, one-third stayed in Ireland, one went to New Guinea and the others to England and Scotland."

In due time, Cahalane became a recruiter himself, visiting a young Liam Leahy, a fellow Cork man, in the late '60s in the aspiring priest's home after his first year of seminary. He presented Tucson's bevy of Irish priests as one of its attractions.

"He talked to me about the diocese, about the warm, dry climate," Leahy says, then pauses. "Or hot, you might say."

Irishmen used to a misty green isle took some time to acclimate to the acquired pleasures of the desert's fierce heat and blazing sun. Arriving in August 1958, O'Leary remembers, "It was like walking into a bakery."

Or a "blast furnace," as Cahalane has it.

"How I adapted to the desert, I don't know," notes McArdle, Tucson's oldest living Irish priest. "But I did."

In a flowery speech given on the occasion of Bishop Gercke's silver anniversary in 1948, Father Victor R. Stoner praised all the Irish missionaries who did--abandoning home and hearth, culture and climate, to become shepherds in the desert.

"Nor did the call die away with the surge of the Atlantic," Stoner declaimed. "Ireland heard, and the sons of St. Brendan embarked from the green shores of the islands of the saints for the painted deserts of Arizona ... ."

The question is why the sons of St. Brendan left at all.

Before the 1990s, when a beefed-up Celtic Tiger began exporting computers and online prowess, Ireland was so sorely impoverished that priests were the nation's most important export.

A Latin motto of the Irish church made the call explicit: Euntes Docete Omnes Gentes--Go Teach All Nations. The Killackey family of Galway not only provided their son Hubert to the missions in America (he took Cyprian as a religious name), but a daughter to the missions in Africa. Father Cyprian's sister, a nun, died there of malaria.

"It was the fondest dream of every Irish mother for her eldest son to wear black," says one local Irish wit, "even to the extent of putting her son in black diapers."

Like so much else in modern Irish history, the passion for the priesthood can trace its roots partly back to the Great Hunger of the 1840s. A million people perished, and nearly 2 million escaped a country that had become a "charnel house," as historian Kerby Miller describes the devastation. Many of the grief-stricken survivors believed that the "potato blight itself was God's judgment on Ireland." Archbishop Paul Cullen declared the tragedy a "calamity with which God wishes to purify ... the Irish people."

If the pre-Famine priests had to compete with the old Gaelic culture, with its remnants of pagan harvest festivals, priests now had little trouble convincing the decimated population to be wary of sexuality, and even to delay marriage to limit the number of new mouths the land would have to feed. The Irish became, in the words of Miller, "the world's most faithfully practicing and sexually controlled Catholics."

The devout flooded the churches, and their sons flooded the seminaries. In 1840, before the Famine, Ireland had one priest for every 3,000 people; by 1900, the ratio had dropped to an astonishing 1 for every 900.

James Joyce fled the "priest-ridden" Ireland of the early 20th century in horror, but hordes of newly minted priests and nuns also departed, with holy purpose. Not only would they minister to Ireland's far-flung emigrants; they would answer their bishop's call to "scatter ... the blessing of the Catholic religion over distant lands."

Even as early as 1845, more than half of New York City's Catholic priests had been born in Ireland, according to historian Maureen Fitzgerald of the College of William and Mary, formerly of the University of Arizona.

The Irish were a little slower to get to Tucson. The Spanish were the earliest missionaries in the Southwest, and in the territorial period, the Spanish padres were succeeded by French curés. When the French priest Jean-Baptiste Salpointe came to Tucson in 1866, he found a small, unroofed church in town and the mission of Tumacacori abandoned and San Xavier only newly re-opened. Like the bishops who would succeed him, he beseeched missionaries to help him build the Church in the desert.

A couple of Irish nuns beat the first Irish priest in answering his call. Sister Martha Peters, a 30-year-old from County Tipperary, turned up in the Old Pueblo with six other Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, five of them French, in May 1870, after a dangerous trek by wagon from San Diego. Three years later, 25-year-old Sister Francesca Kelly of Wexford, Ireland, joined the Tucson community, which created not only the old St. Joseph Academy, but the still-existing Carondelet hospital system, including St. Mary's and St. Joseph's in Tucson, and Holy Cross in Nogales.

The frail Father Michael Murphy made his way to Prescott in 1877, but his impact was not so long-lasting as that of the nuns. When he arrived on Oct. 25, the local Weekly Arizona Miner paper reported that the "Reverend gentleman is not in robust health." Fresh from a hospital in San Francisco, he survived only long enough to say two Masses, and he was too weak to preach the sermons.

On Dec. 6, 1877, Arizona's first Irish priest died of tuberculosis, among strangers, far from home.

I'm spending the first week of Lent interviewing the last of Arizona's Irish priests. It's not a penance, though. Each of these witty white-haired men has a brogue more delicious than the last, and an entertaining propensity to ask me nosy questions right back. Did your children go to Catholic school? Was that you coming late to Mass, all alone?

Tucson's oldest living Irish priest, the Carmelite Father Kevin McArdle, is so old "at 88 years of age" that he claims to remember only "what happened yesterday." But that's not true. Get him going, and he can remember the dirt roads on the outskirts of Tucson in 1946. Get him going even further, and he can recount tales of the Easter Rising, the failed rebellion against the English that took place in his native Dublin in 1916, two years before he was born.

Baptized Gerald, he chose his religious name of Kevin to honor a young hero of the Rising, Kevin Barry, executed by the British at the age of 18.

"He was always my hero," he says. Even today, McArdle is reading a novel of the Irish rebellion, The Scorching Wind, by Walter Macken, and he scurries back to his room to get it to show me. He was attracted to the missions, he says, because the "missionary ideal was held up as a heroic, exalted way of life."

Taking him from Ireland to Belgium to India to Rome and America, his missionary vocation has more than met his expectations for adventure. He grew up the youngest of six in a family that was devoutly Catholic ("I hope so"), then joined the Carmelite order in the late 1930s, studying at their seminary in Belgium. When World War II broke out, he had to flee, and was briefly imprisoned as a suspected spy in Ostend.

"I was a glorious spy for 12 hours. I thought it was marvelous."

Back in Ireland, he had a serious accident that almost ended his priesthood. As he was bicycling on a country road, a motorcyclist hit him, and he was thrown down, unconscious, with a head injury. A girl going by, he says, exclaimed, "Isn't it a disgrace to see a priest drunk in the morning?"

He lay in a coma 13 days, but recovered sufficiently to be sent to India, and finally to the U.S. His American itinerary was dizzying, taking him from Oklahoma to Arizona to California to Idaho ("delightfully cold") to California. His priestly finale was Arizona again, first in a Marana parish for eight years, then Santa Cruz, then finally Santa Margarita's.

Adept at Irish, Latin, French and Flemish, McArdle had no trouble picking up Spanish. He doesn't care for the modern-day version of quinceaneras, the elaborate--and costly--parties for 15-year-old girls that also involve a church ceremony ("I won't participate"), but he's content in the barrio. His own family is all dead, and he doesn't miss Ireland.

"I became Mexican in thought and spirit," he declares.

Monsignor Thomas Cahalane presides over one of the largest parishes in Tucson: Our Mother of Sorrows has 3,000 families, a K-8 school of 400 students, and a preschool with 30 or 40 more. It's Ash Wednesday, and Cahalane greets me with a smudge of ash on his forehead.

"Are you moving in?" he inquires, casting a skeptical glance at my reporter's paraphernalia. His office is cluttered, but with a view of a lovely desert patio, and a statue of St. Patrick on a shelf. He'll say the St. Patrick's Day Mass for the Irish community in his church Friday, but he's not too concerned about his Irish identity, he says, "unlike Irish Americans like yourself."

He was born in 1938 to a farming family in West Cork, "the best county," near the village of Glandore, and he brightens when we figure it's not 10 miles from my own ancestral village. His family had six children, five boys and one girl, a small dairy herd and flocks of fowl, and grew sweet oats, barley, potatoes and vegetables.

"I came from a very traditional Irish Catholic family," he says. "We prayed the rosary every evening as a family. My parents were very peaceful and prayer-filled. They had a sense of the holy in their relationship with nature and with the church."

The young priest arrived in America in the watershed year of 1963, on the very day that Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech. JFK would die that year, the progressive Pope John XXIII had just expired, and the church's Second Vatican Council had just ended. "It had a profound impact on the life of the Church, very much for the better. It called for greater participation by the people."

Cahalane has spent his whole career in Arizona, in Scottsdale, San Manuel and Tucson, running a youth ministry and all the diocesan schools out of the cathedral, before taking over as pastor at OMOS. He speaks "poquito" Spanish--a little--but the sorrows of Irish history make him sensitive to the travails of today's mostly Latino illegal migrants.

His church has a migrant cross in a patio, marked with the number of known migrant deaths in the desert since 2000 (two weeks ago, it was 1,012), and a prayer vigil for the migrants every Wednesday.

"I do feel a connection between (them) and the Irish experience after the Famine," he says. "The people came over to America on coffin ships, and many didn't survive. People here who are fourth-, fifth-, sixth-generation Irish today have their roots in the Famine. The context now is not too different: those who are trying to come to the table of abundance. The story plays throughout history, the haves and the have-nots."

Father Liam Leahy rumbles up Tangerine Road, past acres and acres of newly spawned pink-tiled houses. He's pastor of St. Mark the Evangelist, a new parish on Tucson's raw northwest frontier.

He's late to meet me, because he's just presided over the funeral of Elisa Gastellum, the 18-year-old mariachi singer tragically killed in a car accident Feb. 24. The funeral, at St. Augustine Cathedral downtown, was quintessentially Tucson Mexican, with mariachis singing and trumpeters wailing, but it was an Irish priest the grieving parents wanted.

"People keep dying," he says sadly, as he steps out of his van.

Leahy spent years ministering in the Mexican communities of Douglas and Tucson, and he diligently studied Spanish at schools in Mexico. He was pastor at St. Luke's in Douglas for 12 years, "an interesting, challenging and exciting time," and an associate at St. John's, on Tucson's Hispanic southside. For five years, he was one of three Irish priests ("the three Wise Men from the East") at St. Francis de Sales. It's only in the last few years that he was sent to far suburbia.

He jokes about his Irishness. "I was baptized William, but the English kept the Will and the Irish took the Liam," he says. And when Tucsonans ask him how in the world he got here, he replies, "Delta Airlines." But he also believes his Irish upbringing helps make him a better priest.

"I'm grateful for my Irish heritage," he says. "I grew up at a time of great family values."

All the Irish priests are keenly aware that their breed is rapidly dying out.

"The pipeline of Irish priests has ended," Leahy says.

"We're the last of the old brigade," echoes Father Hever, of Scottsdale.

Church attendance is in a free fall in Ireland, the twin result of economic prosperity and the raging pedophilia scandals, which have hit Catholic Ireland hard, triggering even the downfall of a prime minister. "A tragic time," Father Killackey calls it. (None of Tucson's Irish priests have been accused in the sex scandals that bankrupted this diocese, according to spokesman Fred Allison.)

Most of the Irish seminaries have shut down, including those that produced so many priests for Tucson. Ireland can barely find enough priests to staff its own churches, let alone answer the call to mission. When I was in Ireland three years ago, a newspaper headline about the priest shortage plaintively asked, "O Brothers Where Art Thou?"

Beset by its own pedophilia crisis, and by wrenching debates over its treatment of gays and women, the U.S. church doesn't have enough priests either. But nowadays, overseas recruits are more likely to hail from Africa than Ireland. Leahy, at 59 one of the youngest of Tucson's Irish clerics, can see the geographic switch illustrated right in his own rectory. The Irish pastor's assistant is a Nigerian, Rev. Gregory Okafor.

But the Irish claim the last word even in Africa. Irish missionaries brought their faith there, too, and now the "evangelized have become the evangelizers," Leahy says. "In Nigeria, St. Patrick's is a holiday, because of the early Irish influence." Improbable as it sounds, "St. Patrick is one of their patron saints."

Leahy must rush off to say Lenten Stations of the Cross down at his desert church. But before he hurries off through the cacti, he turns and raises a priestly hand.

"God bless your article," he says.