Thursday, March 17, 2005

When Irish Eyes are Smiling

So, today being St. Patrick's Day, I was thinking of the late Fr. Thomas ("Mossy") Gallagher. Fr. Mossy was a priest in my parish all through my childhood and truly one of the most beautiful souls I've ever encountered. Fr. Mossy (so-called because his older sister, when he was a baby, could not pronouce "Thomas" and so said "Mossy," which stuck) was born in 1923 in Geevagh, Sligo, Ireland. He was actually not a diocesan priest, but a member of the St. Patrick's Missionary Society, an order of priests who are missionaries in Africa. Fr. Mossy spent a number of years in Africa and had great stories about trying to learn Swahili and traveling across African planes on a motorbike. I'm actually not sure how he ended up in Slidell, La., but he did contract malaria during his mission work in Africa at least once.

And what a blessing he was for us. For those who never knew him, he's hard to describe. But for you CSCers, think Fr. Gareth 40 years from now (and Irish, not Welsh). Fr. Mossy had a quick wit, biting humor and a love for joy. His faith was also so inspiring. He was a gentle, honest, heartful preacher and a priest who would remember the name of everyone he met. He spent at least an hour a day (and very often 2, 3, 4, or 5 hours) in front of the Blessed Sacrament. He was a great confessor (even singing a song to me once to make me feel comfortable) and was sure to be honest about the damage sin does, but never let people forget the great mercy of God. Being a missionary at heart, he went to the hospital and nursing home every day to visit parishioners there (and was sure to list them one by one in the prayers of the faithful when he was offering Mass). After his eyesight got too bad from him to drive, he got up every morning and walked the mile to the hospital to check in with the sick.

His humor is something everyone will remember about him. He very often asked random questions (one of his most famous was: "Do you ever get cramps in your toes?") and was never afraid to poke fun at himself - or others, for that matter. He loved alcohol, lime Jell0 and often pronounced things incorrectly. He was stubborn and, when he started to shuffle when walking, shooed off altar serves who tried to help him up the altar's steps. As he aged, he also needed his rest and was even caught a few times falling asleep during the first reading and Psalm during 8:30 a.m. Mass.

Fr. Mossy was also a sweetheart. When the archbishop of New Orleans transferred Fr. Joe Benson, a fellow Irishman and associate pastor of our parish with whom he often spoke in Gaellic, Fr. Mossy said he knew it was the right thing for the archbishop to do - and then he tried to hide the tears in his eyes. Fr. Mossy broke his hip a couple of years before he died and his religious superiors brought him back to Ireland to care for him. It was there he died in August 2003. About a week after his death, Fr. Joe celebrated a memorial Mass for him at our church. Needless to say, it was packed.

At that Mass, Fr. Joe told the following story: The St. Patrick's Fathers had given Fr. Mossy a trip to the Holy Land as a gift for the 50th anniversary of his ordination (in 1949). Fr. Joe accompanied him there. One afternoon, they took a boat out onto the Sea of Galilee and Fr. Joe proceeded to read allow Fr. Mossy's favorite Gospel - the Calming of the Storm at Sea (Luke 8:22-25). The wind was actually tossing their boat around that afternoon, but when Fr. Joe got to the verse where Christ rebuked the waters and there was great calm, the winds on the Sea of Galilee stopped blowing their own boat. Fr. Mossy cried.

I noticed when I went home for Christmas that the parish had mounted a plaque outside our Perpetual Adoration chapel in his honor. The priest who had spent so much time in front of the Blessed Sacrament in his life was now "forever in His Presence," the plaque said. That's pretty cool.