A fond farewell: era of Irish Pallottine priests ends

North Texas Catholic
(Jun 26, 2024) Local

Fr. Emmet O'Hara claps

Father Emmet O’Hara, SAC, celebrates first Communions at St. Stephen Church in Weatherford on May 13, 2023. (NTC/Juan Guajardo)

WEATHERFORD — As Father Emmet O’Hara, SAC, readies for his upcoming departure from St. Stephen Church back to his homeland of Dublin, Ireland, so too approaches the end of an era for the Weatherford parish.

“I don’t know what in the world we’re going to do once we’re no longer hearing an Irish accent during Mass and the homilies,” St. Stephen parishioner Bobbi Westendorf said. “We won’t know how to act. We’ve never known anything else.”

Fr. O’Hara represents the last in an unbroken line of Irish Pallottine priests to have served St. Stephen since 1953.

“I’m the last Irish Pallottine here and in [the Diocese of Fort Worth],” Fr. O’Hara said. “We can no longer staff it and regret that we’re pulling out of Texas after all these years. It’s just lack of vocations in the Irish provinces and our commitment to other locations.”

After the success of the Pallottines in Weatherford, in 1954 Diocese of Dallas-Fort Worth Bishop Thomas Gorman sought the help of the religious order to staff churches and develop faith communities elsewhere in the diocese. That tradition continued as the Diocese of Fort Worth was created in 1969, with Irish Pallottines serving for decades at eight parishes in the western sections of the diocese.

Two late Irish Pallottines who continue to have an impact in the diocese include Father Philip McNamara, SAC, and Father Aidan Donlon, SAC.

Parishioners at St. Brendan Parish in Stephenville, St. Mary Parish in Dublin, Sacred Heart Parish in Comanche, Our Lady of Guadalupe in De Leon, St. Frances Cabrini Parish in Granbury, and St. Rose of Lima Parish in Glen Rose fondly remember Fr. McNamara, who served the diocese for 37 years and led the parishes during periods of significant growth.

Father Aidan Donlon, SAC, while working as a hospital chaplain in Wichita Falls for 31 years, inspired the Knights of Columbus Council 1473 to help priestly vocations. They have since raised $3.5 million for seminarian education.

Fr. O'Hara elevates host
Father Emmet O'Hara, SAC, elevates the Body of Christ at St. Stephen Parish in Weatherford on March 28, 2024, Holy Thursday. (NTC/Richard Rodriguez)

A number of Pallottine priests from Africa and India will continue to serve the diocese.

“The parish is grieving that they’re going away,” Parishioner Emily Bosley said of the Irish Pallottine’s longtime Weatherford presence. “They have been a true blessing to our parish and community.”

Bosley, 98, well remembers the arrival of the parish’s first Irish Pallottine priest.

“At that time, 1953, we’d been without a priest for three weeks,” Bosley said. “My husband and I were one of the first parishioners he met.”

While on the way to visit friends east of town, Bosley said she noticed a car in the rectory driveway.

“I said, ‘Oh, I think our new priests have come,’” Bosley said. “So we stopped and I knocked on the door.”

The first priest, Father Alphonsus Hayes, said he was just passing through when Bosley asked if he was the new priest, as did Father James Mullins, the second priest Bosley encountered.

Father James Maher then stepped out to introduce himself as the new pastor.

“We talked a bit, and I told him that since tomorrow was Thanksgiving, should I call all the people I know to come to morning Mass?” Bosley said. “So we had our morning Thanksgiving Mass and that was our introduction to the Pallottine fathers.”

Bosley, who joined the parish in 1947, said Irish Pallottine priests baptized all but her oldest child.

Bosley added Fr. Mullins, who took over once Fr. Maher left, no doubt found Weatherford more hospitable than his previous assignment.

“He had been a missionary in Africa before, and he was attacked by a lion,” Bosley said. “It nearly killed him. They thought he was going to die he was so badly mauled. He lost the use of his left arm and could only raise the Host with one hand when he was here.”

Formerly known as the Society of the Catholic Apostolate, the Pallottine’s society dates to 1835, and the Irish Pallottines, the Mother of Divine Love Province, was established in 1909. Members follow the charism of St. Vincent Pallotti through promoting collaboration between lay people, priests, and religious to increase awareness of all peoples’ callings, gifts, and vocations.

The Irish priests have promoted collaboration and more, several St. Stephen parishioners said.

close up of Fr. O'Hara at prayer
Father Emmet O'Hara, SAC, prays at St. Stephen Parish in Weatherford on March 28, 2024. (NTC/Richard Rodriguez)

“We were a very small parish when they first came,” Bosley said. “Now you should see us. Our masses are full, jam-packed full.”

Parishioner and former parish council member Murielle Wright commended the stability and continuity Fr. O’Hara and the fathers before him brought to the parish.

“They’ve been so much,” Wright said of the Pallottines. “We can’t even think of them leaving. Fr. O’Hara and [Father Mike O’Sullivan] before him, they’ve done so much to increase our members and attendance. They’ve reached out to younger people to keep this a vibrant, growing parish.”

From laughing and shaking hands with parishioners before Mass to being present during times of illness and other troubles, the priests have made a huge difference, Wright said.

“Fr. Emmet and Fr. Mike always made sure everyone knew they belonged, that it’s their Church, not just a church for a select few. A Church where everybody belongs and is part of the community, which has made the faith, membership, and community amazing.”

Westendorf — whose husband, Ron Westendorf, served for 20 years as business manager of St. Stephen — feels much the same.

“Fr. Emmet is probably the most spiritual priest we’ve had through his true devotion to Mary and his truly moving homilies that can just bring you to tears.”

Ron Westendorf commended an earlier Irish Pallottine priest for having instituted the parish’s first Spanish Mass in the 1980s, and he noted about a third of the parish currently speaks Spanish.

Both spoke of the priest’s decision to make use of the chapel building, an early structure, for Monday Mass and other purposes. St Stephen, established in 1882, is one of seven churches in the diocese that predates not only the Fort Worth but also the 1890 establishment of the Diocese of Dallas.

“Fr. Emmet’s message for us is mostly the importance of the sacraments, especially the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist and the importance of confession,” Bobbi Westendorf said. “I’m going to miss his spiritual guidance mostly.”

Fr. O’Hara, who came to St. Stephen in 2019, joked that he’s glad he arrived in March rather than Texas summer.

“Just great state, great people,” Fr. O’Hara said of his initial impressions of Texas. “I’ve found St. Stephen a fantastic parish of welcoming, warm, faith-filled people who are encouraging and supporting. I can’t say enough good things about the people of St. Stephen. They’ve certainly helped me in my vocation as a priest. I’m certainly going to miss the great friends I’ve made here.”

Although his next assignment remains to be determined, Fr. O’Hara said he also looks forward to reuniting with his family in Ireland. His assignment change will begin on July 1.

Father Emmet O'Hara, Irish Pallottines, SAC, St. Stephen Church, Diocese of Fort Worth, trending-english