Bulletproof Vest to Priestly Vestments: The Faith Journey of Father Steve Gallagher

5/13/11

By Eric Szatkowski

Entrance Procession, April 30, 2011

(Olympia, Washington) It started out as just another routine day on patrol for Officer Steve Gallagher cruising the streets of Olympia, Washington. 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 to be 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. En route to the call the phone in my patrol car rang – it was Alaska calling.” Steve answered, “Officer Gallagher.” It was not his dispatcher, but Father Edmund from Haines, Alaska. “Hi Steve. What is that screaming in the background?” Steve responded politely but in a Joe-Friday-firm manner, “It’s my siren and I’m in a situation right now, call me back in twenty minutes.” The clergyman did as the cop requested, and they discussed Steve’s inquiry about turning in his bullet proof vest for the vestments of Holy Orders. Thus began the final leg of Steve Gallagher’s response to the most important call of his life, the Catholic priesthood.

Eucharistic Prayer

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

The vineyard of Steve’s call, watered in Wisconsin, bore great fruit this past weekend. As Steve describes it, “nothing short of a miracle” took place on Saturday, April 30, 2011, when he received the Sacrament of Holy Orders from Juneau, AK, Bishop Edward J. Burns, followed by his first Mass on the day John Paul II came one step closer to sainthood. The ordination and first Mass took place at St. Michael Parish in Olympia, WA, with representation of the faithful from not only the Pacific Northwest, but Alaska, Milwaukee, and Oconomowoc. St. Michael was chosen by Father Steve in part because of Molly. This is where she attended grade school for 9 years, and received her First Holy Communion.

Molly, 22, was front and center, along with Steve’s 90-year-old mom, Mary Helen,

Eucharistic Prayer-Father Steve Gallagher

among about 300 people in attendance. At this point of the article, many Catholics might already be scratching their heads. How can a Roman Catholic priest have a daughter? There must have been a mistake. A daughter named Molly?

Yes, it’s true, and she hears it from Catholics often. Molly, a junior at Franciscan University in Steubenville, OH, laughingly says, “They ask questions like, is your mom still alive? How are you here? I like that one.” Molly 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. God has given him his own little heaven on earth.”

That little heaven was preceded by a little purgatory too. The marriage of Steve and Molly’s mom did not work out, resulting in a civil divorce in 1994. Steve also requested and received an annulment from the Church. An annulment, described by Sacred Heart School of Theology Vice-Rector Father Thomas L. Knoebel, is a finding by the Church that Steve’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 20′s now preparing to someday join the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.

Father Gallagher anoints his mother with the Oil of the Sick.

The annulment process for Steve took about a year, but he had no idea that a divorced man could ever become a priest. It was not until many years later when a priest told him that during Confession. The news opened the door for Steve to eventually pursue a dream he first dreamt in 1962. The first whisper of the call to the priesthood came when Steve was in elementary school on a religious retreat, led by a Franciscan Friar in his hometown of Port Angeles, Washington. Steve later spent 4 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 a tug boat worker, logger, and finally a police officer in Port Angeles, where he stayed for nearly ten years. The whispers of the call, however, started getting louder, and he decided to go back to St. Martin’s Abbey. Steve became a novice monk, but after 18 months of discernment, opted instead for roll call at the Olympia Police Department.

Father Steve 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. 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 Steve’s vocation was to protect and serve the citizens of Olympia, which he did with distinction. The road was

Father Steve Gallagher

made even more difficult for a stretch in which Steve won a bout with cancer. His former partner and longtime friend, Police Chief Jim Pryde of Gladstone, Oregon, could not be more proud of his accomplishments. “I know his hearts and his gifts. 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 Steve’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, Steve 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 Steve’s former classmates, and current seminarian for the Salvatorian order,

Fr. Steve Gallagher poses with his daughter, Molly, following his Mass of Thanksgiving on Sunday, May 1, at St. Michael Parish, Olympia, Wash. Fr. Gallagher is wearing a vestment of his own design which shows the Divine Mercy image, a depiction of Jesus based on the devotion initiated by St. Faustina Kowalska. Divine Mercy Sunday was observed May 1. (Catholic Herald photo by Eric Szatkowski)

Michael Hopper, says it succinctly, “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 Steve did in his former career, even if Steve never said a word about it. Hopper explained that Steve 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 over 2,000 miles to see Father Steve’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.” Szalacinski believes that sense of humor will work beautifully with Father Steve’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.”

For Father Steve, 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 Steve at the Sacred Heart School of Theology. The appointment of Father Steve to this diocese is an answer to the prayers of many of the faithful, since there are only 9 priests (including Father Steve) to serve an area the size of Florida. Angie DelMoral and her husband Tony of St. Gregory Parish in Sitka first met Steve 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.”

With that arrival, Father Steve 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, as he says God willing, that his own faith journey might be an inspiration to other officers to deepen their relationships with Jesus Christ.

Father Steve 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 Steve’s ready to help out, too. He says for those who have questions or want to see how they can “Catholic-up” in their law enforcement lives, he can be reached at Fr.SteveGallagherinAlaska@gmail.com. As Father Steve 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.”

(Published in the Catholic Herald, newspaper for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. Reprinted with permission.)