By Mary Stone
March 2015, Southeast Alaska Catholic

For men called to a “second vocation” – Catholic priesthood later in life following a secular career and family life – patience is on the list of qualifications. And, Mike Galbraith has patience.

Leaving his home state of Texas last summer, Mike made the move to Juneau at the invitation of Bishop Edward Burns to serve a pastoral year of discernment for the priesthood here in the Diocese of Juneau. A former Sacred Heart School of Theology classmate of Fr. Steve Gallagher’s (who was ordained to the Diocese of Juneau priesthood in 2011 at age 58), Mike has completed his academic formation for the priesthood, has worked in parish ministry in Texas and now in Alaska he hopes this is the final leg of his journey toward priesthood.

A persistent call

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Mike Galbraith (right) and Steve Olmstead (left) were ordained as deacons for the Diocese of Juneau on May 29, 2015 by Bishop Edward Burns (center).

“I initially had plans to become a Dominican priest, but as it turned out the time was not right,” Mike explains about his younger years. Sometimes the call of the Holy Spirit is clear, but the timing isn’t right. Born in 1952 and a lifelong Catholic, Mike attended Catholic schools in Dallas and remembers having an inclination toward the priesthood since the age of 10. His Catholic parents gave him and his 3 sisters their choice of schools – public or Catholic – and Mike chose Catholic. He recalls their father demonstrating a commitment to spiritual growth by attending Catholic retreats on a regular basis. Following the sudden and tragic death of his mother while Mike was still in his teens, he graduated high school and then chose to attend Texas Tech University on a track and ROTC scholarship. He eventually earned an undergraduate degree in Physical Education and a Master’s degree in Exercise Physiology. After serving in the Air Force Reserves and working various jobs, he began a career in the pharmaceutical industry that spanned 25 years and included specializing in neurology and drugs to treat Alzheimer’s disease. In 1999, Mike’s marriage of 23 years ended in divorce. His daughter (now married) and son (engaged) both still live in Texas.

Finally, the persistent call from the Holy Spirit that he had first heard as a youth became so loud that Mike couldn’t ignore it anymore. At the age of 52, he approached his San Antonio parish priest and asked about the possibility of becoming a deacon. Explaining that preparation for the Diaconate would take only a few years less than preparation for the priesthood, his parish priest suggested the latter. And that began – or rather continued – a journey of patience and persistence toward the priesthood.

“So Dad, where am I going to get money?”

Mike’s sisters, including his twin sister, were thrilled that he was finally answering the call to priesthood. His son, still in college at the time, was initially less enthused. After Mike explained that life wasn’t a ‘free ride from Dad,’ that his son could and would get a job, and that God would take care of and provide for him, things eventually improved.

Many dioceses in the United States will not accept applicants for the priesthood who are beyond a certain age, but Mike eventually found that the Forth Worth, Texas, diocese accepted second vocation men, in part because of their maturity and past experiences in life, as well as their lower drop-out rate. After serving 3 years of discernment to the ministry, in 2008 he was finally able to enter the seminary at Sacred Heart School of Theology just outside of Milwaukee, Wisconsin – a school which specializes in training second vocation men.

The four pillars of formation

A Catholic priest’s education is typically based on four areas: Academic, Pastoral, Spiritual, and Human Formation. Mike’s seminary education encompassed 7 years, including 5 years of academic study at Sacred Heart where he received a Master’s degree in Theology, and two years spent in Pastoral ministry. He spent one Pastoral Year in an Arlington, Texas parish as well as one year ministering as a chaplain in a large retirement and nursing home and hospice unit. During his fifth year in seminary, and just two weeks before he was to be ordained a deacon, his bishop of the Fort Worth diocese was transferred to California; ordination would only be possible upon the appointment of a new bishop. Following graduation, Mike spent another Pastoral Year in the same Arlington parish, awaiting the appointment of a new bishop who would then ordain him to the transitional diaconate. (A ‘transitional deacon’ is one who intends to transition to priesthood.)

Unfortunately, once appointed, the new bishop did not adopt his predecessor’s policy of ordaining older, second vocation men to the priesthood and declined to ordain Mike to the diaconate or priesthood despite his 7 years of preparation.

The Spirit points north

At the encouragement and assistance of his friend and fellow classmate, Fr. Steve Gallagher, Mike approached Bishop Edward Burns about the possibility of transferring to Alaska and being ordained for the Diocese of Juneau – a diocese that had recently demonstrated its willingness to accept older men as priests with the ordination of Fr. Steve in 2011. Having traveled by car from Wisconsin to Ketchikan with Fr. Steve in December of 2010 following Fr. Steve’s graduation, Mike was acquainted with the Southeast Alaska diocese and already knew that he loved this beautiful area.

Bishop Burns responded by inviting Mike to visit Alaska and serve a Pastoral Year in the diocese – to spend time becoming acquainted with the people and culture of Southeast Alaska, to assist in ministry, and to discern whether the diocese would be a good ‘fit’ for him and him for the diocese.

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Fr. Steve Gallagher (at left) and Deacon Mike Galbraith (right) enjoy a walk on the beach in Yakutat, AK.

As part of his current Pastoral Year in Alaska, Mike has thus far been able to visit some of the diocesan missions with Fr. Steve Gallagher, to work in prison and hospital ministry in Juneau, and to assist Bishop Burns with various special projects. He is currently facilitating a scripture study as well as a Lenten retreat at the Shrine of St. Therese. Having been active with the ACTS retreats in Texas, he also served on the leadership team for the Men’s ACTS retreat in Juneau this past year. An avid fisherman, Mike also enjoys hunting, and has been known to write a humorous story or two. He continues to share his written reflections on life and spirituality with a long list of friends and family back in Texas. It’s his hope that he will be ordained to the transitional diaconate for the Diocese of Juneau in 2015 and at long last be able to participate in the ministries that he has been preparing for these past seven years. (Editor’s note: Mike Galbraith was ordained to the transitional diaconate on May 29, 2015 in Juneau.)

And, Mike Galbraith’s advice to someone considering discernment to the priesthood? Find a good spiritual director, develop a strong prayer life, become active in ministry in your home parish, and most importantly: be patient! It’s a long process. Having patience with the system and patience in yourself is key; the Church doesn’t do anything in a hurry, and the process can move slowly, but it’s well worth it in the end. He concludes, “There is no better life than ministering to others and helping people grow closer to God in their earthly journey toward personal holiness.”
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Bishop Edward Burns announced in July, 2015 that Deacon Mike Galbraith will be ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Juneau on Friday, October 23rd, 2015 at St. Paul the Apostle church in Juneau at 7:00 p.m.