Bernard E. Gilgun: Worcester’s Catholic Worker Priest
Father Bernie Gilgun, at age 84, quietly breathed his earthly last in the company of family and friends at the Grenon ICU Center of the University of Massachusetts Hospital in Worcester in the early afternoon of Easter Monday, April 25, 2011. Father Gilgun was widely known for his holiness, his preaching, and his love of the poor. His loss is acutely felt by his followers who viewed him as wise priest, expert leader in prayer, and teacher.
Bernie was born into a large Irish-American Catholic family that settled in Woburn, Massachusetts. He often spoke of his family as a domestic communion of saints. He was very influenced by his many siblings who he recognized as exceedingly holy. He was especially close to his mother, Rose, who always protected his hands and those of his brother Lawrence. She felt called to safeguard their hands because, in her knowing maternity, Lawrence was going to be a pianist and Bernard a priest. Both fulfilled their mother’s expectations. The Gilguns were a prominent family in Woburn and one of Bernie’s brothers was a mayor of the city.
Bernie attended Saint Charles’ School where he was educated by the School Sisters of Notre Dame who he revered. He attended Boston College High School and later joined the Augustinians. He studied at Villanova University and in Rome. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1954 on the eve of Pentecost for the Diocese of Worcester by then Bishop John J. Wright. Bernie’s priesthood has long been characterized by a special devotion to the Holy Spirit. Bernie always loved to celebrate the feast of Pentecost as a time of our renewal, the “birthday of the Church.”
As a young priest, Bernie was assigned to Saint Mary’s Parish in Shrewsbury. He helped to design the church and parish buildings and had a strong inkling for what made for the good shepherding of his people. He made home visits and was a good personalist. He also felt at this time a call to uphold and promote the liturgical arts. It soon became evident that he was a gifted preacher and his eloquence won him listeners. He became a leader in the budding liturgical movement that preceded the second Vatican Council. Then Bishop and later Cardinal John Wright said of Bernie, the young liturgist: “This fellow thinks we are going to be praying in English.” How right Wright was even as the comment was an allusion to its seeming unlikelihood.
When the fledgling civil rights movement began, Bernie joined the struggle for racial equality. He worked with Worcester civil rights activists, Abbie Hoffman and D’Army Bailey, adding a prophetic Roman Catholic voice to the mix. He decried the “sin of racism” and in his person provided a kind of Catholic iconic presence and blessing to the growing expressions of solidarity with black America in the county and in the country. He was bold and outspoken in his views about interracial marriage as a needed harbinger of social change and was persecuted for it by being transferred to rural parishes. He also travelled South and was “chased by sheets”- as he saw it- for his role as a Catholic priest witness who, alongside other churchmen, deplored Jim Crow as a follower of Jesus. His ministry in the North was informed by his harrowing experiences in the Deep South.
Bernie was involved in the local NAACP chapter, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and the Worcester Phoenix, a movement school and activist hub. He was also a co-founder of Prospect House, a community service center for Worcester’s black community and its supporters. He was a guest celebrant at Worcester’s Floating Parish and served in several parishes throughout the diocese but always with the seemingly added role of being a priest advocate for interracial justice and harmony and this with an “always eye out” for the plight of God’s poor and for what should be the Church’s response of careful tending to “the least of these,” the true “treasures of the Church”.
Bernie embraced voluntary poverty and promoted it. He oft noted that his initials were B.E.G. and he chose the pen name “A. Mendicant” which he later used when writing for and publishing his Catholic Worker farm’s newspaper, “Carry It On”. He taught that we are “possessed by what we possess” and that God “called the rich to be poor and the poor to be holy.” The Borgattis, the wealthy owners of Spag’s, took Bernie’s challenge seriously and become a patron as did many others who shared their possessions with the poor.
Bernie loved parish work and had a special gift working with the young. He attracted idealistic youth and he challenged many to integrate their Catholic faith with the just causes of racial equality, economic fairness, and peace. He loved to preach and lead Lenten and other missions in the region. Some called him “the Ambrose” of Worcester. Abbie Hoffman, in his autobiography, described Bernie as “the best movement orator excepting Malcolm X, but maybe even better, because he spoke directly from the heart.” When Abbie died tragically in 1989, Bernie told the massive grieving congregation in Worcester’s overflowing 900 seat Temple Emanuel that the Chicago Eight defendant and Yippie leader was “on the side of the angels” and the gathering roared in agreement. He was priest to the entire American counterculture that day.
Bernie had heard of Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day from a priest economist at Villanova. He was drawn by the life and witness of Dorothy Day and he visited Catholic Worker headquarters in Manhattan with fellow civil rights priest, Don Gonyer, in the early sixties. There he met the Catholic anarchist, Ammon Hennacy, the “one man revolution in America” and Day. He was deeply influenced by them both. Ammon greeted the priestly pair at the door upon their visit and called Dorothy down from an upper floor with the words, “Dorothy, come down here. You’re not going to believe your eyes—two skinny priests!” Dorothy told Ammon to hush up and greeted the pair, later telling them, “Don’t listen to a thing Ammon says, but do as Ammon does.” Bernie took those words to heart and started a Catholic Worker farm commune in Hubbardston, which he called the “House of Ammon” in honor of Hennacy and his style of Christian anarchism in the early seventies.
Bernie had earlier founded and led a communal venture known as “True View Farm” in Roylston. Bernie’s commitment to Christian nonviolence was rooted in his faith in Christ and the imitation of Jesus and Christian exemplars. Bernie took cues from the twelfth century monk, Bernard of Clairvaux, to his contemporaries of conscience—Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day and Dag Hammarskjöld. Jeanette Noel, Richard Kozlowski, the Hennessey brothers, Geraldine Dinardo and many others too numerous to mention shared in that blessed vision. Many continue to do so.
Bernie’s unique witness in the diocese became increasingly recognized if not always appreciated by all sectors in the community and he became a leading Catholic voice in opposition to war and for peace. He issued an invitation to countercultural Catholic youth to pursue a Catholic life on the land and to serve the undeserving as well as the deserving poor. He fulfilled his priestly ministry largely at Saint Anne’s Parish in Shrewsbury, serving there as a parish priest for decades and he became the chaplain of the Mustard Seed Catholic Worker after a devastating fire at the Hubbardston farm closed that beautiful but also hard pressed experiment in communal living. He upheld an educational philosophy for his communards akin to that expressed in John Henry Newman’s “Idea of a University.” He loved to sing and he specialized in civil rights and old popular songs. He loved the psalms, led hymnody and recited the poetry of Eliot, Hopkins and Frost that he loved so much. He was much taken with the spirituality of Theresa of Avila as was Dorothy Day.
Bernie’s prayer on the day of his ordination at Saint Paul’s Cathedral in May of 1954 was that someday Worcester would have its own Catholic Worker House. The city has two and several kindred homes of hospitality where his influence is felt and where prayer and work are synthesized in the holy labor of “building a new society in the shell of the old.” Bernie said Mass for the Mustard Seed communities both on Piedmont and Merrick Streets weekly for decades and he also supported Saint Francis and Therese Catholic Worker and the Agape Community in Hardwick. His famous homilies were Spirit-filled expressions of Christian hope and perseverance. He will be so grievously missed by his followers in the Catholic Worker but also by his many friends among the poor, those in recovery programs, and the spiritually, mentally and physically ill to whom he was dedicated to the last. His devoted parishioners at Saint Anne’s have also suffered the grievous loss of a great and loving priest.
It would not be hyperbolic or merely polite to suggest that we have had a saint among us, in our ranks. Praise be to God for the likes of Bernard E. Gilgun and may comfort and blessings belong to all the people who knew and loved him. In the history of the Catholic Worker movement, Bernie will surely enjoy a place alongside the likes of Virgil Michel, Pacifique Roy, and John Hugo. He will be glad to be with Dorothy and Peter in that great union of the Mystical Body of Christ above.
“Eternal Life grant unto thy servant, Bernard, O Lord, and may perpetual Light shine upon him.”
Michael Boover is a long-time protégé of Father Gilgun in the Catholic Worker movement and an assistant professor of religious studies at Anna Maria College in Paxton.