The following article was written in 2014 when Father James Fagan turned 95. Father Fagan died Oct. 13 at the age of 99. Vigil prayers will be held Sunday, Oct. 28, at 4 p.m. at Good Shepherd Church, Surrey. The funeral Mass will be at Good Shepherd Church on Monday, Oct. 29, at 1 p.m.
Father Jim Fagan celebrated his 95th birthday Saturday Jan. 18 with a reception for friends and family, followed by a get-together at Good Shepherd Church in White Rock after the 11:00 am Mass the next day.
Father Fagan now lives in retirement near the church, which he built in 1994, while he was pastor at Star of the Sea Parish in White Rock. He spoke to The BC Catholic at his home Jan. 20.
The highlight of the Sunday “do” was the presentation of a spiritual bouquet by the students of Star of the Sea Elementary School, which Father Fagan built in 1984.
The school began in 1980 with 13 Grade One students in a hall. When the parish had saved enough money to build, Father Fagan asked Archbishop James Carney for permission to bid on an 8-hectare property near what would later become the site of Good Shepherd Church.
“I remember the archbishop’s response,” he chuckled. “He said, ‘Today is not a good day to ask me, Father; the Pope’s coming!’”
Pope John Paul II visited Vancouver Sept. 18, 1984.
“Wherever the bishop sent me, I supported and built Catholic schools,” Father Fagan said. “I had grown up under Monsignor Forget at St. Patrick’s. As far as I knew, that’s what Catholic pastors did!”
James Edward Fagan was born Jan. 18, 1919, in St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver, the oldest of the 12 children of James Jacob and Isabel O’Connor Fagan, who had met at a dance at St. Augustine’s.
“My father wooed my mother with Purdy’s chocolates,” Father Fagan said. “Without Purdy’s, a lot of people would not be here. I’ve always supported Purdy’s for that reason; I still give Purdy’s chocolates as gifts.”
James Sr. was one of a family of 10, Isabel one of 14, so their children had “about 50” first cousins.
“He used to ask for prayers for ‘a cousin of mine’ almost every day at Mass,” a parishioner from St. Edmund’s recalled. “He really kept connected with them all.”
The young Jim was baptized at St. Augustine’s, which was run by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. He attended St. Patrick’s School and Vancouver College. At about 12, he began thinking of the priesthood.
“My uncle Lawrence O’Connor was studying to be a priest at St. Martin’s College in Seattle,” he said. “During the summers, he worked in immigration for the Canadian Pacific Steamship Company. He picked up some kind of Asian flu there and died in a few weeks. I began to think that perhaps I could take his place.”
However, after Grade 10, Jim decided to leave school to help his father, who was a mining engineer and promoter. He went to work at the gold mine in Shoal Bay, near Campbell River on Vancouver Island, where he stayed for five years, becoming a journeyman miner.
During that time, Father John Bradley, a priest of the Victoria Diocese, visited Shoal Bay. Jim’s mother had told him about Jim’s vocation, and Father Bradley encouraged Jim to enter the seminary. First, however, they went to see Bishop John C. Cody of Victoria.
“I had always wanted to be an Oblate,” Father Jim said. “I knew and liked the Oblates of St. Augustine’s; they were very social people. But I knew nothing about the hierarchy or ecclesiastical jurisdictions or religious orders or congregations. I was very simple about becoming a priest; I figured that if I went to the seminary, I would end up an Oblate.”
In 1940, Bishop Cody sent Jim to the Benedictine Seminary of Christ the King, then located in Burnaby. That same year, with American financial support for new mines cut off by the war, the family gradually moved to California, where they had relatives. First Jim’s brother Pat went, finding work in the Lougheed aircraft plant in Los Angeles. Then James Sr. and his oldest daughter Bernice joined him. The rest of the family followed by train, eventually settling in Mission Viejo. However, Jim stayed in Canada, studying at the seminary during the winter and working and visiting his family during the summer.
At the end of June in 1940, Jim was called up by the Canadian Army and directed to the Cambie Street enlistment office. After about a week in the induction centre at Little Mountain, he was told that he had failed the physical exam because of poor eyesight.
“However, I did my bit for the war effort,” Father Fagan said. “In the summers of 1940 and 1941, I worked at Yarrow Shipyards in Victoria. In 1942, I worked at the West Coast Shipyards in Vancouver; in 1943, at the Boeing Aircraft plant on Sea Island in Vancouver; and in 1944 and 1945, at the Ward Heater Company and McCaffrey Engineering in Los Angles.”
After completing high school in 1942 and philosophy at SCK in 1946, Jim was sent to St. Joseph’s Seminary in “cold and snowy” Edmonton to finish his theology. He was ordained a deacon Aug. 13, 1949 and a priest March 25, 1950, at the same time as his classmate Father Bill Kilty.
He was ordained by Archbishop William Duke of Vancouver, not Bishop James Hill of Victoria.
“Somewhere along the line, Archbishop Duke ‘claimed’ me,” Father Fagan explained. “I guess he thought I belonged to Vancouver more than Victoria. For myself, in my simplicity, I thought that after ordination, I would join my family in California, but I found that I was now a priest of the Archdiocese of Vancouver!”
After ordination, Father Fagan worked for short periods of time at Holy Rosary Cathedral with Father Bill Kilty, at St. Patrick’s with Msgr. Louis Forget, at St. Edmund’s in North Vancouver with Father Patrick McEvoy, and at Port Alice and Alert Bay (at the north end of Vancouver Island) to replace Father Bradley.
On Jan. 5, 1951 Father Fagan was appointed pastor of St. Margaret’s Parish in Ocean Falls, where he stayed for the next 12 years. While he was there, he built his first school, St. Margaret’s.
Situated at the head of Cousins Inlet on the BC mainland about 480 kilometres northwest of Vancouver, Ocean Falls is, even today, accessible only by boat or seaplane. The town, which in 1951 boasted about 3,500 inhabitants, was the site of a large pulp and paper mill.
“There had been a kind of gentlemen’s agreement between the Methodists and the Catholics that we would not confuse the First Nations people with the divisions among Christians,” Father Fagan said. “So the Methodists had evangelized all the Nations up the coast, using the Hudson’s Bay Company boats, while the Catholics had evangelized up the Fraser Valley as far as Williams Lake on horseback.”
The Catholics to whom Father Fagan had to minister, therefore, covered a huge area. Besides numerous logging camps, the territory he served included Bella Coola, 90 kilometres to the east of Ocean Falls; Anahim Lake, 160 kilometres to the east; Alert Bay, 200 kilometres to the south; and Bella Bella, 50 kilometres to the southwest. In Bella Bella there was just one Catholic: Bill Martin, the postmaster.
At first, Father Fagan visited his far-flung parishioners in company with United Church minister Bob Burrows and his wife Joan, residents of Ocean Falls since about 1925, who owned an 18-metre diesel-engine launch called Thomas Crosby IV. Starting in about 1954, however, he used his own 6-metre boat, called Star of the Sea, which had an outboard motor.
Father Fagan tackled his rugged job with the simplicity that had always characterized him. According to stories told at his birthday party, Star of the Sea became well known by the Canadian Navy in Victoria, the Coast Guard, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and National Search and Rescue. At one point, they insisted that she be painted orange, so that they could find him more easily!
“No matter where I visited, I found that Father Bradley had been there before me,” Father Fagan said. “He was a saintly man and a good pastor.”
At the beginning, the nearest priest was in Prince Rupert. “I had to take a BC ferry there to get to Confession,” Father Fagan said.
However, on one of his occasional visits to Vancouver, he asked the archbishop for help. He got Father Potanko, a Hungarian, who had come to Canada in 1954. Father Potanko was appointed assistant pastor to the Ocean Falls mission (with responsibility for Alert Bay) Nov. 13, 1956, pastor of the Alert Bay mission in 1957, and pastor of the Bella Coola mission in 1960.
“The First Nations people loved him,” Father Fagan said. “He would work outdoors in the sun with no hat or shirt, so he was as brown as they were. Besides, he spoke a strange language, like First Nations people from other villages, so they thought he was one of them.”
(In his decades-long struggle to be ordained, Father Potanko had had to learn Hungarian, Romanian, German, French, and English. His parishioners often joked that he spoke them all at once!)
In 1957, after the abortive Hungarian revolution, the Canadian government settled some 6,000 “freedom fighters” and their families in Abbotsford, where Father Benjamin Csaki and Father Albert Zsigmond looked after them. At the request of Father Fagan and Father Potanko, the mill owners in Ocean Falls agreed to take on 12 single men and house them in the company hotel. However, some 30 men, women, and children arrived instead.
“I took two families into the rectory,” Father Fagan said. “Father Potanko accommodated three families at Bella Coola. The Borden family, who had an empty farmhouse, and Louis Churchfield, who owned the Martin Inn, took the rest. We managed!”
Archbishop Duke used to travel to Ocean Falls and Bella Coola for Confirmations by Pacific Airlines, with which Monsignor John Edward Brown had connections.
“On one occasion I had to commandeer the pilot, John Fair, and his plane in order to get to a funeral at Bella Bella,” Father Fagan recalled. “The archbishop and Msgr. Brown had to get out of Ocean Falls by horseback. Msgr. Brown and I had been friends from altar-server days, but on this occasion, he was not happy with me!”
Father Fagan might have stayed at Ocean Falls indefinitely. However, Msgr. Brown, then archdiocesan chancellor and the archbishop’s secretary, suggested to Archbishop Duke that Father Fagan might like a change.
“I had been happy at Ocean Falls,” Father Fagan said, “but I was ready for a change. However, I would never have asked for it; what I wanted was whatever the bishop wanted.”
Father Fagan’s next three parishes already had schools: St. Mary’s in Chilliwack, where he stayed 1963-69; St. Helen’s in Burnaby, 1969-73; and St. Edmund’s in North Vancouver, 1973-78.
In 1978, Father Fagan moved to Star of the Sea Parish in White Rock, from where he retired in 1996.
Father Fagan claims that he has done as much evangelizing through golf as he has done in other ways.
“In golf, as in other daily activities, `we reach out to others and we can meet God,’” he said seriously, quoting from one of his favourite books, Golf and the Spiritual Life, by Rev. Maurice Blackburn OMI. “It’s good for priests to get away from their busy rectories for a day. They return refreshed, better able to handle the problems of the week.”
“I started playing golf on the sandbars in Boundary Bay when I was about 12,” he said. “My uncle Lawrence had given me a 3-iron, and my cousin Jim Leahy had a 4-iron, and we used to hit the ball to each other.”
Patrick Fagan, son of Father Fagan’s brother Larry and his wife Anne, who live in White Rock, said that he had learned “golf and religion” from his uncle.
“We would go to the 9:00 am Mass and then tee off at 10:00,” he said. “I remember the day Father Fagan made a hole-in-one with a 150-yard drive. We spent some time looking for the ball before we thought of looking in the cup.”
In 1992, Father Fagan and Msgr. Brown, then pastor of Precious Blood Parish in Surrey, initiated a charity Golf Tournament to raise money for school gyms at their two parishes.
“I started a number of golf tournaments,” Father Fagan said. “One was for priests; another was ecumenical.”
‘A priest forever’
During his active ministry, Father Fagan used to take his annual four weeks holiday in California with his family. Since his retirement, he has spent about four months each year there.
It has not been all holiday, though.
“He has always helped out in the local parishes,” said his sister Claire Woodruff. “He has also served as chaplain to the Catholic Hospital in Mission Viejo. He has a lot of friends down there.”
As the comments at his birthday reception demonstrated, Father Fagan has friends everywhere.
“He never drops a connection once he’s made it,” said one.
“He never argues with people,” said another. “He just talks to them.”
“He still asks a single mother he helped 25 years ago, `How’s our baby?’” said a third.
“He never stops being a priest,” said his sister. “He lives his religion all the time.”
“I’ve never thought of being anything but a priest,” Father Fagan summed up. “It’s been a good life.”
In lieu of birthday presents, Father Fagan asks that donations be made to the renovation fund at Holy Name of Mary Church in Bella Coola.
The church, originally a two-room chapel, was begun by Father Fagan 60 years ago. Impetus for the project came from the Borden family of Ocean Falls: Hoxey Borden, a non-Catholic, wanted to fish for salmon in Bella Coola, but his wife Florence, who was Catholic, was not happy so far away from a Catholic church.
“Besides, Chief Capoose would come from Anahim Lake, which had been evangelized by the Oblates, to the Bella Coola Valley with one or two families to trade moose meat for oolichan oil to cook with,” Father Fagan said. “I would say Mass in the chapel for them.”
When Father Potanko arrived, he enlarged the church, decorated it, and gave it its present name.
“We are the church’s co-founders,” Father Fagan stressed.