After 11 years, Marymount gets a priest.
After 28 years, a priest gets the contemplative life.
The following story appeared in the September 10 Idaho Catholic Register.
By Gene Fadness
Sister Beverly Greger, HSM, of Marymount Hermitage, likes to call the day she met Father Bill McCann an “earth-shattering day.”
Their first meeting at Mount Angel Seminary in Oregon would indeed have long-ranging consequence on their lives, but Sister Beverly is not just speaking figuratively when she remembers the day – March 25, 1993 – as earth-shattering.
Both she and then-seminarian Bill McCann were staying at Mount Angel that day, though the two had not yet met. It was day that McCann was to have his final evaluation before ordination. In the early morning hours, an earthquake rattled the brick buildings of the seminary. The quake measured 5.6 on the Richter scale. The epicenter, in Scott’s Mill, Ore., was only about eight miles due east of Mount Angel Abbey.
“Here I’m supposed to be meeting with my vocations director for my final evaluation, and I’m on the third floor of the building and you could hear all the bricks rattling and stuff is flying off the walls,” Father McCann said. “I was thinking, ‘Instead of my final evaluation, this might be my final judgement.’”
The final judgement not to be, Father McCann was ordained in February 1994 for the Diocese of Las Cruces, New Mexico, where he served faithfully as a diocesan priest for the next 27-plus years, including the last 10 as rector of Immaculate Heart of Mary Cathedral.
While he does not regret his decision to pursue diocesan priest-hood, the contemplative life “has always been in the back of my mind.” Which is one of the reasons he sent an email back in 1993 to the tiny Marymount Hermitage in central Idaho, identifying this isolated spot on the high mountain desert as the place that we would like to make his personal retreat before his ordination. His diocese was requiring at minimum eight days on retreat. He inquired of Sister Beverly about coming to Marymount for 30 days.
“That’s an indication of the kind of man this is,” Sister Beverly says.
A couple of months before Father McCann’s personal retreat, Sister Beverly had agreed to accompany another Sister on a trip to Mount Angel, the day before the earthquake. She did not know her future retreatant would be there. While at lunch, Father McCann saw Sister Beverly and recognized the distinctive blue denim habit he had seen in a picture of her. He approached her, and a 28-year friendship began on that earth-shattering day.
Father McCann has returned to Marymount at least once yearly in the 28 years since. Now that he is retiring from diocesan work, the soft-spoken 70-year-old priest intends to build his own hermitage on the mesa, and make Marymount his home. He will get the contemplative life that he has dreamed about and Sister Beverly and her retreatants will get a priest who will be there during most of the year to say daily Mass at the hermitage.
On July 11, Father McCann moved to Marymount and on Oct. 9 will be leading his first retreat, two teachings on the theme, “Praying and Seeking Peace in Our Troubled World.” (See more about the retreat on page 14)
READING OR HEARING about Bill McCann’s early years, one would assume that priesthood was not such a long shot. He was born to a devout Catholic family, the oldest of eight children. The family moved to North Dakota, then South Dakota and finally settling in Montana. McCann would leave his Montana home to become a student at the citadel of Catholic education, Notre Dame University. Yet, during his days at Notre Dame he stepped into a Catholic church just once to attend the funeral of the wife of one of his professors.
He did, however, manage to make time for several Notre Dame football games. “You could tell where my priorities were.”
During his sophomore year at Notre Dame, he went on a foreign trip to Mexico where he acquired an interested in the business of importing and exporting goods across borders. By this time, his family had settled in Great Falls, about two hours south of the Canadian border.
After two years at Notre Dame, Father McCann’s dad asked his son to return home to help with the family business. He enrolled at the University of Montana in Missoula and got a degree in business administration.
Also interested in politics, he volunteered to go door-to-door for Democratic Sen. George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign. One of the doors he knocked on belonged to the president of the College Republicans. The encounter was eye opening, but not because of the hot topic of politics but the sometimes hotter topic of religion. “He told me, ‘I was always interested in politics, but not so much anymore since I’ve become a Christian.’ ”
“I had a lot of questions for him about what it meant to be a Christian,” Father McCann said. The man invited McCann to attend his church, but he was more comfortable in attending the mid-week prayer group that met in the basement of new friend’s home. The man belonged to what was then known as the Swedish Covenant Church, which was more evangelical and charismatic than the Swedish Lutheran state church from which it came. It was Father McCann’s first introduction to the charismatic renewal, which would have a profound and lasting impact on his now sprouting faith.
AFTER GRADUATING from the University of Montana, Father McCann returned to the Midwest, seeking a job as a customs broker, helping importers get their products through U.S. Customs. During the two years he was in Chicago, he started attending a Catholic charismatic prayer meeting.
“That prayer meeting started a gravitation back to the Catholic Church for me,” he said. He met a woman in the prayer group who was a catechist at a parish looking for a 4th- and 5th-grade catechism teacher. He agreed to take the volunteer position and, in so doing, decided that he probably should start attending the Catholic Church again.
After two years in Chicago, he returned to Montana to begin his own customs importing and exporting business in Sweet Grass, Mont., where Interstate 15 crosses into Canada.
The break between jobs provided him an opportunity to backpack through six South American countries. A woman whom he had met in the Chicago prayer group, Marie Kilbourne, put him in touch with a Jesuit priest in Colombia. So, the first place he stayed upon his arrival in South America was a Jesuit guesthouse in Cartagena that was the home of St. Peter Claver, the Jesuit missionary who ministered to slaves as they came off the ships in the port city, often severely ill or dying. Known as the “slave of the slaves,” St. Peter Claver is said to be responsible for the conversion of up to 300,000 slaves over 40 years. Many of the slaves escaped into remote areas along the Caribbean coast and established villages. The Jesuits in the house where Father McCann stayed were still going to those villages. He was surprised to see at the same time that he was visiting the Cartagena house, so also was Marie Kilbourne, the friend from the Chicago prayer group. Both of them joined the Jesuit priest for about two weeks as they visited the African villages.
Returning to Montana, Father McCann knew that he would have to establish himself in Sweet Grass before he could start his own business. Short-ly after returning, he got a call from a friend at a brokerage house in Sweet Grass with whom he had not spoken in over a year. He told him there was an opening if he was interested. It was the same business he planned to visit the following Monday to inquire about employment. “It’s interesting how the Lord work sometimes,” he says.
He worked there, while at the same time, buying the property he needed to establish his own “gate” at the border for his business, which he operated for eight years.
THE WIFE OF his first employer in Sweet Grass was the organist at the local parish. She let Father McCann know that a priest from Lethbridge was coming to St. Peter’s Church
in Milk River, Alberta, just over the Canadian border to lead a “Life in the Spirit,” seminar, which became yet another turning point in Father McCann’s spiritual journey. After the seminar, the priest asked Father McCann if he would become a prayer group leader for the area. He agreed.
Not long afterward, Catholic Charities of Canada called him, asking for his help in moving a semi-truck load of used clothing to the Lord’s Ranch near El Paso, Texas, a ministry to the poor in El Paso and Juarez, Mexico. Not having taken a vacation in the eight years since he established his business, Father McCann was in the early stages of planning a three-week sailing trip in the Caribbean. He agreed to meet the truck of donated goods near the Mexican border and help it clear customs into Mexico. He had three days to spend before he was to leave for Florida for his sailing trip, so he spent it with the missionary volunteers at the Lord’s Ranch and with the poor across the border in Juarez.
(The Lord’s Ranch – see thelordsranchcommunity.com – was founded by Jesuit Father Richard Thomas to serve the poor in downtown El Paso and, later in Juarez, Mexico. A Bible study group made up the volunteers that would serve the poor. Growing out of the Bible study was a now-famous 1972 Christmas excursion to share a meal with the people who lived and worked in the garbage dump in Juarez. According to the Lord’s Ranch website: “During that meal, the Lord multiplied the food the group had brought to share with 120 people, and 300-plus people were all able to eat their fill. There was so much food leftover that the group took the extras to two orphanages on the way home to use it up. This multi-plication of food really got the attention of those who witnessed it. From this miracle developed the garbage dump ministry which grew to include a business cooperative to sell bottles and cardboard, a school, a medical and dental clinic, and a daycare center.”)
“I’ll never forget this outdoor Mass we went to with the poor in Juarez,” Father McCann said. “There was dancing and the dust was flying around. I thought, ‘This is great.’ ” He ditched the Florida vacation and spent his entire three weeks at the Lord’s Ranch.
At the end of the three weeks, he told Father Thomas that he felt the Lord was calling him to full-time volunteer ministry at the Lord’s Ranch. Father Thomas told him to go back to Montana and sell his business. It took about six months to sell the business, which by that time had grown to include about eight employees.
Father McCann spent all of 1987 at the Lord’s Ranch. It was there that he started to open himself up to the idea of priesthood.
After consulting with Father Thomas, he went to meet with the Bishop of Las Cruces, the diocese where the Lord’s Ranch was located. Sitting in the Bishop’s waiting room, he began to have doubts. “What am I doing here? I don’t know anyone in this diocese,” he told himself.
At that moment, around the corner came Marie Kilbourne, the woman from the Chicago prayer group that he had sack lunches with; the woman who was at the Jesuit home in Columbia. She was living in Las Cruces working for the diocesan finance department. Turns out, he knew someone in Las Cruces. “It was like the Lord was asking, ‘You got any other objections?’ ”
(Kilbourne read the First Reading at his ordination and, years later, Father McCann would preside at her funeral liturgy. “Many years prior when we were eating sack lunches in Chicago, we probably had never even heard of Las Cruces. Who knew I would be a priest there, she would be living there, and I would be presiding at her funeral?” Father McCann said.)
Partly because he was a late vocation – entering the seminary at age 36 – Father McCann’s bishop let him choose his own seminary as long he would agree to serve in the Diocese of Las Cruces. After attending the Catholic University of Steubenville for one year for pre-theology, he chose Mount Angel.
He graduated in 1993 and was ordained in 1994 by Bishop Ricardo Ramirez.
Father McCann served in three parishes in New Mexico in Hatch, Lovington and Roswell before his appointment as rector of the cathedral.
Even though he will live most of the year at Marymount Hermitage, Father McCann wants to maintain his ties to the Diocese of Las Cruces, filling in for the many foreign priests when they return home for visits. Bishop Peter Christensen respects his wishes to lead a life of prayer while in Idaho at the hermitage. Father McCann said he is open to assisting Father Jerry Funke, the priest of the parish where Mary-mount is located, with its churches in Weiser, Cambridge and Council.
It has been 11 years since the hermitage has had a resident priest, and this is one who fits “like a hand in a glove,” Sister Beverly said.
In fact, after Sister Beverly and Sister Rebeca Mary, who used to live at the hermitage, first got to know Father McCann, both remarked that he would make a perfect resident priest. Sister Beverly has had to wait 28 years. “It’s been worth the wait,” she said.
If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it, please consider buying a subscription to the Idaho Catholic Register. Your $20 yearly subscription also supports the work of the Diocese of Boise Communications Department, which includes not only the newspaper, but this website, social media posts and videos. You can subscribe here, or through your parish, or send a check to 1501 S. Federal Way, Boise, ID, 83705: or call 208-350-7554 to leave a credit card payment. Thank you, and God bless you.