A priest who said, “I hope my legacy would be that I considered others before myself,” died after leaving a history of 79 years of service in the Roman Catholic clergy.
Monsignor Anthony McGowan, the oldest Roman Catholic priest in the Diocese of Orange and perhaps anywhere, died Aug. 12. He was 105.
It was believed Jacques Clemens, a 108-year-old Dutch priest, was the oldest in the world when he died in 2018. At the time, a humble California monsignor who preferred to be called Father Tony McGowan, or simply Tony, was believed to be the next oldest.
Monsignor McGowan was remembered at a funeral Mass on Aug. 28 at Our Lady of Fatima. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, attendance was limited to about 30 priests, including bishops Kevin Vann and Timothy Freyer, and about 30 friends and family.
Nick Jordan, founder and CEO of the nonprofit Wells of Life, who befriended the priest in his later years, said he would tease the old priest, “Irishman to Irishman,” about his longevity.
“I’d ask him, ‘Father Tony, what are you hanging around for?’” Jordan said.
Fr. Tony also joked about his age, saying, “Growing old isn’t any great accomplishment – all you need to do is not die!”
There was more than longevity and renown that defined Fr. Tony. The cleric carried a humility that belied his loquacious Irish tongue. And a spirit to give.
Barbara Forman, who was close to the monsignor for more than 25 years, recalls one night when Fr. Tony, then the pastor of Our Lady of Fatima, opened the door of the rectory one night to a needy passer-by.
She recalled the pastor, “literally took the shoes off his feet,” and gave them to the homeless woman.
“He was just a very caring and giving man,” Forman said.
In 2015, the monsignor donated a $2,000 “Centenarian Bounty,” presented to native Irish by the country for reaching the age of 100, for a well in a water-starved Ugandan village.
He asked that the well be dedicated not to himself but the memory of six Irish and Irish-American college students who died in the 2015 collapse of a balcony in Berkeley.
The money went to Wells of Life, an Irvine nonprofit that has drilled more than 525 wells in Africa.
“Maybe that’s what he was waiting for,” Jordan said. “There is no better way to be remembered than a well,” Jordan said of the Fr. Tony’s gift that supplies water to 873 residents of the Kigudde Parrish in Uganda. “When you give the gift of life, I can’t think of any better way to be remembered.”
Fr. Tony’s service to the Diocese didn’t go unrecognized. In 2012, Our Lady of Fatima dedicated its $5 million social hall in his honor, christening it McGowan Hall.
When the Diocese dedicated Christ Cathedral in July, 2019, Bishop Kevin W. Vann made sure Fr. Tony was in attendance and recognized. The bishop was also a special guest at the monsignor’s 100th birthday. A picture of the two became a prized possession and hung on the wall of Fr. Tony’s room at Del Obispo Terrace Senior Living in San Juan Capistrano until his death.
Fr. Eamon O’Gorman, a retired priest in Orange County, regularly visited the monsignor with Forman until the pandemic curtailed things.
The first time he visited Fr. Tony in his room, Fr. Eamon noticed front and center in the old priest’s small room was a simply adorned altar.
“It was striking,” Fr. Eamon said. “It was the first thing you saw. He was first and foremost a priest.”
A son of the “auld sod,” Fr. Tony was born Anthony McGowan in County Mayo, Ireland, May 6, 1915. One of 10 children, from an early age, he was interested in the priesthood. He dreamed of service in an exotic country in Asia or Africa.
“I’m sure that my parents encouraged me in this dream when I first mentioned it to them,” he said.
After entering the priesthood in 1941, Fr. Tony soon responded to a call for priests in the United States. As a ship chaplain, he traveled across the perilous German U-boat-infested Atlantic on the Queen Mary, which had been retrofitted as a troop carrier.
Fr. Tony worked at a number of parishes in Northern California before being sent to Costa Mesa in 1960 to become the first pastor, a founding father, of St. John the Baptist.
In 1976, he moved to Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church in San Clemente and was its main pastor until he retired in 1987, after having suffered several heart attacks. He was nominated by the Diocese and approved by Pope John Paul II as a monsignor in 1981.
Even after his retirement, Fr. Tony continued to celebrate Mass in his room with retirement home residents.
One of his post-retirement Masses was at the home of Forman on Christmas Eve with her family and parents visiting from New York.
Forman called the intimate Mass in 2000 “a highlight of my life.”
Fr. Tony said in his simple, humble way, “I think that my greatest satisfaction as a priest was in the peace that I could bring through the sacrament of reconciliation.”
People can share recollections and see pictures and stories of Fr. Tony at monsignoranthonymcgowan.life