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October 1996

A Man Of War And Peace

 

By Tim O’SHEI

The time was November, 1990. The battle was Operation Desert Storm.

Reverend Monsignor William James Gallagher - a.k.a. Colonel Gallagher - was going to war.

For this former South Buffalo boy, life had come full circle.

His experiences of conflict and its profound effect on the citizenry - elements that helped shape him into a man of God from his early days as a student, police officer and army trooper - were now bound together eternally.

Bill Gallagher was taking war and making peace. And things were moving quickly.

Just a year after being named ‘Reverend Monsignor’ by the Catholic Diocese, Fr. Gallagher was to begin a new assignment as rector of St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Buffalo. He had just ended a rewarding tenure as pastor of St. Mary of the Angels in Olean where he faced many challenges.

While in Olean, the time-worn roof of the church collapsed. Fr. Gallagher spent the remaining three years of his pastorship raising much of the $2 million needed to fix the church, leading his temporarily displaced congregation in various churches in the Southern Tier and in St. Bonaventure University.

It was a time of flux; one that called for patience and creative problem-solving skills that would be invaluable in the Gulf.

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A New Beginning ... Fr. Gallagher (right) proudly presides over the
re-dedication ceremony at St. Mary of the Angels Church, which rebuilt following a roof collapse.

Upon returning to Buffalo, Fr. Gallagher’s U.S. Army Reserve Unit - Niagara Falls’ 365th Evacuation Hospital Unit - was activated to go overseas. He never had time to unpack.

Three months of training led to another three in the Gulf of Oman. As the unit’s chaplain, Fr. Gallagher was on the front line of the emo- tional battlefront.

“These were 400 people whose lives and families were just destroyed,” he said. “My own feelings were put on hold. I spent all of my time dealing with broken families. People’s mortgages weren’t getting paid. Troops weren’t getting mail and we didn’t get adequate food.”

He helped maintain the hearts and souls of his fellow reservists. But there were deeper cultural issues to deal with.


Universal Understanding

Part of an Army chaplain’s duties is to recognize the religious beliefs of the residents where the unit is stationed. In Oman, that meant understanding the Muslim faith.

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A Toast To Peace ... Col. Gallagher (left) and friends share coffee in Muscat, Oman at the end of the Gulf War.

One day, the Omani government sent a gasoline truck to the base - a normal procedure.

U.S. troops rotated inspection duties, and on this day, two women were on the post. They explained to the driver that they had to inspect the vehicle and accompany him to the base.

Upon seeing the women, the driver and his partner scooted out of the truck, implanted themselves on the ground 100 feet away and refused to move. A ruckus soon followed.

“Our commanders got very annoyed,” Fr. Gallagher recalled. “In their ‘real world,’ those truck drivers had never seen this before - two white women wearing Army T-shirts, carrying rifles and telling them what to do.”

Fr. Gallagher quickly understood what was happening and explained to the commander that Muslims do not believe in the public mingling of men and women. Arrangements were quickly made to rectify the situation.

At a time of war, he was doing his part to maintain whatever peace was left. This illustrated the difficulty faced by people trying to maintain their culture and faith in a time of war.

A Revitalization of Spirit

As disruptive as Desert Storm was, it revitalized Fr. Gallagher’s spirit. Only months before going overseas, he turned 50 and wasn’t feeling particularly good about it.

Suddenly, he found himself not only performing his priestly duties to their purest - helping people - but doing it in the middle of the desert.

He was running, showering, eating cold military rations, erecting tents and cleaning toilets alongside teen-age troops - things a ranking officer would not normally do - and he was keeping up!

“It was definitely a turning point for me,” he said. “Not only is there an assault on your age, but you end up doing stuff that you haven’t done in years. You’re asked to do whatever has to be done in wartime.

“My life has never been the same. My priorities have changed. It energized me. I was beginning to think I was getting old, but now I can handle anything. If they send me to Bosnia tomorrow ... fine. I can do it. It gave me a perspective of what’s really important.”

And for Fr. Gallagher, what’s really important is family - personal family members, parishioners, clergy workers and fellow military personnel.

A Strong Family

At 55, Fr. Gallagher has come a long way since his childhood days in South Buffalo. One of 10 children, he enjoyed a close bond with his six brothers and three sisters, mother Elizabeth and dad William, Sr.

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Happy Times ... Billy Gallagher (forefront) at age 3 with brother Joseph and
mom Elizabeth on Mother’s Day in 1943.

It was a different era. Families pulled together to support the brave men and women serving our country during World War II. Parents and children alike sacrificed personal pleasures for the greater good.

Little Billy Gallagher learned that life was often a struggle - financially, spiritually, culturally. This had a profound impact on his life later. Now, family and education took center stage.

Even then, he toyed with the notion of becoming a priest. As the nuns unhesitatingly told the children, the priesthood was an honorable profession - one where you could work with people.

So, for that matter, was law enforcement. He decided to join Uncle Sam as an infantryman and a military policeman.

His great uncle was the first commissioner of the Buffalo Police Department, and the interest had trickled down the family tree.

A young and idealistic Bill Gallagher continued the family tradition, but soon the profession lost its luster.

It was particularly frustrating that he could not help the troubled people with whom he came in contact. He’d simply arrest them and move on.

At age 21, the 122-pound officer gained a clear perspective when he was accosted by an enraged prostitute whom he had arrested.

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Up, Up, And Away ... U.S. Army paratrooper 2nd Lt. Bill Gallagher, in full gear, readies for a mission.

“She had hold of my uniform and was throwing me all over,” he said. “I thought to myself, ‘I don’t think this is what I want to spend my life doing.’ That really helped me focus. I had to make a decision.”
   
From War To Peace

Most of Gallagher’s service years were spent policing in and around posts in Fort Lewis, Washington and Germany.

Part of his position included training as an infantryman, encompassing everything from weaponry to leaping out of planes.

The year 1964 was a pivotal moment in his life. Now 24, he watched as many of his comrades boarded planes bound for Vietnam.

With his three-year commitment to the Army coming to a close, Bill Gallagher dreamed of entering the seminary.

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Honors And Family ... Fr. Gallagher beams with pride as his sisters (from left)
Patricia, Therese and Ann witness his appointment as Reverend Monsignor in 1988.

However, the Pentagon had virtually frozen it’s discharge procedures ... no one was getting out.

He expected to be sent to Viet- nam. Instead, following a quick conference with his general, he was given the opportunity of a lifetime.

“If they were going to send me to Vietnam or anywhere,” he recalled, “I figured that was some kind of sign, an indicator of what I ought to do. But when the general said to me ‘I think we’d rather have you as a clergyman than a military policeman,’ I felt that was a pretty good sign, too.”

It was a great sign, but the Army and Bill Gallagher were still involved with each other. After all, the general said, “we’d rather have you...” meaning it was just time to take a break and pursue a lifelong dream.

On The High Road

His love for people is essentially why Fr. Gallagher entered the seminary in 1965.

He couldn’t afford to forget that once inside St. John Vianney Seminary where most of his worldly values - but not the sense of humor people find in him today - were shunned.

“For a while there, they weren’t too happy with me,” Fr. Gallagher said. “I came to the seminary after three years of real hard running around, being out with the guys and being kind of rough and tumble. The seminary was a sheltered atmosphere, and I didn’t fit in for a while.”

That time called for concessions on both sides. As the years progressed, Bill Gallagher proved his dedication to the church.

He was ordained on May 24, 1969 in St. Joseph’s Cathedral - the same church where he now practices.

Of course he made a few stops along the way - Blessed Trinity Church in Buffalo, St. John the Baptist in Lockport and St. Paul the Apostle in Kenmore, before moving to Olean and later returning to Buffalo.

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A Family Man ... For the patriarch of the Gallagher clan, William, Sr.,
family comes first, as this grandson knows first-hand.

Meet Fr. Gallagher today, and you’ll see the man next door who enjoys cutting the grass ... the sweating guy who likes to jog every other day and can be found running next to you at a race ... or the chummy buddy who’s quick with a friendly wisecrack.

He just happens to be a priest who presides over Sunday Mass.

He’s still on duty, serving six weeks annually as an Army reservist and Chaplain at Arlington National Cemetery. One of these times, he’d like to jog a half-mile with President Clinton.

Is he down to earth?

Fr. Gallagher has his feet firmly planted on the same ground the rest of us walk upon. He’d have it no other way.

Tim O’Shei is a free-lance writer from Hamburg, NY.
Photos courtesy of Fr. William J. Gallagher.

 

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