News & Views from 465 California Street

Three Inspirational Priests

Clint Reilly

Last week I saw Doubt, a Meryl Streep/Phillip Seymour Hoffman movie about a nun who accuses a popular priest of molesting a young altar boy. I found myself saddened not only by the actions of rogue priests, but also by the indelible stain they have left on the entire priesthood.

I personally owe much to a series of great priests who helped me immeasurably throughout my life.

I was raised in Saint Felicitas Parish in San Leandro and attended St. Leander’s Elementary School. My mother was a convert to Catholicism and my father was a Catholic by virtue of his Irish heritage and his baptism at St. Peter’s Church in San Francisco’s Mission District.

St. Felicitas had two priests. Pastor Michael McGinty was an older man who baptized my mother and then both me and my sister Jill when we were six or seven years old. Later, all of my brothers and sisters were baptized.

Edward McTaggart was the assistant pastor, a dynamic young priest who had recently been ordained. He managed the parish youth programs including CYO sports. St. Felicitas had a large program that produced many championship teams. I played basketball and baseball, and our baseball team won the Bay Area CYO championship in sixth grade. Father McTaggart was a role model not only for me but for many others as well.

In today’s jaded world, it is almost inconceivable that I decided to become a priest when I was in the 8th grade and went into the seminary in my first year of high school.

Then, young Bay Area prospects for the priesthood went to St. Joseph’s Seminary in Mountain View for High School and the first two years of college. They were then transferred to St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park for the last two years of college and their final four years of theological studies.

Incredibly, when I applied to St. Joseph’s the school was oversubscribed. All students from the Diocese of Oakland were sent to Bishop O’Dowd High School for one year. There I met a teacher who would become the future Bishop of Oakland, Father John Cummins. Father Cummins took the time to come to my home and wish my family well before I left for St. Joseph’s at age 14.

I spent two summers during college working at St. Patrick’s Parish at 10th and Peralta Streets in West Oakland, where I worked with Fr. Clarence Howard, the Bay Area’s only African-American Catholic priest. Father Howard was an exceptional priest who fought hard for civil rights and social justice and ministered tirelessly to his parishioners.

As a college student at St Patrick’s Seminary, I met the legendary Father Eugene Boyle. He was the Chairman of the Social Justice Commission of the Archdiocese of San Francisco. Father Boyle – now a retired Monsignor – had led the Catholic Church into both the civil rights and the farm labor struggles in California. He was a powerful ally of César Chávez and many key leaders of the civil rights movement.

I traveled with Father Boyle and met Bobby Kennedy, César Chávez, Dolores Huerta and local leaders like San Francisco Mayor Joseph Alioto. Father Boyle was also a co-chair of the Conference on Religion, Race and Social Concerns, interacting with Protestant and Jewish leaders to fight poverty, empower the disenfranchised and promote human rights.

In later years, he became head of the Ministry for Social Justice and Peace for the Catholic Diocese of San Jose and was made a Monsignor. He has been much honored for his extraordinary impact.

At every stage of my development, I was inspired by priests like Fathers Boyle, Howard and McTaggart, living their faith day-by-day and applying Christian values to real life battles.

Eventually, I decided not to become a priest. But I took many lessons with me. Forty years after I had played CYO sports as a youngster, I became President of the Board of Directors of Catholic Charities/CYO for the San Francisco Archdiocese. I had come full circle from my days at St. Felicitas.

In Catholicism the priest is not the leader. Rather, he is a facilitator of leaders. Many Catholic leaders have originally been inspired by an exceptional priest.

Comments (23)

  • Your column was lovely today.

    I loved the movie. I actually admired Sister Aloysius and her struggle for women within the Catholic church. I think it is interesting that Shanley dedicated the piece to Sister James and was very thankful to the nuns who taught him. Like you, he must have felt the church gave him his values and bearings in life.

    Posted by: M. | January 7th, 2009 at 10:46 am

  • Thank you so much for the wonderful article you wrote in the Daily Review today. I also know Bishop Emeritus Cummings. When I was attending SF State in the mid-fifties he was assigned to the Newman Club, much to our pleasure. He is a wonderful man and we still keep in touch. I come from a family of nuns and priests. My brother, a Dominican priest, is currently in Guatemala working with the Mayan culture. My cousin, a nun, was president of Dominican College in San Rafael and a great-aunt was a Holy Names nun. I am so familiar with the work and sacrifice that becomes a part of these individuals lives.

    Reading your story was wonderful! May your life continue to be filled with inspirational individuals.
    Have a “Happy New Year!”

    Posted by: Judy B. | January 7th, 2009 at 10:46 am

  • Thanks for a GREAT article on “Three Inspirational Priests.” There are so many out there that have been and continue to be exceptional priests. Unfortunately they have been overshadowed by the horrific acts of a few. Joanna

    Posted by: Joanna | January 7th, 2009 at 10:48 am

  • Clint,

    I wanted to share a few thoughts with you about going to seminary school for a while. I went to Catholic grade school, but our pastor decided that kids pretty well had their moral compasses set by the time they were through 8th grade, so he allowed me to go to the public high school. I am sure that half of the Catholics in my home town, Hannibal, MO were sure I was going to hell as the result of that. The rest of them were sure of it when I went to a Southern Baptist junior college for my first year of college, also in my home town.

    I had a cousin, and my dear wife’s father, were in the seminary for a long time before deciding to leave. My cousin eventually got married, and my wife’s father, Patrick Flynn, the second oldest son (the oldest had gone into the army) decided in his last year not to continue, although it was a requirement in an Irish family for the oldest or second to go into the seminary. Three years later he married my wife’s mother, who was divorced, so he was essentially thrown out of his Irish family, and my wife was considered a bastard for about 20 years. He died 6 weeks before my dear wife was born from something that could be easily fixed by antibiotics which didn’t exist in 1938.

    We have been married almost 48 years now, so I got a good one.

    You mentioned Msgr Boyle. I wanted to tell you that he is still alive, and says mass about once a month for our small faith group, the Thomas Merton Center. We are in St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Palo Alto, the only place where 4 old parishes were merged into one. It is 3 now, because St. Ann’s chapel was sold to an Anglican group. Fr. Boyle is about 85 now, I think, but is still going strong, although not as strong as before. I told him of our trip to Selma Alabama a few years ago, and he reminisced about that day. He and Fr. John Hester, the Catholic chaplain at Stanford Hospital, were both there for the march. It was quite a memory to hear about.

    Keep up the good work. I was quite pleased to read your column today in the Mercury, and enjoy your stuff in general.


    Posted by: Fred | January 7th, 2009 at 10:51 am

  • Dear Mr. Reilly: I’m a frequent reader of your column but have never commented before. I really enjoyed your article today about the priests who were inspirations for you.

    Although I was raised in the Presbyterian Church, I had many Catholic friends growing up in Santa Rosa and played CYO baseball and basketball with them. Can’t remember the priest’s name who ran the program but he was a great guy. He made sure the program ran like a family atmosphere for us kids.

    Ted L.

    Posted by: Ted | January 7th, 2009 at 10:52 am

  • Brian Copeland, author of “Not a Genuine Black Man” did not have a good experience at Saint Felicitas. I hope you read his book. Sincerely, Bose

    Posted by: Bose | January 7th, 2009 at 10:52 am

  • Clint;

    I read your column today “Three Inspirational Priests” in the Contra Costa Times. I too went to St Felicitas and St. Leanders then off to Moreau for my freshman year until they raised the tuition then had to go to San Leandro High.

    I too fondly remember Father McGinty and Father Simas and Father Kruk, remember them? I also played CYO basketball and Washington Manor Baseball with many guys you probably know!

    I was an alter boy while attending St Felicitas in both the new & old church (I’m now 53) and bet we were there at the same time? My memories of interacting with these three men while helping them with their vestments and preparing the alter for mass stays with me to this day in a very positive way. Every time I read about negative interactions with priests I feel so lucky to have been involved with truly holy, devoted Catholic priests.

    Have really enjoyed your columns and will look forward to them in the future.


    Posted by: David G. | January 7th, 2009 at 10:53 am

  • Dear Mr. Reilly,

    Thank you for writing and printing such a positive piece on the Catholic Priests who were a great role model and instrumental in shaping your character as you grew to adulthood. They seemed to help you find your spiritual path as well as your career path in life. I enjoyed reading about your experiences with these three memorable priests in your life.

    I am a “Cradle Catholic”, went Catholic School in San Jose and choose consciously to practice my faith in spite of much bad press regarding the priests who have tarnished the vocation and Catholicism with their bad behavior. I have not seen Doubt and guess it is quite a riveting movie and not a good reflection on Catholic Priests altogether. I do hope many people read your article today.

    Thank you again and may God Bless you.
    Joanne E

    Posted by: Joanne E. | January 7th, 2009 at 10:54 am

  • Clint

    I fully agree with you that WE are the facilitators of our leaders.
    There are good priests and bad priests. But overall there are more good ones than bad. Little has been said, sad to say, that most priests and religious have sacrificed their lives for service to many.

    Thank you for your column. You would have been one of those fine and inspiring priests.


    Posted by: Sam | January 7th, 2009 at 10:55 am

  • Dear Clint,

    Thank you for you wonderful column on priests, and particularly Fr. Boyle. I refer to my self as a Gene Boyle Catholic for all the reasons you discuss in your article.


    Posted by: Eleanor | January 7th, 2009 at 10:55 am

  • Dear Mr. Reilly: I read your column today and have finally determined
    what is wrong with you. You went to Catholic School and the seminary. My
    father did the 6 years at St. Joseph’s and 6 months at St. Patrick’s. His
    Irish mother was disappointed. I’m grateful he left, otherwise I wouldn’t
    be here.

    I, too, went to Bishop O’Dowd. In fact, we just had our 50th Reunion.

    Today, you mentioned some great priests. I’d like to add to your list:
    Tom Lacey, Pearce Donovan, Leo Maher, Ernie Brainard, the 2 James Keenes and Joe Pritchard. They were classmates of my father’s. I knew Father Cummins and Gene Boyle. I think Boyle was a classmate of my dad,also.

    There are many of us who have had a Catholic education and turned out
    pretty good. I had 4 sisters and 8 cousins, we all went to O’Dowd.
    It’s a pleasure to read something decent concerning the priests who
    educated me and my family.

    My children went to Catholic schools also, but when they went it was Lay


    Posted by: David | January 7th, 2009 at 11:00 am

  • How nice to read something positive about Catholic priests for a change. Thank you. My friends and I have all achieved a great deal of success in our lives and I am sure that all of us, including myself who left the church as a teen, have priests to thank for instilling the strong values that made our successes possible.

    Bill C

    Posted by: Bill C. | January 7th, 2009 at 11:01 am

  • Dear Mr. Reilly,

    After all the clergy scandals that was published at the beginning of this decade, I have never read a very positive article concerning the Catholic priesthood in the media until I read your column today. In these times that Catholic priesthood had been constantly been attacked by the media and movie entertainment, I have been feeling sad that no one among the Catholic lay leaders (politicians, academes, scientists, media people, business men and women, etc,) have come forward renouncing silence and inability to speak of their positive experiences of the Catholic priesthood.

    I thank you for your courage today to share your great experiences of great priests in your lives. Despite of the badmouthing for priests in that movie “Doubt” people today have read your story of Catholic priests as facilitators of many leaders of our time including yourself and myself.

    I am sure that your story is not only about your three inspirational priests but there are many hundreds and thousands of priests unknown in there who were inspirations of the past and the continuing models and inspirations of the present.

    Thank you for boasting the morale of our dedicated priests who deserve our appreciation and gratefulness. I hope that you will continue to counteract through your literary skill and Catholic leadership in your local Church the bad mouthing for our priests at present by the media and entertainment.

    More power to you!


    Posted by: J.Page | January 7th, 2009 at 11:02 am

  • Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on a very difficult subject. The article truly managed to make lemonade out of lemons. I hope that others who view the film will find light in it’s subject matter. You too are an “inspirational” man. B. Evans, Danville, Ca

    Posted by: B.Evans | January 7th, 2009 at 11:24 am

  • Dear Clint,

    I read with interest your commentary today in the Oakland Tribune. I had a different take on Doubt. Although the movie was deliberately ambiguous, I concluded that the priest played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman did not molest the young boy. Calling him to the rectory in a way that everyone would know just does not square with that, along with other things. I felt that the sister Principal (Meryl Streep) was carried away by her rigid moral certainty/superiority. The father was gay and trying to protect the young boys he knew were also gay and picked on, but he did not sexually exploit them. His secret sexual identity was what he was afraid the sister would expose and why he left. Anyway, that was how I saw it.

    I enjoy your commentaries.



    Posted by: Victor | January 7th, 2009 at 11:25 am

  • I enjoyed reading “Three Inspirational Priests” and have had similar experiences. After Pope Benedict’s acknowledgment of the victims of abuse I felt the whole Catholic community could move forward. I still find the handling of it arrogant and agree it has left an indelible stain. Thanks for putting a positive article forward.

    Posted by: AC | January 7th, 2009 at 11:27 am

  • Mr. Reilly,

    very good article on Msgr. Boyle. To call him “legendary” may be an
    understatement (smiles).

    Posted by: Henry O. | January 7th, 2009 at 11:28 am

  • I’m so glad that someone has written something uplifting about priests. I’m so tired of priests being attacked, because a few maybe have done some indiscrete things. I believe that even some of those few accused are actually innocent.

    Good work!


    Posted by: Ernest | January 7th, 2009 at 11:28 am

  • Clint,

    I read your article in the Contra Costa Times this morning and it brought back many great memories for me.

    I think we all had a good experience in the SEM. I agree, almost everyone thinks it was inconceivable that we went into the seminary at such an early age.

    However, it was a great time with great people.

    Posted by: John P. | January 7th, 2009 at 1:25 pm

  • Dear Clint,

    I was thrilled to read about a similar experience as mine. I attended St. Joseph’s and St. Patrick’s Seminaries and spent many summers in service to the Church. However, there are three priests that I remember as having left an impression on me. These men made learning fun, and also made their priesthood exciting–which in turn excited me to pursue my own vocation.

    It is sad that some reflect on the problems caused by a few misguided and troubled individuals. In my ministry, I strive to impart the example of caring, compassion and service that I was given by my mentors. Thanks for reviving my memories.

    Posted by: Fr. Patrick B. | January 8th, 2009 at 12:53 am

  • Dear Clint,

    Thank you for your article on “Three Inspirational Priests.” I have
    been disappointed in how the Valley Times have been writing their
    articles concerning the Priest Scandals and other events such as Prop
    8. Although I know your article was a public service message, it will
    help shed the positive Light on the Catholic Church.

    Best regards,


    Posted by: Ken | January 8th, 2009 at 9:53 am

  • Thank you Clint for the good article about Catholic priest that was in Tuesday’s (Jan.6) Tri-Valley Herald. I also have had several very good and rewarding encounters with several Catholic priests not to mention many inspirational and spiritual encounters as well. It seems that we mostly hear negative things about priest and nothing mentioned about all the good a lot of them do. Thanks again for the insightful article.

    Posted by: Salemi | January 8th, 2009 at 9:54 am

  • Growing up Catholic I was just vaguely aware of priests, but they impressed as humble and sincere. Lessons at the Catholic school were genuinely open minded, imparting a sympathetic picture of Queen Elizabeth I, Islam, Judaism, and Calvinism, (especially the sincere abhorrence, among New England Calvinists, of nobles, including “lords spiritual” – bishops).

    But priests I’ve encountered in recent years come across as crudely arrogant, or lazy, or narcissistic. In contrast to nuns, who come across as humble and smarter than the priests.

    Posted by: John | July 19th, 2009 at 12:33 am

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