June 30, 2006

‘You are a priest forever’: Msgr. Richard Kavanagh celebrates 70 years as a priest

By Sean Gallagher

BEECH GROVE—Throughout his life, Msgr. Richard Kavanagh has been a close witness to history.

Msgr. Kavanagh passed another milestone on June 2 when he became, as far as can be determined, the first priest in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis to celebrate the 70th anniversary of his priestly ordination. (See more photos)

The 94-year-old resident of St. Paul Hermitage in Beech Grove marked the occasion by doing something he has done almost every day during the past seven decades: He celebrated Mass.

Nowadays, he ordinarily celebrates Mass privately in his apartment. But on June 2, he was the principal celebrant at the retirement facility’s daily Mass and was joined by several retired other priests who also live there. (See related story.)

Also present for the Mass were some women religious as well as scores of lay residents of the facility and many friends and relatives of Msgr. Kavanagh.

This gathering for Mass by so many people representing the Church typified the fulfillment that Msgr. Kavanagh has found in his life and ministry as a priest.

“I was able to help people spiritually, administer the sacraments and all those things,” he said. “And I enjoyed the work.”

But even after 70 years of ministry, Msgr. Kavanagh still knows there is a profound mystery in being a priest.

“It’s kind of hard to put it into words,” he said.

It would take many words to describe the long path that Msgr. Kavanagh has trod during his 94 years.

He was born in 1911 in Evansville, Ind., to Irish immigrants, and his father died when he was 2 weeks old.

His mother later took him and an older brother back to Ireland—just in time for the start of World War I, and the later conflict for Irish independence and the island’s subsequent civil war.

The violence of those times persuaded Msgr. Kavanagh’s mother to move back to the United States, and she settled in Indianapolis.

Within a few years of his return, Msgr. Kavanagh began his formation for the priesthood at Saint Meinrad Seminary, being assigned there by then Bishop Joseph Chartrand.

From the time he became a semi-narian—when the archdiocese was less than 100 years old—to the present, Msgr. Kavanagh has served under six bishops.

Many priests have also served under him as associate pastors during his 31-year tenure as pastor of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Indianapolis.

One of them was Father Harold Ripperger, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Lanesville. He ministered with Msgr. Kavanagh from 1967-70.

“He was 100 percent Catholic, dedicated to the Church, to his God, and of trying to be of help to people,” Father Ripperger said. “He really was.”

Many young men who grew up under Msgr. Kavanagh’s tutelage later became seminarians. At one time in the 1960s, there were 12 seminarians alone from St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Indianapolis, where he served as pastor from 1951 to 1982.

One of them was Msgr. Mark Svarczkopf, pastor of Our Lady of the Greenwood Parish in Greenwood.

“He was a very kind man, and very much the pastor that everyone respected,” Msgr. Svarczkopf said. “He was always present. When you would dial the parish office, you wouldn’t get a secretary or a recording, you’d get [Msgr. Kavanagh saying], ‘St. Michael’s.’ ”

Msgr. Kavanagh was ordained a priest on June 2, 1936, by Bishop Joseph E. Ritter.

When the United States entered World War II some six years later, Msgr. Kavanagh wanted to serve as a chaplain.

“Bishop Ritter promised me that he would let me go,” he said. “But then Father [Thomas] Finneran was removed from Cathedral [High School] and Bishop Ritter came to me and said, ‘I have to send you to Cathedral. You can’t go now, but the next time I send a priest as a chaplain, you can go.’ Well, he never let me go.”

His disappointment in staying on the home front was balanced with the joy he found serving at Cathedral High School—a joy that continues to this day in his service as an emeritus member of the private Catholic school’s board of directors.

In the heady days following the end of the war, Msgr. Kavanagh helped direct a tremendous era of growth in the archdiocese.

He oversaw the construction of four interparochial high schools in Indianapolis, including Father Thomas Scecina Memorial High School. The school was named for a close friend of Msgr. Kavanagh, who served and died as a chaplain during the war. Cardinal Ritter Jr./Sr. High School was named for the bishop who had ordained him to the priesthood.

Msgr. Kavanagh celebrated the 25th anniversary of his priestly ordination a year before the Second Vatican Council began in 1962.

Although he did not attend the council, he closely monitored its progress by playing golf twice a week with Archbishop Paul C. Schulte and Msgr. Raymond Bosler, the archbishop’s theological adviser, when the pair were in Indianapolis while the council was not in session.

“Bosler and Schulte didn’t think the same way,” Msgr. Kavanagh said. “So when we’d get into a discussion, it was usually that I sided with Schulte [and] against Bosler on whatever it happened to be. It was a very interesting time for me.”

Those many conversations he had about Vatican II helped Msgr. Kavanagh implement the changes it brought about in his parish.

“I didn’t have any trouble with that,” he said. “Towards the end of the council, we had all kinds of meetings explaining things. We prepared [the parishioners] well for the changes.”

Msgr. Svarczkopf looks back on the years following the council with fondness.

“It was a very stimulating time to go to Mass because he [Msgr. Kavanagh] and the other associates would really get into issues like the [Vietnam] war and the Church and the Vatican Council,” Msgr. Svarczkopf said. “It was just really good.”

Msgr. Kavanagh retired in 1982, but continued to serve the archdiocese in many ways, including providing weekend sacramental assistance at many parishes. He also helped oversee the conversion of the old Cathedral High School campus into the current Archbishop O’Meara Catholic Center in downtown Indianapolis.

After having lived through so much history, Msgr. Kavanagh looks hopefully toward the future of the archdiocese.

“I think it’s going to go well. The only problem will be, we’ve got to get some priests,” he said. “But I think it’s going to happen. I think we’re going to get it built up right.” †


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