Lives Remembered

Fr John Cargan: Compassionate and caring priest who 'made it cool to go to Mass'

FR JOHN Cargan was born in Co Derry in November 1952. He was a home birth and there were complications: he was blue and refusing to breathe.

In desperation, his mother Ellen took him in her arms and pleaded with God that if he gave him to her, she would give him back to him. And so she did.

Pope St Pius X once wrote that while every vocation to the priesthood comes from the heart of God, it passes through the heart of a mother. It certainly seems to have come to John in that moment, for the blue baby became the bonnie boy, and after schooling in St John’s Primary School in Coleraine and St Columb’s College, Derry, he entered the seminary in Maynooth.

He was a priest to his finger-tips. Sure from his earliest days, he had had his sisters serve Mass for him as a child. Even when making fish and chips in the family café, news agency and shop in Castlerock, he would lift his eyes to heaven and offer them up like the bread and wine; he said it made them taste better.

He was ordained on the feast of Saint Barnabas, June 11 1978, in the chapel of St Columb’s College in Derry – the last priest, to date, ordained there.

Fr Cargan's first, and most formative appointment, was to Omagh with its imposing Sacred Heart Church and its more diminutive Church of St Mary’s, Drumragh which, built in 1764, is the oldest Catholic church continually in use in the nine counties of Ulster.

Omagh gave him the space to become the man and the priest he was, for he loved its people and served them faithfully.

Always kind, though sometimes sharp, he spent his day serving all he encountered from whatever background they came. He could be visiting 'red book' republican prisoners in Long Kesh one day, and having supper with Sacha, Duchess of Abercorn, in Baronscourt the next.

He always maintained that we as priests served according to our backgrounds and how we were reared: his model was the corner shop and café: open 7-11, keeping the shelves stocked.

 Fr John Cargan with his faithful friend Souci

Pope Francis today asks us to be a listening Church and Fr John Cargan was a great listener – which is why he was a great mimic, raconteur and host.

Just before his transfer to Steelstown in Derry in 1988, having been at times a guest at the table of the local army commander, it was he who was taken to attend to the spiritual needs of those at the scene of the Ballygawley bus bombing. He never spoke of the unspeakable carnage he encountered there.

Ten days later, when three IRA men were shot by the SAS at Drumnakilly and the RUC would not allow the local parish priest to attend, Fr Cargan and Fr Brian Donnelly went instead.

When they encountered the same response, recalling the phrase he heard the army use, he said they had “been tasked by Lisburn”. The officer raised the tape and allowed them through.

In Steelstown, his great love of school chaplaincy, developed first in Loreto Grammar in Omagh, was seamlessly translated to Thornhill College.

His "Garfield the Cat" retreats in Linsfort, Buncrana became a sensation and life-long friendships were forged.

Fr John was witty and mischievous, tender and kind. Uproarious laughter followed him wherever he went.

He was sent to Faughanvale and then Maghera and the same extensive set of skills were put to good use there.

He then became the first parish priest of Steelstown and I, thanks be to God, was able to sit at his feet and learn as much as I could remember.

Fr Cargan was innovative and focused in his pastoral care. He had the ability to engage people with humour, encourage them with support and enthuse them with energy and zeal.

He brought those in their youth to the Church and brought the Church to the youth – he made it cool to go to Mass.

His lively wit also allowed him to speak the truth even onto power. Bishop Daly lived next door – and he grew to love and admire John for his dutiful approach to ministerial priesthood – and Bishop Hegarty found in him a great friend and confidant.

Moving in 2014 to the banks of the Bann as parish priest of Kilrea and Desertoghill, the people there became his focus, his home and his heaven.

He served them to the last drop of his blood, dying on Holy Thursday, the birthday of the priesthood and the Holy Eucharist.

At his funeral at St Mary’s Church, Drumagarner, Bishop of Derry Donal McKeown spoke of his kindness and wisdom and gave thanks for ministry in all the parishes he served.

"The world is blessed by those who can speak hope into loss and offer consolation that comes not merely from a witty mind but from a generous, faithful heart."

Whether as a dame in the pantomimes or as a priest at the altar, as a host at the table or a friendly ear at the end of the phone, Fr John Cargan was a caring and most compassionate man, a powerful and holy priest.

Thank you for your companionship on the road, for sharing the bread of your life with us and feeding us with the bread of eternal life. You spent yourself for others; may you rest now forever i measc na naoimh.

Fr Francis Bradley

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