The last Irish priest in Wyoming

The last Irish priest in Wyoming

A memorial to Irish priests who have served in Wyoming. Credit: St. Patrick's Church, Casper, Wyoming
A memorial to Irish priests who have served in Wyoming. Credit: St. Patrick's Church, Casper, Wyoming

.- “I am the last F.B.I.: foreign-born Irish,” Father Tom Sheridan, a retired priest of the Cheyenne diocese, told CNA.

Sheridan speaks with an Irish accent mixed with the slow drawl of a longtime Wyoming resident. The rural state is the least populated in the country. Its 570,000 residents, spread across the state, would reach a density of less than six people per square mile.

The 80-year-old priest is himself from rural Ireland, five miles outside Cavan town in County Cavan. He grew up just miles from the border with Northern Ireland, during the decades in which Ireland became self-governing and independent. He attended Cavan’s St. Patrick’s College, as did some 12 of the Irish priests who served in Wyoming.

Sheridan remembered from his childhood two priests who served in Wyoming but would return home to Ireland to visit.

“They’d come home when I was young, and take out a jug of whiskey and take my dad fishing,” the priest recounted.

“Needless to say, they didn’t catch any fish,” he quipped. “They were great men.”

About 34 Irish or Irish-born priests from different parts of Ireland have served in Wyoming. Three of them were Sheridan’s cousins.

Among these many priests, Fr. John Brady was uncle to Cardinal Sean Brady of Armagh, according to Sheridan.

“He was called the bard. He used to recite poetry,” he said.

Sheridan set up a memorial for these priests outside St. Patrick’s Church in Laramie, where he now lives in retirement. The memorial, in the style of a Celtic Cross, was blessed by Bishop Steven Biegler of Cheyenne in 2017.

“I could have been a priest in Ireland, but I didn’t want to be,” said Sheridan, the second oldest of eleven children, who was ordained in 1964. “In those days there were plenty and plenty of priests.”

By contrast, the U.S. was “a long ways away, and there was no phone in those days, and you’d only come home once in three, four, five, many years.”

He arrived in Rawlins, Wyoming in September 1964. Among his first memories was fishing in the Platte River. Homesickness was a problem in his first year. He recounted a Christmastime visit to the grocery store.

“They were playing music: ‘I’ll be Home for Christmas’,” he said. “And it hit me. And I stood there crying.”

“It was quite a change. The first three or four years was quite an adjustment,” Sheridan added. He found Wyoming different from Ireland in things like “the distance, and the weather, and the size of the ranches, and all of that.”

“The people, though, are friendly. They have that in common with Ireland,” he said. “I think Irish priests fit in pretty good. Towns are small.”

Wyoming’s culture of hunting and fishing, and its strong dependence on farming and ranching, also made it easier for Sheridan to fit in.

“It was an easier adjustment,” he said. “Some of my classmates went down to Alabama, places like that, it was more of an adjustment because you had an Anglo-Black thing. I grew up with a Protestant-Catholic thing and the Irish border.”

One bishop has compared the spread-out parishes of Wyoming to the geographic area of many Irish dioceses: in Wyoming, each parish might be 100 miles from the next.

Such great spaces played a role in Sheridan’s ministry.

“I used to drive 90,000 miles a year,” he said. “I spent 21 of those years on Interstate 80. Now it’s not as dangerous, but I had a lot of angels looking out for me.”

The priest’s mother visited him in Casper in the 1980s. She liked old Western movies, so they visited the Murphy Ranch outside of town.

“She asked ‘Mr. Murphy, did the cattlemen shoot the sheepmen’?” Sheridan recounted.

“They did,” Murphy said, in Sheridan’s retelling, citing the Johnson County War of the late 1800s. “Not very many, but there were a few shot.”

“She went back home and she shook them up because they used to say it was all a myth, all that ‘Western stuff’,” Sheridan said.

Looking back on his life, the priest was grateful.

“I’m thankful to God for the gift of my priesthood in Wyoming: the people I served and worked with and shared a life with me, and the priests and the bishops, of course.”

“I wouldn’t change it for nothing,” he said. “I was blessed. Blessed in many ways, with all the driving.”

He stressed his love for the people of Wyoming, especially the youth.

“We had a great youth program. we used to go to youth conventions every two years. We met and by the time we got wherever we were going we were all a family. Things like that.”

There were other attractions, too.

“Fishing and golfing, you could always get on a golf course. It was never too crowded,” he said.

Another Irish-born priest, Monsignor James O’Neill, passed away in Casper on March 18, the day after St. Patrick’s Day, at the age of 89. He had graduated from St. John’s Seminary in Waterford, Ireland and was ordained a priest in June 1954. He had arrived in Wyoming two months later with three or four other priests, Sheridan told the Wyoming radio station K2 Radio.

“It would have been considered, what we can say, ‘English-speaking mission country’,” he said.

Msgr. O’Neill had served as pastor of St. Mary’s Cathedral in Cheyenne. For 17 years, he celebrated a weekly televised Mass broadcast to central Wyoming, western Nebraska and northern Colorado. He won an award from the Catholic Extension Society for this work, Rev. Michael Carr said.

Sheridan estimated O’Neill’s audience at about 10,000 people, about half of whom were non-Catholic.

Father Thomas C. Fahey, another Irish-born priest who long served in Wyoming, passed away in Huntington, Indiana on March 17, St. Patrick’s Day. Born in Co. Galway in 1919, he had served as a priest in Wyoming from 1947, the year of his ordination in Carlow, Ireland, through his retirement in 1990. Fahey would have turned 100 years old this Dec. 6.

Sheridan reflected on the changes in his homeland.

“There’s no priests coming from Ireland anymore,” he said. “Probably when I came in the 50s and 60s, those were peak times, but they started going down in the 90s.“It’s a sad state really,” he added, noting that only one priest had been ordained for his home diocese in 15 years.

For Sheridan, the contemporary Irish are “suffering from the progressive, socialist condition” which St. John Paul II warned about.

Compared to Wyoming, there was also a lack of lay participation in Ireland.

“One of the blessings here was that lay people got involved with the Church. They had to, here, said Sheridan.

In his view, Irish society had a Church and government that were strongly united and the Church didn’t really let the laity take up their role.

“That explains part of it in Ireland for sure. And back East too, to some extent, New York, and those areas, because they had plenty of priests.”

“Not out here. There never were really enough priests. All depending on immigrants,” he said.

Sheridan’s 2015 book, “Moments in Ministry,” includes a chapter on Wyoming’s Irish priests.

Tags: Priest, Immigration, Priesthood, Catholic News, Ireland, Irish Immigrants, Diocese of Cheyenne, Wyoming