Act III: Father Michael Nagle

It’s a bird, it’s a plane … it’s a priest.

Father Nagle in the cockpit of his light-sport aircraft. —Stacey Rupolo

The Island’s first baby boomers turned 70 last year. Our 65-plus population is growing far faster here on the Island than in the of the rest of the U.S., and by 2030, they will represent nearly a third of our population. So who are these folks, and what do they mean to the Vineyard? Over the last year we’ve been taking a closer look at people who are in Act Three of their lives, and as you’ll see, they’re far from a monolithic group.

Small planes often fly overhead at South Beach, and one of them, a light-sport aircraft, belongs to Father Michael Nagle. He’s pastor of Good Shepherd Roman Catholic Parish, which includes all three Catholic churches on the Island. His plane is bright yellow, and a near match to the color of the little electric car he tools around in.

Father Nagle, 71, became interested in flying in the mid-1960s when a friend took him skydiving. He’s made 300 jumps since then, and all those jumps led to an interest in flying. In 1970, he spent the weeks between seminary studies getting his pilot’s license. “I’ve been flying ever since,” he said.

He’s got a commercial pilot’s license, and is also a certified instructor for hot air balloons, gliders, and light-sport aircraft. Father Nagle said he flies a couple of times a week, especially in summer when he takes off as the sun comes up, landing at the Katama Airfield in time for a cup of morning tea at the Right Fork Diner. He’s been known to fly to Plymouth, where they have “some great chicken wings.”

His sense of adventure doesn’t end with skydiving and piloting airplanes. Father Nagle also likes motorcycles and convertibles. “I have a little Harley Heritage Softail Classic; it’s a nice bike. And I like my convertible. I guess I’ve got more than enough to do,” he laughed.

Father Nagle almost didn’t become a priest for the Diocese of Fall River; initially he wanted to be a missionary. “In high school I had sort of a desire for studying medicine, and then had to make a decision,” he said. “The pull or tug was stronger toward the priesthood. I had two criteria: I wanted to study in Europe, and I wanted to make sure I got a degree from an accredited seminary, because they were not all accredited in those days.”

In the end, it was missionary work that he pursued. Father Nagle decided to study for the St. Joseph’s Society of Mill Hill, a missionary organization based in London. He attended St. Louis University in Missouri, a Jesuit school, before heading to London for further study. Father Nagle spent three years there, from 1967 to 1970.

“I had a little motorcycle,” he remembered. “I used to go to Royal Albert Hall for concerts; saw the Beatles and Donovan. It was great. I’d go Christmas shopping on Carnaby Street and send stuff back. I’ve been back [to London] a couple of times.”

Father Nagle eventually left the Mill Hill fathers and was ordained for the Diocese of Fall River, becoming a diocesan priest serving the parishes of southeastern Massachusetts. When he was being ordained in the 1970s, they asked him to describe his family. He said he had grown up in a “moderately religious family.” “My mother was so insulted,” Father Nagle chuckled.

Father Nagle flies high above the Vineyard. —Stacey Rupolo

He has no regrets about switching to the more conventional life of a parish priest. The time spent in England helped broaden his vision, Father Nagle said, expanding his view of the church. “I still have friends who are missionaries,” he said. “I don’t have any regrets, but it would have been a different experience.”

Cardinal Sean O’Malley, now head of the Boston archdiocese, was bishop of Fall River when Father Nagle was assigned to Martha’s Vineyard. “He called all of us in for a one-on-one and asked me if there was any place I’d like to go,” Father Nagle said. “I said I’d like to go to Nantucket … I always liked Nantucket, and I used to fly over to Nantucket to see it.”

In May 1994, then Bishop O’Malley called him and said, “I don’t have Nantucket, but I’ve got another island. How’d you like to go to the Vineyard?”

Oak Bluffs from above. —Stacey Rupolo

When he first arrived, Father Nagle was pastor of St. Augustine’s Church, and another priest covered the Edgartown and Oak Bluffs churches. Just one year later, he was assigned all three churches, and spearheaded the effort to combine them into one parish in 2004.

“We’ve been pretty successful at making the Masses at all three churches friendly and welcoming,” he said. “We try to provide nice music, good homilies, and a sense of being welcomed and appreciated.”

There are benefits to serving one parish for so many years, he said: “You get to know people and they get to know you. You get to know generations, really. You’re at their weddings, baptize their kids, end up doing their kids’ weddings.”

One of the biggest challenges about being a Catholic priest, he said, is being comfortable with planting the seeds and not being completely sure those seeds are going to grow. “My job is to plant the seed, help people make that connection with God,” Father Nagle said. “I like to see instant results, and the challenge is not seeing those results. All I can do is make connections in people’s lives, be there to support and encourage, and help people grow. If you’re result-oriented, you have to ask, Have I made a difference? And sometimes you don’t know; it’s not external.”

Spiritually speaking

Another challenge Father Nagle admitted concerns his own spirituality. “Spiritually, you have to be sort of self-actualized, self-motivated,” he said. “You have to create a disciplined spiritual life to work for yourself, because there aren’t a lot of resources here that any other priest might have. You have to be able to manage it yourself, make sure you’re doing OK. The isolation can be difficult for your spiritual and emotional welfare.”

Usually a Catholic priest relies on a spiritual director to help him with the ongoing development of his spiritual life. For the time being, Father Nagle regularly talks on the phone with friends, keeping his spirituality relevant through those discussions.

“Right now there’s no special one person. I have to keep searching for someone I can talk to, to bounce thoughts and ideas off, to keep myself grounded and going in the right direction,” Father Nagle said.

The Vineyard from above. —Stacey Rupolo

On the Island, a small group gets together to explore spiritual topics. Right now, Father Nagle said, Rabbi Lori Shaller is leading a discussion on the book “Everyday Holiness.” “It’s about the Jewish spiritual path, and each chapter focuses on a different quality,” he said. “There are similarities between Jewish theology and Christian theology, and we’re looking at those qualities.”

Father Nagle can serve the Island parish until he’s 75, as long as he remains healthy. He said he’d like to stick around as long as he can, but that would be up to the parish’s next pastor. He’s been at Good Shepherd longer than any other current priest has been at any one church throughout the entire diocese. This summer a group of nuns will visit, the Sisters of Life from New York, and the bishop will come one weekend. Then there’s the lobster roll sale on the Fourth of July, the malasadas sale at the Tisbury Street Fair, and a slew of summer weddings planned.

Father Nagle said he still enjoys parish work, and wouldn’t change anything. “You see people at all moments of their lives, and they invite you to help them and to be with them,” he said. “You do what you can to be a source of inspiration, to help. You deal with the same families, but in all different aspects — some happy, some sad. You’re there in the stuff of life with folks. I enjoy that.”

Father Nagle in his own words: On priorities

The preflight checklist. —Stacey Rupolo

I don’t feel that my priorities have changed very much. They have always been to be of whatever help I can be to the people I am given the opportunity to serve, whether it is in a parish or hospital setting. That’s still what I want to do and try to do.

On the benefits and challenges of aging

The benefits are the years of experience, so that I seldom encounter a situation that is so new that I don’t know what to do. The experience makes me more confident that I am able to help people. The challenge is that I don’t have the same energy and stamina I had when I was younger. I may want to be more active and involved, but I have to realize I am less able. So I focus on quality versus quantity.

On this time in his life

I am very happy about being 71. I have a confidence that I didn’t have when I was younger. I enjoy working with and for people the older I get. So I’m very happy — I wouldn’t want to start over if that were possible.

On what makes him happy these days

Father Nagle checks the fuel gauge before taking off. —Stacey Rupolo

When I wake up each morning, I think, Oh great, another day. I think that when I was younger I took waking up tomorrow for granted. Now that I am 71, I tend to appreciate each day as a gift. If I have a day that is just a paperwork day — unless it is somehow helping people — I feel it as a burden, but directly helping people is energizing and joy-filled. It has always been that way for me.

On what’s left to try

I can’t think of anything. The last thing I really wanted to try to learn was to fly a powered parachute. I tried that in March, and crashed the thing on takeoff three times, so I decided that was not for me before I got really hurt. I will always enjoy learning new things, but I’m very happy where I am now, and I don’t have any “have to dos” on my bucket list.