Being a priest isn’t like being a dentist. Dentists can retire someday, stop pulling teeth and looking at X-rays. Priests, on the other hand, are committed to being a priest for life. They may “retire,” in that they don’t have to worry about the parish budget or the church roof leaking once the archbishop accepts their request to retire, but they will be a priest forever. For the Island’s Catholic community, it is time to say goodbye to Father Mike Nagle, a priest who is in his 28th year of service on Martha’s Vineyard. Twenty-eight years. He turned 75 in February, and according to the canon law that governs the church, it’s time to retire, which happens officially on August 18.
“You know, Pope Francis had his retirement letter all ready and he ended up being Pope,” Father Nagle laughed when I talked to him a couple of weeks ago at the rectory at St. Elizabeth’s Church. His desk was crowded with paperwork and he admitted there were a few things to take care of before he leaves, but he was definitely smiling.
He’s an interesting man, Father Nagle. I first met him properly at the airport where he keeps his small plane. He took our photographer at the time, Stacy Rupolo, up in the plane and she got some great shots. It was Father Nagle’s interest in skydiving that led to getting his pilot’s license. And maybe also his interest in hot air balloons, gliders, motorcycles, and travel. He told me he found out from a classmate that he was the sixth priest Archbishop Sean O’Malley asked to come to Martha’s Vineyard.
“Really, unless you’ve lived on an island before, you have no idea,” Father Nagle said. “It works for me though. I’m pretty happy.”
I asked him what stood out for him over the past 28 years.
“Our parish was one of the first in the diocese to go from three separate parishes into one unit, and I think that really brought the Island’s Catholic community together,” he said. It used to be “we’re from St. Augustine’s, we’re from Sacred Heart,” but now it’s one Catholic community, Good Shepherd Parish, and all the members can go to any of the three churches that are open in the summer, with St. Augustine’s open year-round. “It brought people into a greater sense of community or oneness and it was driven by finances. The price of oil started going up and it would’ve cost us twice as much to keep the churches open in the winter so we said let’s have one place to go to church in the wintertime. For me, that was one of the best things I was able to help facilitate. That’s been a good thing.”
Like everything else on the Island, church communities change in the summer season. The congregation size can double or more. It’s the welcoming community at Good Shepherd that keeps the numbers robust in the summer, Father Nagle said. He often has visiting priests in the summertime who are teachers or professors and said that a lot of priests enjoy coming to Martha’s Vineyard.
“People seem to enjoy the liturgies,” he said. “We have good music and a lot of priests enjoy coming down here to help. In winter they teach and they give really good homilies. I think people enjoy the experience of church here. And they feel at home. They’ll say ‘I’ve been coming here for 10, 20, 50 years and it’s like a home away from home.’ That’s a great thing to have people feel that affiliation and enjoyment of being here. It does amaze me how many people come to church on their vacation.”
Counting his years as a deacon before ordination, Father Nagle has spent two-thirds of his life in parish work. Now it’s time to enjoy his condo in Daytona, where he plans to spend winters, and he’ll fly his plane down there too.
“It’ll be nice,” he said. “I’ll be taking it easy and enjoying the sun, doing a little flying and bicycling and staying healthy hopefully. I’ll come back here in the summertime, May or something, and help out. There’s plenty to do; I won’t be bored.”
Father Nagle plans to help out on the Cape as well, where one priest with one associate is currently covering five churches. The number of priests is definitely declining, and it was funny when we agreed that the new priest who will come to serve on the Island, Father Paul Fedak, is young at age 55.
“I think it’ll be exciting for him,” Father Nagle said. “He’s never been here before so it’s going to be an adventure for him. I think he’ll find it really a welcoming and enjoyable community to be a part of.”
Father Nagle has been here so long that there are many parishioners who have only known him as a pastor.
“Part of it is they’ll expect him to be like me, and they have to let him be him. I think most people understand that. He’ll sit back and listen, make observations. He’ll have his own gifts and talents, and you have to trust the Holy Spirit is in there working and chose him to come here to lead, guide, and help.”
He told me a funny story about his beginnings on the Island. Archbishop O’Malley called him in and asked where he’d like to serve and Father Nagle told him that he’d like to try Nantucket; he’d flown there many times on his days off delivering freight in his airplane.
“He said, ‘Nantucket’s not open but I’ve got another island . . .’ So I ended up here and I’m happy to be here. It just seems to fit my personality. It’s been a great experience and I’m happy to have been here as long as I was and just hope it continues to be a great place for Father Fedak and all the folks here.”
It’s bittersweet when someone we’re so familiar with won’t be around as often as they used to be, but in this case we can rest assured that we’ll have other opportunities to bump into Father Nagle. And we can wish him well as he flies that plane right into his retirement years.