In writing a historical narrative it is natural to highlight major events and the individuals responsible for them. That is certainly important, but also meaningful are the less heralded acts of the people of that organization, their benevolence, and kindness, what one might call “its soul.” We all know certain people in our lives who have given us something special. Not material goods, but a joy of life, a refreshing attitude, a respect for goodness. Such a person in the history of St. Patrick’s parish was Father Vincent McGarvey.
Born in a small town in Pennsylvania in 1917, Vincent knew from an early age he wanted to be a priest, and after attending Villanova and completing his novitiate he was ordained in 1935. He also received a master’s degree in education from Catholic University. Following a brief time as an assistant novice master, he was assigned to St. Patrick’s parish as an associate pastor.
The late 1930s and 1940s were extremely difficult times. Deep economic depression and war pervaded. People’s faith was often challenged, and sadness and despair were commonly apparent on faces. Father McGarvey was the right priest for the times. His manner was always calm and easy-going, slow to judge, and quick with a smile.
Father McGarvey had a great interest in education, and he loved to gather children in the sanctuary of the church where he would tell them bible stories in language at their level. One of his favored things was to visit a parishioner’s home to say Mass. He would set up in the living room, and Catholic neighbors were invited to attend. Instead of giving a homily he would sit down with the host family and guests and discuss the day’s readings and any other topic they had on their mind. A gentleman, he was at ease on any topic.
It may come as some surprise to anyone born after 1970, but the term “housewife” was not always a pejorative one. Women of the 1940s and 50s took great pride in the running of their homes and nurturing their families, and it was a lot of work. Time with friends was important, and a great vehicle for that in St. Patrick’s parish was the Mother’s Club, made up of the mothers of the school children. They met regularly to share stories and sometimes to play cards, usually bridge or canasta. Often the entire hall was filled. Organists Edna Keays or Roma Frey would often come by to play the piano and the whole place would erupt in spontaneous song, to tunes like “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” or “Sentimental Journey.” It was a place of great camaraderie, and Father McGarvey was right in the middle of it, going around from table to table swapping stories and laughs, sometimes helping in the kitchen or serving tables. And he loved every minute of it.
Long time parishioner Jason Specht eloquently relates his family’s association with Father McGarvey:
“One would be hard-pressed to find an individual who looms larger in the history of St. Patrick’s Parish than Father Vincent McGarvey. For generations of parishioners of the church and students at the school, Father McGarvey was our spiritual shepherd. With a collected and steady manner, unwavering faith, tacit humility, and steadfast rectitude, he ministered to us in large and small ways throughout the decades. He welcomed us at baptism and was the celebrant at our First Communions. He married us and celebrated the Rite of Christian Burial for our loved ones. In between, he was our confessor and our counselor. There was never a time when he was too busy to answer our call.
After the 1978 PSA plane crash on Nile and Dwight streets, an event witnessed by the entire school body, Father McGarvey came on the school’s public address system to pray for the victims. He and his fellow Augustinians walked the crash site, a gruesome and tragic scene, to pray for the dead. On the way back to the rectory he stopped at Sawaya Brothers’ Market on Myrtle Street to catch his breath, and Jim Sawaya remembers the anguish on his face when he delivered the news no one had lived. Father McGarvey had a way of shouldering those loads. A couple of years later, a student at St. Patrick’s was killed along with his mother in a murder-suicide by his father. The entire school attended the funeral, and it was left to Father McGarvey to make sense of the senseless. Father McGarvey never wavered or retreated in such moments, and often seemed to carry us when we felt we could not go on.
When my parents died, I found several personal handwritten notes Father McGarvey had sent them over the years. One especially stood out. It contained a quote from St. Augustine and was written contemporaneously with his departure from St. Patrick’s for Castro Valley: “No man can be a good bishop if he loves his title but not his task.” The implication to me was clear. Father McGarvey embraced his role as shepherd of St. Patrick’s Parish and understood the importance he played in spreading God’s message to us. For him, and for us, there is a no more important ministry.”
Father McGarvey was a serious priest, devoted to the strict adherence of the teachings of the church. But he was also congenial, affable, and approachable. He was especially endowed with two gifts of the Holy Spirit, wisdom and piety, and he used them well. Father Vincent McGarvey was the quintessential parish priest, and St. Patrick’s was very blessed to have him.