submitted by members of Pax Christi Maine
Jim, a direct descendant of the “noble Gower,” the medieval poet celebrated by Shakespeare, World War II Navy veteran, and long-time Portland, ME, diocesan priest, should be remembered as an exemplary witness, in Maine and nationwide, to the nonviolent Jesus and to the priest in service to his community.
Remembered throughout the country because his recognition of the centrality of peace in the Gospel and alarm at the madness of mutually assured nuclear destruction occasioned him becoming, after Dorothy Day–the perpetual peace journeyer, the first PCUSA peace ambassador. Shortly after his discovery of Pax in England and Pax Christi’s foundation here, in the early 80s, Jim met a need of the fledgling PCUSA movement. He took a two-year leave of absence and visited any parish, school, or seminary anywhere that would give him a hearing about Pax Christi as an instrument of peacemaking. He made two coast to coast to coast circuits, clocking 25,000 miles, living hand to mouth, asking only gas money to the next stop. Years after, early Pax Christi members would ask anyone from Maine if they knew Jim.
On return, Jim founded PC Maine, starting groups around the state. He served for 30 years as PCM’s chief peace witness, inspiration, and friend to all, always encouraging and helpful.
But Jim’s commitment to Pax Christi was not his first major peacemaking act. In 1968, lunch with an old Bar Harbor schoolmate at which Jim asked what they could do for the community prompted their effort with two other Bar Harbor friends to found Acadia Peace College there. Three years of planning evolved, instead, into creation of the College of the Atlantic, located at the entrance to Acadia National Park, with a commitment to human ecology (the human-environment relationship) that has put it in the forefront of academic ecological studies centers.
Jim served on the College of the Atlantic board for 30 years, his continuing counsel much valued. A room has been named for him and a peace and justice lecture series and scholarships will honor him.
In retirement, Jim taught a peace studies course and a Sacred Earth course at the College. His friend Hugh Curran has subsequently taught the latter at the University of Maine.
Jim’s reputation for community commitment occasioned supporters enlisting his help years later as critical in realizing a senior citizen housing project in Bar Harbor; it was completed in 1982.
Jim barely acknowledged his illustrious name. But he was proud of his Irish heritage by way of his immigrant mother, a maid who married a Bar Harbor Protestant carpenter notable for a scrupulous honesty that often occasioned him charging too little. His mother’s lineage was of the Birons or O Biorains of Achill Island, Mayo, inhabited 6000 years ago and a refuge for hermits and monasteries in the 6th and 7th centuries Celtic Christian period. Jim visited his gentle, beloved mother’s Irish home and remembered it to friends. (No wonder he eagerly joined in an impromptu late-night Irish folk dance and songfest at an Erie Assembly in the 80’s and regularly square danced through his active life.)
Jim’s strength in science and physics, love of the outdoors and his mother’s encouragement prompted his matriculation at Notre Dame to become a civil engineer. He hitchhiked to South Bend, worked on campus, and joined the ROTC to fund his studies after his freshman year. He graduated an ROTC squad leader in 1944 and joined the Navy, serving at sea, as a diver, a dangerous volunteer duty, for two years. (Subsequently, he bemoaned Notre Dame’s boast that it housed all of the military service ROTC’s.)
Intellectually restless, Jim returned to N.D. for a Philosophy degree. He worked briefly for GE, then attended Georgetown law school for a year while interning for Maine Sen. Wallace White. Considering a public service career, he concluded that politics required too much compromise. One day, at coffee, he announced that he would become a priest. He studied at St. Augustine Seminary in Toronto.
Posted in Waterville as a curate for 16 years, Jim’s sense of family importance and pastoral skills registered. When he left Waterville, they had to hold the farewell dinner in the armory; nowhere else in town was large enough. Waterville-Winslow had 16 priests then, but apparently everyone who had family problems or problems with children had sought out Fr. Jim. When Jim retired in 1992, an old Waterville parishioner observed that “they” –church leaders–never appreciated Jim. But the people did. A successful lawyer recalls that, as an altar boy, he loved every moment he shared with Fr. Gower.
Throughout his priesthood, Jim emphasized what he had learned from his mother—whatever you do, do good – and the importance of family life. In retirement, he sought opportunities to encourage parents to gather their families for a weekly Shalom dinner.
Always in search for the truth of things, Jim embraced Vatican II reforms. Consequently, Paul VI’s birth control encyclical troubled him. He had headed the natural family planning effort in Waterville and followed the Vatican commission’s deliberations. He was granted a leave to seek direction. He went first to Rome where he found, he reported wryly, much piety but no intelligence, then to Harvard where, he opined, there was a lot of intelligence but little piety!
His posting as chaplain at the University of Maine, in 1972 brought Jim’s experience of Depression poverty and war and commitment to Church peace and social teaching to the fore as the 60’s Vietnam war and student protests continued. Several of his student parishioners died in Vietnam.
When Jim learned of Pax Christi, he was ready, and early PC Maine retreats with Fr. Emmanuel Charles McCarthy, Fr. Dan Berrigan, and Fr. Bill Callahan, SJ, provided a solid grounding in Gospel nonviolence. He regularly sought further nourishment from solid reading and peace conferences at U. Maine and elsewhere where he took in all he could (recording his notes in beautiful handwriting). His independence of mind was evidenced by his concentrated participation in two arduous weekend Zen Center retreats in Surry, Me.
Jim’s homilies often ranged wide, usually settling on Gospel nonviolence and frequently discomforting the comfortable, who did not hesitate to advise him (some of them notable Washington summer residents) to talk about something other than U.S. imperialism and Gospel nonviolence. Requests to substitute for a Sunday Eucharist might carry a plea not to rile the folks in the pews. Jim was not an accomplished speaker, but the force of his witness to nonviolence and manifest warmth and care invariably won his congregation’s assent—and love.
Jim loved children, a reciprocal love. On an early Maine Witness for Peace accompaniment delegation to Nicaragua, the children everywhere they went flocked to him. In retirement, he and a friend or two would sit on a Bar Harbor park bench Sunday afternoons, where the children would find him. Years earlier, alone in a large rectory in Bucksport, he had turned the parlor into a day-care center, to the discomfort of less accommodating area clergy. (He, himself, was accommodating to all—as long as the Knights of Columbus left their swords at the door!)
His 85th birthday celebration was at the church of his Bar Harbor youth, with Jim happily singing and dancing in the midst of the circle of folk song and dance. Among the celebrants was the pastor’s German Shepherd, which so loved Jim that he had learned to turn the knob on Jim’s bedroom door with his mouth so as to lie on his bed until his return. A statue of St. Francis was placed on the lawn in Jim’s honor.
Isaiah 61:1-2 spoke strongly to Jim Gower. “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; He has sent me to bring glad tidings to the lowly, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners, to announce a year of favor from the Lord and a day of vindication by God, to comfort all who mourn.”
Jim’s last priestly service was to heal the brokenhearted, when a beloved pastor was suddenly removed from ministry because of an incident during his seminary days.
Jim was discomforted anywhere he found less than “a day of vindication,” especially when the Church fell short. Although his criticism was indirect, his compassion prompted extreme disappointment at the way some fellow priests were treated after years of faithful service. He would always readily drive for hours to fill in for an ill priest or spend weeks if required. His frank assessments of the hierarchy brought summering Opus Dei member reports to the bishop. He related them with relish and inimitable humor.
And Jim could manifest impatience. When an anti-Sandinista editor in Nicaragua complained of shortages in what most Nicaraguans would consider luxuries (e.g. toothpaste), Jim spoke up, reporting that he grew up cleaning his teeth with salt water and his butt with newspaper!
But, finally, Jim was incapable of a bad word about anyone, however challenged. His usual reply to criticism of others was “Really? Is that so?”
A published Bar Harbor celebration of his 50-odd years of service declares that “he will be remembered for his unconditional love for mankind and his mission of peace and justice for all humanity.” Jim’s love was all-encompassing, for Creation and everyone he met. He warmed every room he entered, every gathering. He envisioned the peace of Christ and engendered it, as all who shared the Eucharist with him at PC Maine’s annual retreats recognized.
For the Pax Christi Maine community, Jim was not an ambassador. He has been and continues a saint in our midst.