It is with great sadness that we learned from Bill Slavick that Rev. Jim Gower, long-time member of Pax Christi Maine and a true ambassador for peace for Pax Christi USA during the early years, passed away on Monday morning earlier this week. Denny Dreher, regional coordinator for Pax Christi Maine, wrote:
“Fr. James Manley Gower, August 17, 1922 – December 17, 2012. At approximately 1:30 a.m. today, December 17, our beloved Fr. Jim Gower died–falling gently into the arms of the loving God whom he served so joyfully and faithfully for so many years. Suzanne Fitzgerald, who has been such a faithful caring friend to Father Jim, and friends Hugh Curran and Bo and Will Green kept watch with him for several hours yesterday. I happened to read a letter in the Franciscan Action Network (FAN) e-mail message this morning and was struck by the realization of how Fr. Jim followed St. Francis’s lead in serving God. He had no trouble setting the goal of following Jesus… [W]e give thanks for the gift of Fr. Jim’s presence in our lives–and with our efforts as Pax Christi for so many years.”
Below is an article from Bill Slavick, written after his passing. Rev. Jim Gower — PRESENTE!
by Bill Slavick, former coordinator of Pax Christi Maine
Once, en route to visit a Westbrook relative, Fr. Jim Gower mentioned being descended from the medieval poet, John Gower, who was celebrated by his good friend, Geoffrey Chaucer, as “moral Gower” and “noble Gower,” the latter phrase echoed by Shakespeare.
Rev. James Manley Gower, who died at 90 in Bar Harbor on December 17, 2012, fully earned such “Gower” praise in his life of service as a parish priest, peacemaker, and citizen marked by a boundless love for all he met.
But it was his mother, Mary Barnes, an immigrant Irish maid from Sligo, who knew the Irish dispossession and famine and modeled his capacious love and compassion for the suffering. Whatever you do, do good,” she taught. (She was of the distinguished O’Byrne/Byron Achilles Island clan.)
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 for two years during World War II in the dangerous role of a diver. (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, then 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.
“He was a priest of the people, the best we ever knew–a saint,” recalled Judy and Dale Ferris of Waterville, where Fr. Jim was a curate 14 years, counseling and befriending so many. Waterville-Winslow had 16 priests then, but apparently everyone who had family problems or problems with children had sought out Fr. Jim. The armory was required to accommodate a farewell dinner. His successor saw himself filling the shoes of a giant. (Fr. Jim also introduced the VW beetle locally.) A Waterville lawyer who served Mass for him recalled loving every minute he spent with Fr. Gower. When Fr. Jim retired, a parishioner there observed that church leaders never appreciated what they had in him.
But Fr. Jim revealed early what they had. When serving in Bar Harbor, he asked old friends what they could do for Bar Harbor, with its seasonal economy, which led to the founding of the College of the Atlantic. Agreement with Hugh Curran, a University of Maine faculty friend, that the demonization of nature is deeply rooted in Western consciousness; his interest in Teilhard de Chardin’s and Thomas Berry’s recognition of nature as sacred, and recognition that contemporary students could be reached through ecological concern contributed to COA’s human ecology focus. He served on the COA Board for 30 years and taught peace studies and sacred earth courses. Next year COA will initiate a speaker series and scholarships in his honor.
Fr. Jim modeled Vatican II’s call for engagement with the modern world. He read widely, much about peace and social justice; he made two arduous weekend Zen retreats. His homilies often focused on Gospel nonviolence, discomforting the comfortable. With requests to substitute on Sunday often came pleas not to rile the folks in the pews. He relished relating reports of complaints by summer Opus Dei congregants.
Fr. Jim was much discomfited by the Church’s failings, increasingly as Vatican II reforms were abandoned and disengagement grew. He once sought to initiate a priest appeal for optional celibacy as a sensible response to vacant rectories. But his response to criticisms of those responsible was muted: “Really? Is that so?” His guiding principle was “Always err on the side of generosity.”
Troubled by Pope Paul VI’s 1968 continuance of a ban on contraception after a heavily conservative commission overwhelmingly proposed its end led him to take a sabbatical in 1972 to seek direction. Going first to Rome, then to Harvard Divinity School, he reported finding, “There is a lot of piety in Rome but little wisdom, a lot of wisdom at Harvard and not much piety.”
Parishioners found both a deep faith and wisdom in him. He once asked a young student who considered the priesthood, “Have you every dated a girl?” To his “no” response, Fr. Jim advised, “You should try that first.”
His reputation for community commitment led to his key role in realizing senior housing in Bar Harbor in 1982.
His posting as chaplain at the University of Maine in l972, where students remember his warmth and inspiring homilies–the loving Church he represented– brought Jim’s experience of Depression poverty and war and commitment to Church peace and social teaching to the fore as the Vietnam war and student protests continued and several of his student parishioners died in Vietnam. When Jim learned of Pax Christi, he was ready. A second leave put Fr. Jim on the road for two years, organizing Pax Christi groups. He lived hand to mouth, with donated gas money to the next stop, sleeping in his car when a rectory or convent did not offer lodgings, in a 25,000 mile double circuit of the country. Maryknoll Fr. Vic Hummert, who traveled the South with him, remembers, when Jim nodded at the wheel, them singing “Paul and Silas, bound in jail, all night long, one for the singing, one for the praying, all night long,”
On return, Fr. Jim gathered a dozen Pax Christi groups in Maine, from Saco to Aroostook County. Daniel Berrigan, S.J., Fr. Emanuel Charles McCarthy, and Bill Callahan, S.J., led initial PC Maine retreats, culminating with Fr. Jim’s joyous Eucharist. His witness guided Pax Christi Maine for over 30 years.
Song was often the expression of his faith and love. A frequent square dancer, he danced one Saturday night at a Pax Christi Assembly in Erie until soaked in perspiration, then joined in singing Irish songs into the wee hours. At an 85th birthday bash at Most Holy Redeemer Church in Bar Harbor, he was still singing and dancing.
In the 1980s, Fr. Jim joined a Maine Witness for Peace delegation to Nicaragua. Hearing an anti-government editor complain of shortages of what were luxuries there, he impatiently reported that he grew up cleaning his teeth with salt water and his butt with newspaper! On return, he helped load cargo containers of humanitarian aid to Nicaraguans.
Children invariably flocked to Fr. Jim–in Nicaragua and when, in retirement, he sat on a Bar Harbor Green bench on warm Sunday afternoons. His love for children, which his many nieces and nephews knew well, was also reflected in turning the spacious Bucksport rectory parlor into a day care center, and earlier, initiating the Waterville Head Start program.
At his 85th birthday celebration at the church of his Bar Harbor youth, friends recognized his abundant love with a statue of St. Francis on the church lawn. Like Francis, he lived humbly, traveling light, possessions few, his car ancient, clothing threadbare–like Francis, taking Jesus as his guide. A young parishioner in Bucksport credited Fr. Jim for her “radical devotion to the poor” and for showing her “the sacrificial road of love and self-sacrifice. . .the road to Jesus.” Even the Bar Harbor pastor’s German shepherd that Fr. Jim walked was drawn to him, learning to turn the bedroom door knob so as to lie on Fr. Jim’s bed until his return.
Fr. Gower’s constant focuses were Gospel nonviolence and family unity. In a 2008 letter to a Houlton Quaker Pax Christi member, he identified Christ’s most important message as free gift of one’s life instead of retaliating with violence and foresaw the day when the Catholic Church “will be the largest PEACE community in the world.” His advice to them: “Be the church you want the Church to be.”
Throughout his priesthood, Jim emphasized what he had learned from his mother – the importance of family life. In retirement, he made himself available wherever invited to encourage parents to gather their families for a weekly Shalom dinner.
His 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. Told of Fr. Gower’s fading health, a fellow priest, Fr. Phil Tracy, remarked simply, “I love that man.” 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 for everyone he met. Fr. Jim Gower’s kind eyes and radiant smile warmed every room he entered, every gathering, manifesting the peace of Christ he served. Those who knew him recognized a saint in our midst.
Isaiah 61:1-2 spoke strongly to Fr. 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.”