‘Father Mike’ remembered as humble and authentic servant of God

20 January 2021

Appears in: Archdiocesan News

Father Mike McCaffery is being remembered as a unique character, a study in shattering stereotypes.

He’s the sports fan-priest famous for marrying NHL icon Wayne Gretzky and his wife, as well as the beloved pastor who learned sign language to serve the deaf community. He enjoyed a gourmet meal as much as a peanut butter sandwich and a long, fast drive.

He’s the natural leader tapped for positions with great responsibility, and the doting uncle, trusted friend, and the pastor who would listen and comfort anyone ministered to addicts and the vulnerable. However, he had a singularity of purpose.

Rev. Mike McCaffery died on Jan. 12 at age 85.

“Father Mike was real, he was himself, and that gave the people with whom he came in contact permission to be authentic, to be themselves in his presence,” Archbishop Smith said in his homily.

“Whether in the confessional, in the course of pastoral counselling, or even just over a coffee, he heard and saw first-hand that life can get very messy, that categories of black and white rarely apply in people’s lives. Father Mike willingly stepped into the grey, he did not hesitate to go to the edge, if that is where he would find people and help them encounter Christ.”

Father McCaffery died Jan. 12 from complications of COVID-19 at age 85. Due to the COVID-19 restrictions, Archbishop Smith presided at a private family funeral Mass on Jan. 20 at St. Joseph’s Basilica. When restrictions allow, a public, Memorial Mass will be celebrated.

In a tender, heartbreaking video, Father Mike’s niece – Megan McCaffery – talked about her uncle, his impact and the gaping hole that his death has left on the family.

“I’m not sure how he did it but Mike was like a father to all of us. He beamed with a grandfather’s pride each time he held a newborn grandniece or grandnephew. I am his youngest niece and his goddaughter, so I secretly hoped I’d be his favourite. But Uncle Mike didn’t play favourites. Instead, he had the uncanny ability to make everybody he befriended secretly suspect he was thought he was the greatest.

“As a spiritual guide, we made him work,” Megan recalled. “I questioned my faith and struggled to accept the legacy of the Catholic Church. But instead of lecturing me, he listened to me and offered faith and community. Mike was an example of the ideals of the Church.

“I’ve been wondering how he managed to give and create meaningful experiences for others for 50 years without throwing in the towel,” Megan said. “I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s because he had the wisdom of a sage elder and the wondrous spirit of a six-year-old boy all combined with a ‘Dennis the Menace’ grin.”

Archbishop Richard Smith said Father Mike gave the people with whom he came in contact permission to be themselves in his presence.

The video is interspersed with photos of Father McCaffery’s immediate family. And it’s a comfort to his larger one.

“Father Mike” married, buried, and baptized hundreds of people. From his ordination in 1961 until 2003, Father McCaffery served various parishes in Edmonton, Maskwacis, Leduc, Mearns and Red Deer. A former chancellor of the Archdiocese, and beloved professor at Newman Theological College, Father McCaffery had many roles in ministry. Out of all of them, he enjoyed being a parish priest best.

“I’ve done many jobs but I’ve always considered pastoral ministry to be the most fulfilling,” Father said in an interview in 2011. “I enjoy journeying with people – the good, the bad and the ugly.”

Father McCaffery’s death leaves a gaping hole in the hearts of those who remember him and the far-reaching impact he has on so many. He’s the priest who couldn’t say “No” whenever dozens of organizations and hundreds of individuals asked for help.

In retirement, Father McCaffery kept his legendary sense of humour. His business cards said: “C.M. McCaffery — Retired but Hatching, Matching and Dispatching.” And when he said Grace, he included a prayerful pitch for whichever of the city’s sports teams was in need of heavenly intervention.

The McCaffery family leaves St. Joseph’s Basilica after the funeral Mass.

Since his death, what emerges from friends and family is a more fulsome portrait of a priest whose unassuming, easygoing nature made him approachable to anyone.

Father Mike loved the game of golf and in the past went to what he called “the Holy Land” (Palm Springs) to golf each November, also enjoyed golfing in Kauai for a few weeks in January or February.

Now in his 90s, Rev. Frank Stempfle – a retired priest in the Edmonton Archdiocese – is mourning the loss of Father Mike, one of the self-described ‘Three Amigos,’ along with Father Leo Floyd, who would go on golfing trips together.

“Mike would be in charge of our accommodations on our trips,” Father Frank recalled. “So Mike, we’re calling on you to arrange our heavenly accommodations. I will miss Mike. We will all miss Mike. He was a hell of a good guy, and a true friend.”

On the day of his funeral, in final farewell to his brother priests, the hearse drove past the Villa Vianney retired priest’s residence. Many of them came out, prayed at the coffin, and then silently went back inside.

The hearse with Father Mike’s casket stops outside the Villa Vianney residence for retired priests.

After graduating with a Master of Sociology degree at Fordham University in New York, Father McCaffery earned a Religious Leader Certificate at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. His family recalled he loved that school and attended the ‘Fighting Irish’ football games whenever he could.

And he loved the Oilers, love them or hate them, who were often included in his prayers.

In 1987, Father McCaffery became rector of St. Joseph’s Basilica where he famously arranged the 1988 wedding of Wayne Gretzky and Janet Jones, both non-Catholics. Longtime friend Tim Spelliscy said the wedding was a testament to Father Mike’s outreach to everyone – Catholics, non-Catholics, people of other faith backgrounds or none at all.

“Wayne Gretzky’s wedding is what I’m remembered for,” Father McCaffery said in an interview. “That certainly made me famous for five seconds!”

McCaffery taught at Newman Theological College and was president of the college from 1978 to 1983. His tenure had such an impact that his name and legacy were cemented with the establishment of the Fr. Mike McCaffery Chair in Pastoral Theology in 2007. And he was chancellor of the Edmonton Archdiocese throughout the 1990s.

Father Mike was a big sports fan and supporter of the Oilers who were often in his prayers.

Among his many awards and honours, Father McCaffery received the Paul Harris Fellow, the highest award given by the Rotary Club, and the Monsignor Bill Irwin Award of Excellence in Community Leadership. He was also named to the Alberta Order of Excellence in 2005.

For all the accolades, at the heart of Father Mike was a priest who ministered to the vulnerable and wasn’t afraid to be vulnerable himself, in particular when it came to presiding at high-profile funeral Masses.

“I think that a lot of people thought that Mike just kind of took that for granted. And he didn’t,” recalled Rev. Don MacDonald, a professor and former president of Newman Theological College.

“He said to me ‘You don’t know how much that takes out of me. I get nervous about it. It’s draining. Sometimes I can’t sleep because of it.’ He said ‘If I take this load upon my shoulders, it’s to serve people. It’s not because I get any type of kick or any type of enjoyment out of it.’ I think that is something that a lot of people don’t know.”

In ministry, Father McCaffery worked with recovering heroin addicts. He took on duties in Edmonton studying alcoholism in isolated northern communities. And he served as a fifth-step listener for recovering alcoholics, listening to their stories and helping them come to terms with their actions.

In the late 1970s, he co-founded a workshop called “New Beginnings” which has helped countless participants deal with. Perhaps it’s the influence of Father McCaffery’s late friend, Msgr. William Irwin.

“We’ve all lost a wonderful example of what humanity looks like when it’s at its best,” Troy Davies, chief executive officer of Catholic Social Services, said of Father McCaffery’s death. “If Father Bill Irwin was the spiritual father of Catholic Social Services, then Father Mike McCaffery was its spiritual uncle.”

Davies said he was humbled that CSS was selected as the charity of choice for memorial donations.

“He has, as well all know, just a very, very spacious heart for the vulnerable, the addicted, the abandoned, those who are abused — precisely the kinds of people that CSS serves.”

In the family video, shown at the prayer vigil the day before his funeral, the McCafferys shared the human side of Father Mike that the public rarely saw: He loved movies so much he would sometimes watch two in a row; his delight in a gourmet or home-cooked meal, but equally a “PB and J with vanilla ice cream and weak tea for dessert”, his fondness for long drives, his lead foot putting “the pedal to the metal” — and the rumour that he would read a novel while driving great distances.

In their grief, his niece Megan spoke for the family about the lasting legacy of Mike McCaffery: “These are the lessons we will take from him: Help others. Be present. And bloom where you are planted.”