When the call came, the Callaghans answered

  • September 28, 2011

TORONTO - When Molly and Bill Callaghan went north to maintain a Chistian presence in small native communities they had years behind them of working in Toronto-area parishes as a deacon couple. Bill had the background in Scripture and theology that comes with the diaconate program while Molly had experience that goes with a lifetime of volunteering in the Church.

But none of that mattered very much, said Molly.

“We took an egg crate-sized box of stuff we had used in different days of recollection, training sessions, all of that,” Molly recently recalled of their 1991 trip to Sandy Lake, Ont. “We got up there and thought before we do anything about that we need to just be present to the people, keeping their trust and doing what we feel called to do. We came back (in 1998) with that box unopened.”

The Callaghans discovered that the skills that mattered most to their missionary vocation didn’t come from the seminary or any of the retreats and seminars they had been through.

“An ordinary Catholic person with average intelligence could do what we did,” said Molly.

Bill died Sept. 15. He was 89 years old. Besides Molly, he left behind 10 children, 35 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. In his lifetime he had been a dairy farmer, an educator, a janitor, a deacon and a missionary.

At the funeral home a couple approached Molly to ask about her time with Bill as a missionary. They wanted to know whether they should consider giving some time to Canada’s missions. She immediately directed them to Fr. Philip Kennedy, the president of Catholic Missions In Canada.

“No doubt there are many, many people out there who are looking for something to do, particularly if they take early retirement and are still healthy enough to go ahead and do it,” said Molly. “The northern bishops would so welcome volunteers like that.”

It helped that Bill was a deacon, but among his most important skills were fishing and gardening — activities that drew him closer to the people and their rural surroundings. Bill’s garden gave people in the village confidence to try growing their own food and opened up Gospel stories about sowing seeds and reaping harvests for a generation that had become dependent on food flown in to the Northern Store.

Molly said the experience demonstrated one of the basic truths of Christian faith.

“We’re all called to be missionaries. It’s all part of being Christian to spread the message.”

Spread out over short stints at home, the Callaghans spent two years in Sandy Lake, a year in Lynn Lake, Man., and a year in McBride, B.C., supported by Catholic Missions In Canada.

“We certainly gained more than we ever gave,” said Molly, who went on to write a book about their missionary experience. Walk With Us For A While was published by Catholic Missions In Canada in 2009.

The Callaghans never thought of their missionary vocation as a special calling reserved for an elite of dedicated Catholics.

“We’re not a super-Catholic family. We’re an ordinary family of cradle Catholics,” said Molly.

The Callaghans were first asked about going north 12 years before they took up residence in Sandy Lake.

“It took us 12 years to clear the decks to be free to go,” explained Molly.

The second career in missionary work was enabled by early retirement from jobs with the Toronto Catholic District School Board. It was also an answer to prayers from the very busy couple.

“We were so involved in Toronto on many levels of ministry that we were overloaded,” she said. “We needed to get away from the scene completely, to get back to Earth again.”

Though they sometimes wished they could have gone north when they were younger, the couple never regretted their time as missionaries. Molly wishes it were easier for lay people to learn about how they can be missionaries in Canada and to gain the confidence they need to take it on.

After they came back, Molly and Bill would often be consulted by people about to head north. They would tell them the story of their own journey north and try to give them confidence.

“We were happy to do that,” said Molly.

This article is part of our Call to Service special feature.

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