Fr. Mike McCaffery died Jan. 12 at age 85 due to possible COVID-19 complications. Photo by Robert Bray

Fr. McCaffery officiated Gretzky wedding

By  Andrew Ehrkamp, Canadian Catholic News
  • January 21, 2021

EDMONTON -- Pastor. Mentor. Teacher. Community Leader. Friend.

Fr. Mike McCaffery was all of these and more, and the loss of the much-loved priest casts a long shadow on the Archdiocese of Edmonton where he served for more than five decades. Fr. McCaffery died Jan. 12 due to possible complications related to COVID-19. He was 85.

“As I tried in my mind to capture the significance of his death, superlative phrases sprang to mind, as I am sure was the case for many others who knew him, like ‘Death of a legend,’ ‘the passing of an era’ or ‘the end of an institution,’ ” Archbishop Richard Smith said in a statement. “These are all true, so extensive was the impact of his priestly ministry on the people of this archdiocese, and so many were his accomplishments.”

A former chancellor of the archdiocese, professor and president at Newman Theological College, Fr. McCaffery had many roles in ministry in the Edmonton archdiocese. Out of all of them, he said he enjoyed being a parish priest best.

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

“He is definitely a healer,” said Tim Spelliscy, the former Global TV executive who has known Fr. McCaffery for more than three decades. “One thing about Mike is he is a listener. Listening is a tremendous quality. And he takes time, he’s patient and he listens very carefully. It’s a fantastic quality.”

Spelliscy met Fr. McCaffery in the 1970s when he worked as associate pastor at St. John the Evangelist Church.

“He had long scraggly black wild hair, a bit of a hippy, a bit more modern than the priests of that era. He spoke his mind on a lot of issues. I still recall when he did a homily one morning on optional celibacy, which created quite a buzz among the congregation.”

In 1987, Fr. McCaffery became rector of St. Joseph’s Basilica. Spelliscy laughed as he tells of how Fr. McCaffery loved to tell the story about arranging the 1988 wedding of then Edmonton Oiler superstar Wayne Gretzky and Janet Jones, both non-Catholics. “The archbishop was out of town and Fr. Mike said ‘What the heck!’ ”

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

But Fr. McCaffery’s ministry went so much further.

“There is a good reason for his popularity: generosity,” said Josee Marr, the former chancellor of the archdiocese and a close friend.

“From the vulnerable and unnoticed person to the famous and wealthy, he offered time, talent and treasure without counting the cost. Organizations could always count on Fr. Mike to enhance both profile and donations for their fundraiser events. Everyone agrees that the word ‘no’ was absent from his vocabulary because ‘yes’ took precedence.”

Born Charles Michael McCaffery on Sept. 17, 1935 in Bassano, Alta., he spent his early years in Brooks before moving to Edmonton. He was the third child in a family of six born to Dr. Hugh and Isobel McCaffery.

His mother was Anglican, his father was a devout Catholic and a great-grandfather was a Presbyterian minister. A favourite uncle was Mormon. To Fr. McCaffery, the various faiths had more in common than they did apart.

Growing up in Edmonton, McCaffery was being steered to become a dentist like his father. When he graduated from St. Joseph’s High School, the priesthood hadn’t even entered his mind. But the recently ordained Fr. Bill Irwin, founder of Catholic Social Services, was tapping one of McCaffery’s best friends to become a priest and they dragged McCaffery to a meeting.

McCaffery “sort of fell in love with a girl” and began struggling with his decision to become a priest. He took some time off and worked for the social action department of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops in Ottawa. He studied at St. Joseph Seminary in Edmonton from 1954 to 1961, and was ordained at St. Joseph’s Basilica by Archbishop Anthony Jordan.

Fr. McCaffery served as an assistant at St. Anthony’s parish in Edmonton and Sacred Heart parish in Red Deer. In 1970, he took a leave to complete his master’s degree at Fordham University in New York City and a religious leaders’ certificate at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. He moved to Vancouver to work with recovering heroin addicts. He took on duties in Edmonton studying alcoholism in isolated northern communities.

Fr. McCaffery 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 feelings of loss and grief stemming from divorce, separation, and death.

McCaffery returned to the Edmonton archdiocese in 1972 and served at various parishes. He taught at Newman Theological College and was later appointed vice-principal and then president of the college from 1978 to 1983. His compassionate stewardship made a lasting influence on Newman, so it was natural to honour his name and legacy with the establishment of the Fr. Mike McCaffery Chair in Pastoral Theology in 2007.

Fr. McCaffery also served as vice-rector of St. Joseph Seminary for six years before returning to parish work as a pastor.

The late Archbishop Joseph MacNeil said he entrusted Fr. McCaffery with many positions of responsibility during his years as archbishop of Edmonton “because he was the right man.”

“I consulted with other people and they’d said, ‘Obviously, Fr. McCaffery is the best person for the job.’ In each instance that’s the way it worked out. He made me look very intelligent, very smart.”

As chancellor of the Edmonton archdiocese through most of the 1990s, Fr. McCaffery handled sexual abuse cases and began the reorganization of the parish structure. Fr. McCaffery officially retired in 2000. But he continued to perform baptisms, weddings and funerals. He also celebrated Mass for the St. Mark’s Deaf Community.

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