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Foreign-born priests, pastors filling more area pulpits

The Rev. Cathal Gallagher is pictured in the Armour church he serves. Gallagher, who was born and raised in Ireland, is the priest of Catholic parishes in Armour and Stickney. (Chris Huber/Republic)

When she was a German exchange student at Brandon Valley High School in 1987-88, someone painted a swastika on Constanze Hagmaier's locker. After spending some time in the superintendent's office, Hagmaier and the young man who drew the infamous symbol of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party came to an understanding -- and that was that. Her broader experience in South Dakota was still positive enough that she wanted to return. And she did, about a decade later, as a pastor.

As two of a handful of foreign-born pastors in their synod, or region, of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Constanze and her husband Dirk said people have, for the most part, welcomed them into South Dakota with open arms.

"I always tell people, I experienced God's grace, God's love, the most when we emigrated," Dirk said.

No matter where they're from, priests and pastors all across the country have been busy this week, which culminates in Christianity's biggest holiday: Easter Sunday. But gradually, it's becoming less unusual for small-town South Dakota churches to be shepherded by non-American-born priests and pastors.

The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a nonprofit affiliate of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., that researches issues pertaining to the Catholic church, estimates there are about 6,500 to 7,000 U.S. Catholic priests who were "born and formed" outside of the United States among 38,964 total priests in the nation in 2012.

Protestant churches report lower numbers, if they keep track at all. The Lutheran Missouri Synod, which is headquartered in St. Louis, Mo., reports one foreign-born pastor in South Dakota: the Rev. Nabil Nour, from Israel, who is a pastor in Armour.

Other Protestant denominations, like the United Methodist Church, don't keep track of where their pastors are born, and report they haven't seen much of an upward trend in needing foreign-born ministers to meet churches' needs.

Kenneth Inskeep, who does research and evaluation for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, said while he is "not certain of the veracity" of the statistics, the ELCA roster shows 218 pastors, including some retired, who were born outside of the United States.

In South Dakota, Inskeep said the ELCA knows of five foreignborn pastors: two from Germany, one from Australia, one from China and one from Liberia.

The two from Germany, Constanze and Dirk Hagmaier, were pastors at Lutheran churches in Parkston and Mitchell, respectively, until being called in 2009 to serve as pastors together at the Trinity Lutheran Church in Madison.

Irish connection

Foreign-born priests are common enough in the Catholic Church that the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate is writing a book on the topic.

According to Mary Gautier, a senior research associate at CARA, the Rapid City Catholic Diocese reports five of its 37 priests are "international," or were born outside of the United States. The Sioux Falls Diocese reports nine of its 116 priests are international.

In The Daily Republic's print circulation area, that includes priests from India, Ireland and Poland, spread from Platte to Scotland to Kimball.

One such man is the Rev. Cathal Gallagher, who is Irish and is the priest for St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Armour and the St. Mary Parish in Stickney.

Ordained in the Catholic church as a missionary priest in Ireland, Gallagher first served 22 years in Japan before looking for a change. Placed through the Sioux Falls Diocese, Gallagher said he happened to know the Sioux Falls bishop at the time, so they visited about South Dakota.

"Like every assignment, your own wishes are kind of central, or where you want to spend your life," Gallagher said. "I told him I was thinking of moving someplace in the United States, but I was not interested in the East or West coast. I wasn't interested in the crazy lifestyle.

"I like the Midwest, and South Dakota fitted the picture, and he was very open and very welcoming, and the rest is history."

First came De Smet, then Armour around Easter 2009.

For Gallagher, moving from Japan to South Dakota was less of an adjustment than when he first left Donegal, the rural village in northern Ireland where he grew up.

"Coming from Tokyo to South Dakota, in one sense it was like coming home," Gallagher said. "The lifestyle here is very similar to the old lifestyle I knew when I was growing up in Ireland. Where people are ... not in such a crazy rush, and they're there for one another, and I like that lifestyle."

Despite his foreign roots, Gallagher, who speaks with a soft, lilting Irish brogue, said he never encountered any resistance from his parishioners, and never felt that his accent or culture was a barrier to connecting with people.

"For me, it was the opposite," he said. "I found them like the people at home.

"Everybody has some Irish connection," he added with a chuckle.

In a state that is overwhelmingly Caucasian -- 86 percent, according to the 2010 Census -- Gallagher said he believes that connection helped ease the transition for both him and his parishioners.

"I've never found any resistance," Gallagher said. "There's a hidden bias, but they're very welcoming toward Europeans. ... They're leery of non-Europeans because they don't know enough about where they come from."

Gallagher said he hopes to spend the rest of his days in South Dakota and is "quite happy."

He does miss one, thing, though.

"I've always been blessed with the ocean, until I moved to De Smet. Lake Thompson doesn't do it," he said with a laugh. "No matter how big it's getting, or how deep it's getting."

Occasionally, he wishes he could still take a Sunday afternoon stroll through the cemetery by the waves.

"That's freedom at its best," he said. "That combination, I long for that. But you can't have it all."

'Church is universal'

For others, perfecting a new language -- in front of a congregation, no less -- can be daunting. But Dirk Hagmaier said his South Dakotan congregants made the transition as painless as possible.

Dirk recalls a Sunday early in his ministry when the church was packed, and a man approached him afterward. Dirk, still mastering English and a bit self-conscious of his accent, asked if the man could understand Dirk's sermon.

"He said, 'I didn't understand a word, but it was fantastic,' " Dirk said with a laugh. "If it wouldn't have been for God's people in the church, we wouldn't have made it."

With mentors who helped Dirk write his sermons in English, his mastery of the language improved.

"I felt carried and taken care of almost every minute," he said. "I think that's pretty unique because it happened in the context of the church. I don't know if that would happen in corporate America."

Like Gallagher, Constanze said people within the congregation not only welcomed their German pastors -- they showed them off.

"We're kind of like the Disneyland," she said with a laugh. "They'll say 'We have pastors from Germany, you should meet them.' "

Other churches report similar views.

Despite the Rev. Andrew Swietochowski's "strong Polish accent" upon starting in Mitchell, Nicole Fuhrer, who has been attending Mitchell's Holy Spirit Parish since 1986, said she enjoyed getting to know the church's former priest.

"You had to work harder at understanding him, but he had just a wealth of stories to share about his heritage and growing up in Poland, especially personally knowing (former pope) John Paul II and studying to be a priest over there," Fuhrer said. "He had a lot of different experiences than maybe some of our American priests had."

The longer he stayed in Mitchell, the easier Swietochowski was to understand, Fuhrer said. But, ultimately, it didn't matter.

"Father Andrew was a very holy man, so if you wanted to take the time to get to know him ... it was well worth it," she said. "Anybody that took the time to get to know Father Andrew just loved him. I learned so much from him."

Fuhrer said Swietochowski, now priest of the parishes at Kimball and White Lake, is just one of the foreign-born ministers Holy Spirit has had over the years, all of them just as qualified as a U.S. native.

"No matter where they're from, they're Catholic," she said. "They practice the same faith we do, and they teach the same faith that we're trying to practice. I don't think it matters what country you're from, because the Catholic church is universal."

Priest numbers dropping

At the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, Gautier said that attitude of acceptance seems to be common.

"What we're finding is that people for the most part are very generous and very accepting," Gautier said. "There's occasional grousing about not being able to understand the homily (sermon) ... but for the most part, people seem very accepting, and in fact grateful that they have the sacraments available."

Foreign-born people in the U.S. in general have been on the rise, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In 1960, there were 9.7 million foreign-born people in the U.S., just 5.4 percent of the population. By 2010, that number had jumped to 40 million people -- nearly 13 percent of the population.

Gautier said there are identifiable reasons for the growing numbers.

"There's always been international priests in the United States, but as we have fewer priests of our own in the U.S. and an increasing Catholic population, there's many parts of the U.S. that are feeling what they perceive as a priest shortage," Gautier said. "Your part of the country is among the places that would be feeling that pinch."

It's partly a historical pinch, Gautier said, brought on by an influx of priests who entered the church in the 1950s and '60s.

While there is still what Gautier called a "steady supply" of men being ordained into the priesthood, about 500 each year in the U.S., it's not the same flood as during the '50s and '60s.

"That hasn't been repeated since then," she said.

In 1965, CARA reports there were 58,632 priests in the U.S. It held steady for a while, with 58,909 reported in 1975, but then it started to drop off, to 57,317 by 1985. The decline continued, as CARA reports 49,054 priests in 1995, 45,699 in 2000 and 42,839 in 2005.

"There were never enough priests, except for a very brief period of time in the '50s and '60s," Gautier said.

Now, as those men retire or die, Gautier said there simply aren't the numbers to fill the pulpits -- only about one-third as many as are needed.

And while there are nearly 20,000 fewer priests in the United States than there were 40 years ago, the Catholic population has grown. According to CARA, there were 66.3 million Catholics in 2012, up from 45.6 million in 1965.

"What some bishops have done, in order to respond to the sacramental needs of the people, is to look around to other countries," Gautier said, saying many of these priests are viewed as "sort of like missionary priests."

Gautier said the largest number of foreign-born priests come from India, but there are also "substantial" numbers from the Philippines, a few countries in Africa -- predominantly Nigeria -- as well as Latin American countries like Mexico and Columbia. Of the European countries, Gautier said Poland shows some of the strongest numbers.

No solution is without controversy, though, as Gautier said there are mixed views on what some see as putting a Band-Aid on a broken leg.

"Some dioceses are very intentional about this, and some are very opposed to the idea and don't do it at all, and other dioceses are kind of in between," Gautier said. "It's certainly not any bishop's first choice; they would rather have men that are ordained within the diocese ... It's at best a short-term solution to a long-term problem."

Fewer internationals in Protestant ranks

It's a phenomenon that doesn't seem to be happening in mainline Protestant churches, at least not in South Dakota.

Constanze and Dirk Hagmaier agreed that while they have seen shortages of pastors in the past, the bishop of the Sioux Falls synod -- which includes all of South Dakota and "a bite" of Wyoming -- has "extraordinary power to draw people."

Ron McClung, assistant general secretary of The Wesleyan Church, said he also has not seen an influx of foreign-born pastors in the Wesleyan denomination, and the church does not keep records of pastors' countries of origin. The biggest possible exceptions, he said, are Hispanic or ethnic-based churches.

"If there's a Hispanic church that starts, or some particular ethnic group where they need a pastor who understands their ethnicity better, we would be a bit more likely to bring in someone from another country, or find someone who's already in the United States who fits that ethnicity," McClung said.

Wayne Mueller, assistant district superintendent of the Dakota District of The Wesleyan Church, said he hasn't seen a ministerial shortage in the Wesleyan or Church of the Nazarene denominations, which he credits at least in part to more opportunities for second-career people to enter the ministry.

"One of the ways we have compensated for what would have been a clergy shortfall is that we've modified our educational approaches," Mueller said.

Things like accelerated classes and online learning allow working adults to receive their education and training without uprooting their lives to attend a traditional four-year Christian college or seminary.

"I really think that helps to fill in the gap, at least it does in our denomination," Mueller said.

Mueller himself was an autoparts salesman for nearly 20 years, until he joined the pastoral staff at Mitchell Wesleyan Church, where he served for 19 years.

His story is becoming common. Mueller listed a pastor in Dell Rapids who used to be a police officer, one in Spearfish who was in the Air Force and former engineers now leading churches in Sturgis and Brookings.

"We have a number of second-career people who are ordained pastors leading churches now," Mueller said.

"I think that's a trend in the North American church. I think the church needs to go to them, and I think we see the same thing happening in the educational adjustments.

"I think that's adapting to your clientele and realizing there's a market for that seminary education, but you've got to market it in a way that it can be utilized."