Father William J. Gallagher, 95, the oldest priest in the Worcester Diocese and the only one who, when he was seminarian in France during World War II aided Allied prisoners to escape from the Nazis, died Dec. 19 at the St. Francis Rehabilitation and Nursing Center.
He was born on Nov. 28, 1917 in Glanworth, Cork, Ireland, the son of John and Hanna (O’Neill) Gallagher. His home parish was the birthplace of Patrick Cushing, who emigrated to Boston in the 19th century. A descendant was Richard Cushing, who became Archbishop of Boston and later a cardinal.
Father Gallagher graduated from Christian Brothers Secondary School, Fermoy, Cork, and St. Mary’s College. When he decides to study for the priesthood, the seminaries in Ireland were full. So he and several other Irish students went to seminaries in France in 1938. The Germans invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, to begin World War II and by 1940 had overrun Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg and forced France to surrender.
As the Germans expanded their occupation of France he was forced to move from seminary to seminary to continue his studies. For about six months he and other seminarians lived in a Trappist monastery, sleeping on straw mattresses in small cells.
He moved to Angers to study, but the British Royal Air Force was making nighttime bombing raids on German forces in the area.
The situation was “an awful mess,” Father Gallagher said.
With the aid of the French Resistance he made his way to Toulouse in Southern France, which then was run by the puppet Vichy government. But when the Allies invaded North Africa in 1942, the Germans occupied Southern France, too.
At the request of the French Underground he and another Irish seminarian agreed to help smuggle escaped Allied prisoners to Spain. He said the underground wanted people fluent in English to interview the prisoners to make sure no German spy had infiltrated the prisoner escape pipeline. He said he interviewed British, Canadian, Australian and quite a few American escaped prisoners.
At one point German soldiers came to inspect the convent where he was living at a time when he was interviewing two escapees. They hid in a field until the Germans left. After the war, Father Gallagher and others received a letter from Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander, thanking them for for their efforts.
Father Gallagher, finished his studies in France and was ordained a priest in the Diocese of Angers with the provision that he serve the diocese for 10 years. He taught at three colleges and served as a chaplain for U.S. Army troops stationed in Chinon, Ingrandes and Saumur.
When his 10-year commitment ended, he accepted an invitation from Bishop John J. Wright to come to the Worcester Diocese. He arrived in December 1956 and stayed in the rectory at St. Paul Cathedral. He was assigned in January 1957, to St. Bernard Parish, in Worcester as assistant pastor. Subsequently he served as assistant pastor at St. Aloysius Parish in Rochdale, Our Lady Immaculate Parish in Athol, St. Augustine Parish in Millville, and Notre Dame Parish and St. Christopher Parish, both in Worcester.
He was named pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Baldwinville on Oct. 3, 1974. He helped bring the Marian Movement of Priests to the Worcester area, along with Assumptionist Father Joseph Pelletier in 1976. In 1984 he took sick leave and retired May 5, 1984. However, his health began to improve a few years later and he began to help with retreats and celebrate Masses, including pro-life Masses in the Cenacle in St. Paul Cathedral and First Friday Masses in the Problem Pregnancy chapel.
He also kept his sense of humor. In an interview with The Catholic Free Press when he was 90 and after he celebrated his 60th anniversary as a priest, he said that among the other things he was doing was bringing Holy Communion to the homebound, to those in nursing homes and, he said with a little grin, “to the elderly.”
Callahan Brothers funeral home was in charge of arrangements.