The Rev. Thomas P. Gavigan, pastor emeritus at Georgetown's Holy Trinity Church, is many things to many people.
To the Rev. James M. English, who succeeded Gavigan as pastor and also studied under him, he is the source of English's "best instincts about being a pastor."
To Don DeVol, a parishioner for nearly 40 years who for the most part is confined to a wheelchair, Gavigan is his contact with parish life.
However he is described, the 72-year-old Jesuit is held in high regard by his parish and fellow Jesuits. That admiration led to a party Oct. 11 at which about 800 friends, parishioners and priests packed the gymnasium at Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School to celebrate Gavigan's 50th anniversary as a Jesuit. He retired as pastor of Holy Trinity in 1971 but has remained active in the parish.
"People were asking what they could give him as a gift, but he put the kibosh on that right away," said the Rev. James Connor, current pastor at Holy Trinity, 3514 O St. NW. "He said if they wanted to give him a gift, they could give something to the poor."
As a result, parishioners donated more than $15,000 to the soup kitchen So Others May Eat (SOME); the House of Ruth, a women's shelter; and other programs for the poor founded by Gavigan's mentor and fellow Jesuit, the late Rev. Horace McKenna of St. Aloyius Catholic Church on North Capitol Street.
"He's a very holy, loving, wise man. He really embodies what it means to be a Catholic and a priest," said the Rev. Rob McChesney, a priest at Holy Trinity.
"One of the central things about Father Gavigan is his availability to the people," Connor said. "He keeps saying, 'I may be an old-time parish priest, but I think we have to serve the people.' There's not a call that comes in but that he's ready to go out like an old-time fire wagon."
But Gavigan, ordained in 1944 after 12 years in the seminary, doesn't welcome the praise. "I'm called pastor emeritus. That means I just work here, right?" he said brusquely. Friends say he often describes himself as "just a humble parish priest." They find it ironic that a man who has inspired so many sees himself in this light.
Gavigan looks the part of a humble parish priest. One evening several days after the anniversary party, he wore an ancient wool plaid shirt over his clerical garb. His hooded eyes under bushy white eyebrows looked tired, but he was ready for a chat. He turned the subject of the conversation away from himself to Jesuit education, life in the novitiate, an intensely introspective training for Jesuits, and guest preachers at Holy Trinity.
Some parishioners credit Gavigan with bringing a tradition of good preaching to Holy Trinity and making the church an activist congregation.
"In the milieu of a middle-class parish, he has raised the consciousness of his parishioners until this parish has the finest outreach of any church in Washington," said Melanne Verveer, who met Gavigan in the early 1960s as a Georgetown University student and has become a close friend. "The parish has a Meals on Wheels program, a tutoring program; it sends volunteers to work in shelters for the homeless. It all stems from what he brought."
Gavigan arrived in 1964 at Holy Trinity, which unlike most Catholic churches draws its membership from throughout the area. He had spent 14 years as novice master at the Jesuit novitiate in Wernersville, Pa.
"People here weren't too well educated," Gavigan recalled. "They had lots of novenas. It was a church of private devotion. We introduced the idea that what was important was the Eucharist and not all these prayers to the saints."
The Second Vatican Council, known as Vatican II, brought change to the American Catholic Church. Gavigan plunged right in at Holy Trinity, bringing congregational singing, lay involvement and a social conscience to the parish.
He had an especially hard time trying to teach the congregation to sing. During the mass preceding his anniversary party, Gavigan, a lover of baroque music, kidded the congregation about its refusal to do anything so Protestant as sing hymns. "Dick Richard Lucht, the organist almost singlehandedly accomplished the great miracle of that day: a singing Catholic congregation who really enjoyed singing," he said.
In keeping with the Jesuit tradition of liberal rebelliousness, Gavigan occasionally quarreled with the Catholic hierarchy. In 1968, when Pope Paul VI stated his opposition to birth control, Gavigan was one local priest who defied Archbishop Patrick O'Boyle's call for enforcement of the church doctrine. Gavigan was disciplined for his defiance, temporarily losing the right to hear confessions.
Some of Gavigan's friends and parishioners say his compassion for the poor and oppressed is one of the strongest forces in his life and what makes him extraordinary. He arrived at his beliefs not because of personal experience but after reading the gospels and the lives of the saints. He was inspired by the life of St. Peter Claver, a 17th-century Jesuit who ministered to slaves in the West Indies and by Dorothy Day, the founder of the 1930s Catholic worker movement.
"I used to tell my novices I'm just an armchair activist. I didn't do much. I just urged other people to do things," Gavigan said.
These days, Gavigan spends his time ministering to the elderly of the parish.
DeVol particularly is grateful for Gavigan's attention to the elderly. The 76-year-old DeVol said he enjoys the priest's frequent visits to his Georgetown home to bring him holy communion.
Gavigan also has been an inspiration to English. He recalled a lecture Gavigan gave at Jesuit school: "Gentlemen, remember this. You're human beings, Christians, Roman Catholics and Jesuits in that order of priority."
That attitude contrasted with the way many Jesuits then thought, English said. "Being human was the last thing we thought about," he said.
English also credits Gavigan with giving him a desire for parish work. "He's the main reason why when it was my time to leave Holy Trinity [as pastor last year], I wished to remain in parish work," although the Jesuits wanted him to become a school administrator, he said. "So now I'm down in Raleigh, North Carolina, hacking a new parish out of the pine trees."