The Rev. Joseph Gannon, a father in so many ways

  • Article by: MAURA LERNER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 26, 2011 - 8:30 PM

The St. Paul priest was ordained at 60, with his six kids looking on.

As far as his grandchildren were concerned, there was nothing strange about Joe Gannon's occupation.

So why, they once asked, do other people seem to think it's so odd?

Because, his daughter, Patricia Faxvog, remembers explaining, "Most priests don't have children."

The Rev. Joseph T. Gannon was, in many ways, not like most Roman Catholic priests. He entered the seminary at age 56, a widower after 34 years of marriage and six kids. He was ordained by the pope, met Mother Teresa and traveled the world. For the second half of his life, he relished the role of Father, along with dad, grandpa and great-grandpa.

Gannon, of St. Paul, died at age 96 on July 19 after a long illness.

"You can't be sad for his life at all," said Faxvog, of Prior Lake. "He had a pretty extraordinary life."

His daughter says that she and her five brothers were surprised -- but not entirely shocked -- when their dad decided to enter the seminary.

Gannon, who was born in Farmington, once told a newspaper columnist that he was a "cradle Catholic" who had thought about becoming a priest as a young man. "But it was the Depression, and I couldn't go on to school," he said in a 1975 article in the Minneapolis Tribune. "And then, of course, I got interested in girls."

He met his wife, Arlene, in high school and went into the restaurant business, eventually opening a doughnut supply franchise in the Twin Cities. At one point, he and his wife were musing about what he would do if something happened to her. "Maybe the priesthood," he said, according to a 2001 article about late-blooming priests in the St. Thomas University magazine. His wife laughed it off. "Oh, you'll be married in 30 days," she told him.

After his wife died of cancer in 1970, Gannon asked his older sons to take over the doughnut business and went to Rome.

There, he became one of the oldest students at Beda College, a seminary for "delayed vocation" priests. "He was in the company of other men who had watched life go by and felt the call," said the Rev. Stanley J. Srnec, a friend and retired Twin Cities priest. "He became convinced that this was what God wanted for him."

In seminary, he bristled at some of the rules (a curfew at age 56?) and volunteered to drive Mother Teresa when she visited Rome on charity missions. He was 60 when he knelt before Pope Paul VI, one of 354 priests ordained that day in June 1975 at the Vatican. His mother-in-law was in the front row; his six kids in the second.

"It was a very strange feeling," Faxvog said. "We would just call him 'our father, the Father." Her then-husband jokingly asked if he should say, "Bless me, Father-in-law."

At one point, Gannon and several of his children appeared on the TV game show "Family Feud." Faxvog said they aced the audition. "We're a pretty outgoing family anyway," she said. "But a priest with six kids?" They lost, by a hair.

For nearly 10 years, Gannon served several Twin Cities parishes, including Immaculate Heart of Mary in St. Paul. He retired in 1985 and became a cruise-line chaplain, sailing the Caribbean and leading Catholic, Protestant and Jewish services, his daughter said.

Recently, he wrote his autobiography, which the family self-published with a cover photo of Gannon in his Roman collar surrounded by his children. The title: "Seven Times a Father, A family man's journey to the Catholic priesthood."

In addition to his daughter, he is survived by sons Tom, Dennis, John, Steve and Mark, 13 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren.

A funeral mass will be said at 10 a.m. Wednesday at St. Helena Catholic Church, 3201 E. 43rd St. in Minneapolis.

Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384

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