By Helena Rodriguez
At one point James McGowan wanted to be a stand-up comedian. He also considered careers in military and police work. But ultimately, he following a calling he received in first grade to become a priest.
However, this was not before being a jack of all trades while he tried to figure out where he was going and if this calling was God’s will.
He began the seminary at age 18, but then opted to go to college here at Eastern New Mexico University where he became a self-described party animal in the 1980s with the former Sigma Nu fraternity. He then worked in security, restaurants and hotels before returning to the seminary at age 33.
Now at age 43, McGowan, who happens to have a blue belt in Kojosho karate, only three belts away from a black belt, has been appointed the new priest at St. Helen Catholic Church. He replaces Father Tobin Hitt, who has been reassigned by the archdiocese of Santa Fe to San Martin de Porres church in Albuquerque.
McGowan – a native of Brooklyn, N.Y. who grew up in Rio Rancho – comes by way of Clayton where he was pastor of St. Francis Xavier church. Prior to that, he served as a police chaplain.
“In college, my friends would joke that I was going to become a tele-evangelist. Some of them knew I wanted to be a priest, but I’m sure some of them are still shocked. I was a bit of a party animal, a John Belushi of those days,” said McGowan, now in his fourth year of priesthood.
McGowan said his return to Portales has brought him full circle.
“When I found out I was coming back to Portales, on one hand I thought ‘You got to be kidding me, of all the parishes in New Mexico I’m going to Portales.’ I couldn’t believe it. On the other hand it was a good feeling, like a coming home.”
McGowan already has plans to begin making some changes at St. Helen and is looking forward to the opportunity to teach religious classes at ENMU. “That is one of those ironies because I was not the best student when I was there,” he said.
The evenings that McGowan spent performing at the Duke City Comedy Club in Albuquerque were not wasted though. He said humor comes in handy in his sermons.
“Humor helps to relax people and get their attention,” he said.
McGowan expects to pastor St. Helen for about five to six years and plans to begin by making some minor changes such as bringing back a crucifix, stations of the cross and other religious items to the sanctuary before the Lenten season begins. He will also oversee the building of a new Newman Center for college students on the church grounds and wants to have a church Web site on the Internet.
“I think this will be a challenging role. I’m in a bigger parish now with more families. Another challenge is language. I speak a little Spanish but I need to relearn the language,” McGowan said.
He would also like to see more social activities and community service projects within the parish.
“I want to re-establish the annual bazaar and have things like fish frys as well as get the youth groups more involved,” he said.
He plans to become involved in the local ministerial alliance, saying, “It’s always good to be involved with other churches. When we come together, we have more to offer the community.”
When he has spare time, McGowan writes fiction and collects police badges, patches and coins.
McGowan says he is 100 percent Irish American and St. Patrick is his favorite saint. Along with his two older brothers and sister, he was raised in a Catholic home. His dad, now deceased, was a member of Knights of Columbus and his mom, who still lives in Rio Rancho, was in the altar society.
The new priest is optimistic about his vocation regardless of recent church scandals and a shortage of priests and considers himself a conservative like Pope Benedict XVI.
“I like to think God has brought us through a point of purification and I think the number of priests will eventually go up. That has been a challenge for the church from the beginning. We have been here 2,000 years and we will always be here,” he said.
“I love being a priest. I can’t imagine doing anything else,” he said.