Few people whose examples of service to God and country are more fully integrated than that of Father Patrick Egan.
Today, Egan is the pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church in Cullman – a position he has held since 2009 – and although he felt the pull to the priesthood as a young man, his first call came early and hard.
“I wanted to be a soldier when I was 3,” Egan said in an October interview with Sacred Heart. “I always wanted to be a soldier. I remember I was about 5 when we stopped after mass. I can’t remember when it was, but it couldn’t have been a Sunday because my dad stopped by and went to buy me a helmet from an old army surplus store. – you don’t see them anymore – and man, that helmet was gold. and he bought me a World War II ammunition belt.
Having such a supportive and tolerant family, Egan said, was key to the life choices he would make.
“I also had toy soldiers – I had quite an elaborate set. My parents, God bless them. …I had battlegrounds set up and my bedroom wasn’t big enough, so I did it in the dining room and part of the living room, and they let me go and didn’t interfere with things. … I had a pretty robust arsenal.
What Egan also had was an increasingly robust drive to join the military, a drive that would manifest more fully in college.
“I joked that I went to ROTC, but I had to go to college to do it,” Egan said. “I graduated from UNA, Florence State at that time, at 7:00 p.m. June 4, 1971 and at 3:00 p.m. June 5, I reported to Fort Benning.”
“I wasn’t in too much of a rush, was I?” he said.
Although much of the military, and the military itself, is famous for its “hurry up and wait,” the young infantry officer’s career seemed to be on a fast track. Demonstrating a strong aptitude for leadership, Egan would hold increasingly senior positions, including as an executive officer, training company commander, operations officer, staff commander, XO, or officer. executive of a tank battalion, commander of an infantry battalion, garrison commander and in his last posting, as deputy chief of staff for installation management – the “chief of operations of back to the Pentagon, again”.
“So I’m done 30 years,” Egan said, traveling through those three decades from that first posting in Georgia to the Pentagon and much of the world, including West Point and, later, the Saudi Arabia for Operation Desert Storm during the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War.
Retired as a colonel and still a young man, Egan will then try to meet the needs of the military in the civilian world.
“I went to work (for a former military colleague) for a few months,” Egan said. “I’m glad I didn’t stay because it wasn’t me.”
It was then that the retired officer – and future priest – said he began to hear God’s call more urgently and to remember that earlier push into Holy Orders – and the House.
“I arrived in Saint-Bernard in September 2001 and have stayed there ever since,” he said.
“If I really think about it, I was raised by the Benedictine nuns in Florence,” Egan said. “I loved being a mass server, and they used to have summer camps there. … We were living the life of a monk and I really liked that. But at that time I wanted to be a soldier, that’s all I thought about.
“But it’s funny, because (St Bernard’s Abbey) Abbot Hilary (Dreaper) was friends with my parents and at that time he said, ‘I thought we had it. “”
Although St. Bernard would not then claim Egan, the abbot was prescient and the order patient. Thirty years later, the soldier would “change uniforms, though you still have three hots and a cot”, after finding himself increasingly praying, and increasingly before “worshipping all every day for 30 minutes, an hour, an hour and a half.”
The time had come. With his prayer group for support, Egan said, “I’ll check that out. And it was just a wonderful visit just after Christmas. …I came back in March and … I thought, man, I have to try. So, I had already applied in March and I was accepted.
For Egan, the new career and the new journey had only just begun. Entering the monastery at 51 was an unlikely path to the priesthood, but, like his focus on the military, he was determined.
“I don’t know what I would have done if they had said, no, you’re not going to be a priest,” he said.
But the answer was “yes,” and Egan went to St. Vincent Seminary in 2003 not only to study, but to catch up.
“I must have cram 26 hours of philosophy into a year,” he said. “Wow.”
As he navigated his graduate studies in his 50s, Egan would rely on his military training and, more importantly, the lessons he had learned as a child.
“I tell people that one of the greatest gifts my parents gave me is discipline, self-discipline, not being like everyone else,” he said. “I hated doing my homework. I was a procrastinator, but I already had the germ of discipline. I have never taken drugs. I hated beer. The only time I got drunk was at my high school graduation party – I never did that again.
Egan would be ordained in June 2008, at age 58, relying not only on military discipline but also on prayers to sustain him. He had come full circle, which he knew for sure when he returned to north Alabama, taking over the ministry and leadership of Sacred Heart in June 2009.
“When I came back, as I was getting out of the car, this voice in my head, clear as a bell, said, ‘This is where you belong,'” Egan said. “So I just took that as the Lord speaking to me – and here I am.”