Community mourns loss of Msgr. McMahon, 93

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Msgr. John McMahon was instrumental in purchasing Mount Claret Retreat Center. He went on to serve as director and vicar of buildings and properties for the Diocese of Phoenix. He died Nov. 5. (Catholic Sun file photo)
Msgr. John McMahon was instrumental in purchasing Mount Claret Retreat Center. He went on to serve as its director. Msgr. McMahon also served as vicar of buildings and properties for the Diocese of Phoenix overseeing much of its growth and was instrumental in coordinating St. John Paul’s Phoenix visit in 1987. Mgr. McMahon died Nov. 6. (Catholic Sun file photo)

[dropcap type=”4″]A[/dropcap]n Irish immigrant whose love of the Church and visionary spirit helped build the Diocese of Phoenix has died. Monsignor John McMahon passed away peacefully Nov. 6. in his home at Mount Claret Retreat Center. He was 93.

The missionary priest, known as a community builder, was lauded by the faithful who mourned his passing.

Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted said that while many priests have come to serve the Phoenix Diocese from other lands, none has had a greater impact than Msgr. McMahon.

“For nearly 70 years, he pointed us toward the Lord with Irish wit, vibrant faith and with an ability to call us beyond ourselves in service of neighbor,” Bishop Olmsted said.

Fr. David Sanfilippo, vicar for priests, called the beloved monsignor an effective builder, but noted that he built far more than structures.

“He will always be remembered for building the faith of the people he served through his pastoral care, wisdom and love for his priesthood,” Fr. Sanfilippo said.[quote_box_center]

Photos: Msgr. McMahon

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Born into a family of farmers on Sept. 3, 1921, Msgr. McMahon applied to seminary and an agricultural college back in his native Ireland.

He eventually attended St. Patrick’s seminary in Carlow, Ireland, where he met his good friend, Msgr. Michael O’Grady, the now-retired rector of Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral.

“I feel a deep sense of loss but gratitude we had him so long,” Msgr. O’Grady said. “He was a deeply spiritual man and kept it simple. In every parish he went he was just loved because he loved the people.”

Msgr. McMahon was ordained to the priesthood in Ireland on June 13, 1948, for the Diocese of Tucson. Upon his arrival he was appointed to St. Cyril’s Church from 1948-1957.

Msgr. McMahon poses in this circa 1956 photo with Catholics outside of St. Cyril in Tucson. He served there for nine years and came to the Valley in 1959 where he remained until his death Nov. 5. (photo courtesy of Diocese of Phoenix Office of Archives)
Msgr. McMahon poses in this circa 1956 photo with Catholics outside of St. Cyril in Tucson. He served there for nine years and came to the Valley in 1959 where he remained until his death Nov. 5. (Diocese of Phoenix Office of Archives)

He also recruited, flying back to woo seminarians from his alma mater to forgo the lands of Australia, New Zealand or England for the lush landscape of America, in particular, Arizona.

“He blew us away with slides of churches being built and lovely pictures of green fields,” Msgr. O’Grady said. “He fired our imaginations and signed up four in my class. Later we learned he was showing us photos of Maine and Vermont.”

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Visitation and Funeral

A visitation and vigil for Msgr. John McMahon is 6-8 p.m. Nov. 13 at St. Theresa Parish, 5045 E. Thomas Road, Phoenix.

The funeral Mass is 10 a.m. Nov. 14, also at St. Theresa Parish. Burial will be in Ireland.

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Family and friends will remember him as an inveterate storyteller.

“He could spin a story with the right pause and drama to have you on the floor laughing,” said Fr. Charles G. Kieffer, VF, pastor of St. Theresa Parish and Msgr. McMahon’s successor where he had served for 23 years before leaving for Mount Claret. “This is un-expectantly poignant; we work all our lives to attain eternal life but there’s sadness. Part of me is happy for him but part of me is sad to lose such a mentor, friend, father figure and guide.”

In addition to establishing a perpetual endowment fund in the mid ‘70s at the parish, a first in the diocese, the gymnasium bears his name in honor of his 50th anniversary of priesthood.

Prior to serving as pastor of St. Theresa, Msgr. McMahon founded St. Philips Church in Payson and served as pastor of St. Mary’s Parish in Chandler from 1959-1968.

It was there he initiated the building a new facility for the elementary school, a convent and the addition of a gymnasium at Seton Catholic High School.

Msgr. McMahon learned the value of land and techniques of buying and selling livestock as a boy.

It was invaluable knowledge that served him well as the first vicar of properties and buildings, a position he chaired for nearly 30 years.

He was a visionary, securing land and properties in the infancy of the diocese, established in 1969, which now spans more than 43,000 miles.

Msgr. McMahon and a St. Theresa youth shows one of the founding bricks used to build the school in 1974. A year later, a new church and parish center was dedicated. (photo courtesy of Diocese of Phoenix Office of Archives)
Msgr. McMahon and a St. Theresa youth shows one of the founding bricks used to build the school in 1974. A year later, a new church and parish center was dedicated. (Diocese of Phoenix Office of Archives)

“He accomplished many things throughout the diocese but his greatest gift was his heart,” said Dean Dwyer, a friend of 40 years. “He would evangelize just by the nature of his personality and character.”

Friends agree Msgr. McMahon was also a man of great persuasion, not only calling people to action, but always willing to pick up a paint brush or shovel.

“He could certainly charm the birds out of the trees,” Fr. Kieffer laughed. “He made it clear what was the best way to exercise free will.”

Longtime friend Anne Wuycheck spoke at the vigil service Nov. 13, comparing Msgr. McMahon’s devotion to his flock to that of the poignant children’s book, The Velveteen Rabbit.

“He loved us with all he had,” Wuycheck said. “Monsignor was part of our lives and through him, we all saw Christ.”

Peggy Sandahl, a family friend for the past 36 years, said the day of his death was the “feast day of all Irish priests.”

“His ultimate goal was being the best priest he could be. He was the best one I’ve ever known. He epitomized forgiveness and love,” she said.

Fr. John McMahon, his nephew, noted his uncle’s devotion as well.

“His lasting legacy to me is his faithfulness in ministry and his love of the Church,” Fr. McMahon said.

The Church of Phoenix will always remember one of Msgr. McMahon’s most notable achievements, coordinating the visit of St. John Paul II to Phoenix in 1987. It was then the since-canonized pontiff personally conferred his title of monsignor.

Among his life’s work, Msgr. McMahon served as director of Mount Claret, the Cursillo Movement, chaplain of the Order of Malta and the Arizona State Council for the Knights of Columbus, chaired the first Charity and Development Appeal campaign, and was a spiritual advisor to Christ Child Society and St. Vincent de Paul Society.

More recently, he was instrumental in the building of St. Francis of Assisi Church in the Ak-Chin Indian Community.

His visitation and vigil was Nov. 13 at St. Theresa Parish, followed the next day with the funeral Mass. Burial will be in Ireland.

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