Father Herbert Banigan: ‘A priest of the people’
By Jean Torkelson
Father Herbert Banigan
Father Herbert Banigan, a pioneer in ministry to migrant workers and a champion of priestly vocations, died Jan. 1, on the feast of Mary, Mother of God (New Year’s Day).
He was 91 years old, one of the oldest surviving priests of the Archdiocese of Denver. His funeral Mass was celebrated Jan. 5, at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. He was buried Jan. 7 at Mizpah Cemetery in Platteville.
“I was just wowed by his energy, his humor and his tremendous memory of Church,” said Father Frank J. Garcia, pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish in Loveland, where Father Banigan was in residence for the past several years.
Initially, Father Herb, as many knew him, concelebrated Mass. As he became more frail, he sat near the altar and was often introduced to worshipers.
“Parishioners would applaud, and in a sign of humility he would turn a little red and bow his head down and lift up his arm, kind of like John Paul II,” Father Garcia recalled, adding: “He was very warm. A priest of the people.”
Father Banigan was born in Colorado Springs and entered the now closed St. Thomas Seminary in Denver in 1939. In his early priesthood he served as assistant pastor in Denver at St. Catherine of Siena Parish and at St. John’s, now Good Shepherd Parish. He also worked as chaplain at Mercy Hospital and the Veterans Administration Hospital.
Throughout the 1960s, Father Banigan served the rural Church. As pastor of St. William Parish in Fort Lupton, he developed a special heart for farmers and migrant workers.
“These agricultural people have made many, many sacrifices,” Father Banigan told the Denver Catholic Register in 1986, the 40th anniversary of his priesthood. He especially appreciated migrant workers.
“I had never seen this kind of poverty before,” he said, “but I was also introduced to the beautiful Hispanic culture and the strong faith of the people.”
He asked that his anniversary be an occasion to pray for new vocations to the priesthood.
“I feel my celebration should contribute to the vocation efforts in the diocese,” he said.
A priest forever
Fittingly, Father Banigan was surrounded in his last years by a vibrant new generation of priests, including Father Garcia, 54, a former educator, ordained in 2006. He recalled Father Banigan’s unpretentious sense of humor and breadth of interests.
“He was a voracious reader of history and he loved Beethoven,” Father Garcia said, adding: “He loved his priesthood. We shared many poignant moments … and prayed together quite often. I will miss him dearly.”
Father Sam Morehead, 28, ordained last spring, is associate pastor at the Loveland parish, and currently the youngest priest in the archdiocese. He recalled that when he would celebrate Mass at the nursing home for Father Banigan, “At the end of my homily I’d say, ‘I hope I did everything right,’ and he was always so gracious.”
As Father Banigan’s life drew to a close, the archdiocese’s youngest priest had a message for one of the oldest.
“One of last things I did,” Father Morehead said, “was to lean down and whisper in his ear, ‘Thank you for your priesthood and all the lives you touched.’”
Jean Torkelson: 303-715-3122; www.twitter.com/DCRegister