“Father Cal,” as he was affectionately known, was the first priest to join Madonna House. In him, Catherine Doherty found a committed spiritual director, and the early Madonna House priests found their first director general — in these roles, Fr. John T. Callahan is seen as an important co-founder of our apostolate.
An old French adage says, “Whomever God loves, he hides.” Fr. Callahan was a hidden man. He let himself become nothing so that Jesus could become everything. He let grace happen.
John Thomas Callahan was born on May 11, 1913 to a first generation Irish American family. After graduating from eighth grade with a 95 percent average and a special mention for excellence in Christian Doctrine, he attended St. Andrew's Prepatory Seminary and St. Bernard's Theological Seminary in Rochester, again achieving top marks. Fr. John Callahan was ordained during the eve of World War II, on June 3, 1939.
His friend, Fr. Gene Cullinane, described his first impressions of Fr. Callahan: “tall, handsome, approachable and courteous, energetic, with a very pleasant personality. A good conversationalist, he had excellent relationships with priests in general. He was considered a leader, a zealous priest, an example. His influence reached far and wide: he stood out in a crowd.”
In his autobiography, Fr. Gene writes: “In January 1950 I received an invitation from Catherine Doherty to conduct a week of talks on Catholic Action at Madonna House in Combermere, Ontario. Since my duties made it impossible for me to accept, I phoned Fr. Cal and asked him to take my place. What an historic phone call! It was the first step on the road of Fr. Cal's vocation to be Catherine's spiritual director, a priest of Madonna House, and founder of the Madonna House priests.”
During this first visit to Madonna House in July 1950, Catherine found Fr. Callahan intelligent, direct and holy. She sensed in him a depth of which he himself was unaware. At this time, she was looking for a priest to be her spiritual director, and she began to speak to Fr. Callahan about the possibility of him taking on the task.
Fr. Callahan returned to Combermere that Christmas to spend a few days. During that short visit he didn't do any formal teaching, but in casual chats with the group, he talked about the Mother of God. Later he was to recap the message he had given: “I wish to make a rather intense personal witness to Mary. For me, to live is Mary. I can't remember when I first had a devotion to her; it has always been there. As a young man I read as much as I could about Our Lady. I can remember summer vacations, working on a playground; I would steal away for fifteen to twenty minutes to quietly read her Office. I can't begin to enumerate the things that happened to me because of her and through her: her protection, care, consideration, her leading me to Christ.” He also talked about his consecration to Jesus through Mary, according to St. Louis de Montfort.
Fr. Callahan noted in his diary (which he called “My Mary Book”): “I was amazed at the response to my narrative about Our Lady.” Within five weeks of his visit, Catherine and Eddie Doherty travelled to Ottawa on February 2, 1951 and at the feet of the statue of Notre-Dame-du-Cap in the French church of Sacré-Coeur, consecrated themselves totally to Jesus through Mary according to the teachings of St. Louis de Montfort. This was a pivotal moment for Catherine, for Eddie, and for all of Madonna House. In later years Fr. Callahan and Catherine noticed how dramatically profound graces had fallen upon her and Eddie, and in turn, upon the whole apostolate, following the Consecration. In the ensuing years nearly all staff members consecrated themselves to Jesus through the Mother of God via the Montfort consecration. (Fr. Callahan liked to refer to himself in Latin as ancillus ancillae, meaning “servant of the handmaid (Mary)”, and was later instrumental behind-the-scenes in the establishing of the Our Lady of Combermere shrine at Madonna House.)
Soon, Fr. Callahan took on the challenging task of directing Catherine Doherty, whose spiritual vitality might be compared to a hurricane or Niagara Falls. He was prepared for the task. But he and Catherine were humanly extremely different, from divergent backgrounds and experiences. Catherine was a passionate Russian woman, a complex personality endowed with extraordinary human gifts, a dynamic leader who had lived through national and personal catastrophies. Fr. Callahan was a somewhat shy Irish-American priest, but his shyness hid a boldness in being a leader. He spoke very sparingly, ‘played his cards close to his chest.’ He was extremely intuitive, and knew he could trust his intuitions.
In April 1952 Fr. Callahan once again arrived at Madonna House to give a retreat to the staff members and guests, at Catherine's invitation. But he collapsed with fatigue, diagnosed with “physical exhaustion.” This event came to mark the beginning of his call to stay at Madonna House and to take on more than being spiritual director of its foundress. One day in July, as he was still recuperating from his illness at Madonna House, the thought came to him, “This is your second vocation. These people need a chaplain.” It was an incredible moment of grace for the future of fledgling Madonna House. In order to be established in this new vocation, he became incardinated in the diocese of Pembroke, Ontario. Before long he found himself no longer only in a new personal vocation, but the founding priest of the Priests of Madonna House.
One of Fr. Callahan's significant early works was the establishment of the Madonna House ‘Cana Colony’ where families could come for a week of retreat and vacation. In May 1954 he bought a nearby farm with one hundred acres of land and access to a lake, suitable for the purpose. Soon he began building little cabins for the families and within three years there were five cottages, a chapel to accommodate eighty people and a cookshack. Families were invited to spend a week there during the summer; daily Mass, the Sacraments and lectures were provided by a priest.
Within a very short period of time, Fr. Callahan came to have a priests' group under his direction and training, when more priests arrived to join Madonna House — Fr. Cullinane, Fr. Brière, Fr. Béchard, Fr. Rowland. It was decided in the fall of 1956 that Fr. Callahan would be the Director of the Madonna House priests and the others would be under obedience to him. And, in the summer of 1957, Fr. Callahan took on arranging the priestly formation of the first seminarian of Madonna House, Bob Pelton. He also oversaw the creation of the Associate Priest program.
On April 1, 1984, Fr. Callahan had chest pains and was taken to the local hospital where a mild myocardial infarct was diagnosed. The doctor thought he should be able to return home in two weeks. One week later, on April 7, when the nurse arrived early in the morning she found him sitting up in bed and looking well. He said that he had had a good night's sleep and that he had prayed to Our Lady the night before to let him go home this day; Fr. Callahan felt rather confident that she would arrange this for him. When his doctor arrived around 8 a.m., he granted permission for dismissal from hospital. Fr. Callahan looked very delighted to be going home, and asked the nurse to look out in the corridor and see if the hospital food cart had arrived with his breakfast on it. She did this and seconds later returned to his room to find him slumped over in bed. His doctor, who was still in the corridor, rushed back to the room and did a quick assessment: Fr. John T. Callahan had just died. Our Lady had indeed taken Fr. Cal home.
— Adapted from The Life of Father John T. Callahan by Marian Heiberger