A reflective Father Bob Haggarty looks back on his time in Lillooet

Easter 2018 was a bit different this year for Rev. Bob Haggarty aka “Father Bob.”

After his official retirement last year, he is no longer the parish priest at St. John’s Catholic Church in Lillooet.

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“You don’t stop being a priest. Once you’re ordained, you’re ordained,” he says. “You still have responsibilities to the church. But you don’t have responsibilities such as presiding over marriages or funerals. Now, I don’t have responsibilities other than those which I am prepared to take on.”

That means he’s still involved in the life of the church. When his successor Father Peter Altamirano is out of town, Father Bob fills in at daily Mass. He’s also available to consult with Father Alatmirano and share insights learned during his almost 50 years as a priest.

“It’s good for me, too, but by the same token, I want to respect his privacy. That little house there is a one-man house and people need privacy,” he told the News.

Instead of the rectory, Rev. Haggarty now lives in a nearby apartment but still walks to church every day for a private mass.

“I didn’t want to be far away from the church,” says Father Bob.

He was the parish priest at St. John’s for 20 years after arriving here in October of 1997.

He describes it this way: “Bishop Sabatini was looking around for a priest. I had served in the Diocese of Kamloops for many, many years up to that time. He asked if my superiors would be willing to send me to Lillooet if I was willing to come, so it was mutually agreeable.”

Father Bob said there were “no surprises” when he arrived in Lillooet. That’s because he’d been visiting here since 1971.

“I came over in the fall of 1971 when they were trying to get people behind the idea of building a rec centre here. They had a dinner here and they were trying to get the support of the people so they brought in a guest speaker,” he recalls. “He was quite a memorable person – Father Athol Murray, from Notre Dame. He’d worked with so many young people and so many of his student graduates went on to the NHL. I was visiting Father Egan, who was the priest here at the time, and he told me I’d picked a good time to visit. ‘You can meet the two Murrays’ – which were Father Athol and “Ma” Murray. I used to meet her over the years and I knew her granddaughter Margie, who lived at Douglas Lake  near Merritt.”

Father Bob also frequently attended the annual pilgrimages at Fountain Lake, which began in the mid-1970s.

 “So I was coming to Lillooet almost every summer.”

Sharing his memories of parishioners, he speaks fondly of individuals such as Sally Almstrom and Germaine Gagnon.,

“I admired her courage, being an elder and all bent over,” he says of Mrs. Almstrom. “I know the contribution she made and I appreciated her.”

He continues, “My life was much more pleasant because Germaine Gagnon existed. She was such a help to the priests in years past, long before I got here and she continued to help to the day she died. People may not appreciate the extent to which she gave of herself. She was a great asset to me and a great blessing to the church. She kept the books for the parish. It’s nice to have complete trust in the person who looks after the finances and it’s nice to have someone who does things to perfection. Every T was crossed and every I was dotted. She had horrendous columns of figures to add and she always did it without an adding machine.”

“There’s one other thing I’d like to underscore,” he said, reflecting on his time in the parish. “I’m so pleased the parish was able to give hospitality to the seniors of Lillooet by offering the use of the parish hall, which has been a mutual blessing. I liked the idea as soon as I heard about it. I consulted the parishioners and they were very receptive. There was no official contract – it’s just based on a handshake. I said to the seniors, ‘If you can’t get along with the Catholics, you’re free to leave!’”

It should be noted the seniors have not gone anywhere.

Originally from Alberta, Father Bob was ordained in 1971 as a priest in the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI). The Order was founded in 1816 and has had a presence in British Columbia since 1858.

The apostolic Oblates focused on outreach to remote and/or wilderness areas, which B.C. was at the time of the Gold Rush.

“The Oblates were there, right at the beginning of the colonization of B.C.,” adds Father Bob, who says those early priests were so young that they were described as altar boys.

He can quote the early history of the Oblates in B.C. chapter and verse, but is also fascinated by Canadian military history.

He says that’s related to one of his mother’s brothers, who went overseas with the RCAF during the Second World War and was killed in action.

“My mother had all these letters and pictures but had no time to organize them. But I thought, ‘If we don’t value his contributions, who’s going to?’ He sacrificed his life for this country, so I felt I owed him that and so I took every photo and every scrap of paper and put them in order.”

After he began living here, Father Bob became intrigued by the history of local veterans, particularly the “Boys of Lillooet” whose names are inscribed on the cenotaph on the lawn outside the District Office.

“I said to myself, ‘Who are you? Who are you?’”

He then spent years researching their lives and eventually produced two volumes (World War One and World War Two) of priceless biographical material - old black and white and sepia photos, precious personal letters written from the front lines, military records and his own conversations with their siblings and other family members - that preserves the memory of the “Boys of Lillooet” for posterity.

“Those fellows grew up here, lived within a five or 10-mile radius of downtown Lillooet and they never came back,” he says softly. “I thought they should be remembered and we should be proud of them.”

Father Bob believes “history is made up of local people. It’s more than what Prince Charles has done. It’s people who are walking down the street. There’s history there, too.”

He continues, “And it’s a good story if you go back and find out what happened. I remember hearing an interview with Mark Forsythe on the CBC and he was coming to Lytton for a public forum on the Gold Rush. It was also about the opening up of the Lillooet area and it was an eye-opener, too. I believe in history and I like to know history. I think the history of Lillooet makes you appreciate the place where you live. And for visitors, so much of B.C.’s history took place within a half mile of here.”

He says, “Sometimes I’ll go down to Seton Lake and just sit there and I’ll ask people who are visiting for the day if they know where they are and what happened here. It makes it more interesting for them if they know some of the local history.”

Father Bob acknowledges he’s “dealing with the reality of being a senior” and some health challenges involving his eyesight, but hopes to continue living here.

“Why would I want to leave Lillooet?” he asks. “The environment here is so beautiful. Every quarter mile, every half a mile is a new scene. And for a senior citizen like myself, you can walk downtown. You’re not walking uphill or downhill. The bank’s only a half mile away, the post office is just past that, the bakery’s on the way, the hospital is wonderful. And I like the doctors in town and the medical clinic.”

And then he adds – and I’d swear there was a twinkle in his eye – “All we need is a little grocery store at this end of town.”

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