At age 93, iconic Sacramento priest Monsignor Edward Kavanagh had only one desire left: to leave the corporeal world on St. Patrick’s Day and spend it instead with his favorite saint above.
On Saturday morning, he got his final wish, passing away at Mercy McMahon Terrace assisted living in East Sacramento, after failing to recover from the flu, according to friends.
An Irishman with a stubborn streak as wide as the River Nore in County Kilkenny, where he was born in 1925, Kavanagh held a special place in his heart for St. Patrick, patron saint of Ireland and namesake of the school at St. Rose’s Parish on Franklin Boulevard, where he served for nearly 60 years.
Though the church can’t confirm it, it’s likely the longest tenure, or close to it, of any priest in the United States serving at a single parish.
“Monsignor Ed Kavanagh was an indomitable priestly figure, a force of nature,” said Bishop Jaime Soto of the Diocese of Sacramento. “He cared deeply for the community, working tirelessly on behalf of the poor and children ... ‘Did you need a job? A place to live? Maybe an old car to get to that job? A few dollars for gas?’ Monsignor Kavanagh would always find a way.”
Like Bishop Soto and many other parishioners, catechism teacher Mary Alcala also remembers “Father Eddy” as dedicated to his calling, but humble enough to want to stay at St. Rose's.
“He wasn't just a priest. He literally walked the walk,” she said. “There wasn’t a person Monsignor would turn away.”
Alcala said he was a man who “could take a joke and he could give a joke,” but also one who “stuck to the faith as it was handed down to us.”
He was especially passionate when it came to his opposition of abortion. He was a local leader in the pro-life movement and in 2003 made headlines after kicking then-Gov. Gray Davis off St. Rose’s steps for refusing to renounce his pro-choice stance.
Davis was planning a press event at the church to give Christmas gifts to the children living at St. Patrick’s Orphanage, on the parish grounds. Alcala remembers Kavanagh confronting Davis near the church office.
”He said, ‘Get out of here,’ because of (Gray’s) stance on abortion,” she said. ”He was not timid. ... He stuck to his values.”
St. Rose was a small parish in 1948 when Kavanagh began as an assistant, but he quickly began to recruit new members to his flock when he was appointed pastor of the parish in 1962 after the death of the Rev. Carroll Lawsen, Sacramento’s first Native American priest.
Rosie Gaytan, who joined the parish in 1980, said he especially wanted more Latino parishioners.
“He told me, ‘Rosie, we want your people,’” said Gaytan, who is Mexican. “He opened his heart to our community. ... when people didn’t really want us around, he brought us in.”
Although St. Rose was never the fanciest parish in town, Kavanagh grew it into a dynamic one with a thriving school, foster home and thrift shop, among other facilities. He oversaw a budget of more than $5 million annually, but always remained hands-on. For years, he would cruise neighborhood parks on weekends in the parish bus, picking up children for catechism, Alcala said.
"He’d tell them, ‘Get in the van. You don’t have to play that today, you can play that tomorrow,’ and he’d load up the bus,” she said.
Kavanagh had been at Mercy McMahon since 2014, according to Gaytan. He had been in hospice a few times recently, but always bounced back “witty as ever,” she said.
In the past year as he became bedridden, longtime parishioners began spontaneously showing up in his room on Sunday mornings for Mass. At times, the crowd grew to more than two dozen people, spilling out into the hallway.
“He wanted his Masses,” Gaytan said. “He wanted those, he wanted the people. He didn’t want to die alone.”
Though Kavanagh “loved every minute of his time in America,” he almost didn’t leave Ireland.
Kavanagh was a fierce sportsman and played fullback for the Kilkenny Cats hurling team — Ireland's national sport. A mix of hockey, lacrosse and baseball, it’s often described as the “fastest field sport in the world” and is as deep in the Irish psyche as whiskey and fiddles.
In 1947, Kavanagh and the Cats won the All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship — the equivalent of the Super Bowl.
“We hadn’t won it for 10 years and we didn’t win it for another 10," said his nephew, J.J. Kavanagh, who still lives in Ireland.
The elder Kavanagh was a hometown hero, but the church “frowned upon” priests playing sports, J.J. Kavanagh said.
His uncle didn't care.
“He just did it, typical him,” said J.J. Kavanagh.
After Kavanagh was ordained in 1948, he was ordered to leave for his new post in America that fall. Risking the anger of the church again, he refused to leave his local hurling team until after the county finals.
“He stayed back to play with them,” J.J. Kavanagh said. The church “was going to send him home for being late.”
But they didn’t.
Kavanagh got himself to New York and took a cross-country train to Sacramento. From Denver on, he sat with another fellow who shared a similar last name — Bart Cavanaugh, the then-city manager of Sacramento. By the time the men arrived in California, Kavanagh had established the first friendship of hundreds that would bind him to the city for the rest of his life.
But he remained close to his native country and his family there. Every week, J.J. Kavanagh mailed him an Irish magazine and the local newspaper.
“He lived to receive those,” he said.
J.J. Kavanagh said his uncle “never missed a family function” and visited Ireland every summer until he couldn’t travel anymore. In 1994, when the younger Kavanagh decided to get married quickly because his then-fiancee’s mother was ill, Kavanagh “came to marry me at a week’s notice,” he said.
A few months later when the couple went on a Mexican honeymoon, the elder Kavanagh tagged along to Mexico City for five days. Though many of his parishioners were Latino, the priest told his nephew he'd never been south of the border and wanted to see it for himself.
“Very few people can say the person who married them went on their honeymoon as well,” he said.
Kavanagh said his uncle never doubted his service to his church or his flock.
“My one job, he said, is to serve the people,” J.J. Kavanagh said. “He never had an answering machine. The phone was always answered, at 1 o’clock in the day or 1 o’clock in the morning. I think his greatest legacy was that. He was always there for the people.”
Bishop Soto said funeral arrangements for Kavanagh are pending.