Msgr. David Gallivan's life as a priest plays like a sequel to "Forrest Gump." In the past 50 years, the longtime director of the Hispanic Apostolate has had some unique, if not historical, experiences. From working with the poor in Buffalo to walking among cardinals in Washington, he has traveled through war zones, patched roofs and read secret files. Then there was the time he had to act as translator for a Cuban dictator.
Msgr. Gallivan grew up in Buffalo as part of a large Irish Catholic family that regularly attended Immaculate Heart of Mary and St. James parishes, where they developed close friendships with a number of priests. He admired his uncle Msgr. David Herlihy, a priest known for his commitment to the community.
"He was always very close to the family and very good to his nieces and nephews," Msgr. Gallivan recalled. "We didn't have many resources when we were growing up. I'm one of eight kids. He took care of us a lot, providing Catholic education to us."
He went on to attend the Diocesan Preparatory Seminary for high school. After graduation, Msgr. Gallivan went on to St. John Vianney Seminary in East Aurora, now Christ the King, where he received his bachelor's degree and took theology courses. It was at the prep sem that Msgr. Gallivan's future began to take shape. Not only was he preparing for the priesthood, he was learning Spanish.
"The two years of college work in the minor seminary, Spanish was an option. I did quite well with it," he said. "In the major seminary we had several Latin American students. I got rather proficient, not only linguistically, but I enjoyed the culture so much. So, when there were days off or free time, I often brought some of the Latin American guys over to the house for a meal or a few hours with the family, because they couldn't hop a bus and go home like we could."
At the time of his ordination, Cardinal Juan Landazri, the archbishop of Lima, Peru, visited the Buffalo Diocese, which was just beginning to set up missions in Latin American. The cardinal was looking for volunteers and, due to his friendships with his fellow students, Father Gallivan developed an interest in going. At age 25, just after his ordination, he began an eight-year ministry in Peru.
"To me, it was the biggest blessing of my priesthood," he reflected. "It's often said that the first assignment of a man who is ordained makes the deepest impression on him for every other assignment that follows. I don't know if that is true, but in my case it certainly was. I remained close to them even though I was only with them the first eight years of my ministry."
Just this past February, he went back to visit his old youth group, who are now in their mid-60s.
He recalls it as an exciting time. He witnessed the birth of Liberation Theology, basic Christian communities and Church movements on behalf of the poor.
"That was a wonderful thing for me to learn at the beginning of my priesthood," he said. "It was an approach of doing theology and pastoral ministry among the poor. That is applicable anywhere there are poor. For me, it was a way to put the Gospel at the service of those who are most disadvantaged."
After eight years, with the parish now in the hands of local priests, Bishop James McNulty called him back to Buffalo. After coming back, he went to Holy Cross Parish as associate pastor in 1975, where he spent five years ministering the Hispanic population that attended the West Side church. He then went to St. Brigid's, now part of SS. Columba-Brigid Parish. At the same time, Msgr. Gallivan was named director of the Spanish Apostolate, later known as the Hispanic Apostolate, now part of the Office of Cultural Diversity.
In 1984, through some relationships he made in Latin America, Msgr. Gallivan was asked to join the Latin American Office of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, then known as the United States Catholic Conference. In this role he accompanied bishops on fact-finding tours through almost every country in Latin America and administered the annual Latin America collection.
During this time El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala were embroiled in a series of civil wars and political unrest. Msgr. Gallivan traveled through war zones with Cardinal John O'Conner of New York City and Cardinal Joseph Bernadin of Chicago, advising them and offering solutions to certain problems.
"I remember one episode in El Salvador. There was a sort of experimental community carved out an area in El Salvador where they had declared a truce, so the two warring sides, the rebels and the army, were experimenting to see if they could gradually extend the circle of peace. They agreed to do this experiment in an area known as Tenancingo," he recalled. "The local governor of that province heard there was a priest in town who was going to go out with one of the officials of the diocese in Tenancingo where we were supporting with generous donations. As I walked around with these people I could hear machine gun fire and explosions in the background. It was far enough away that it wouldn't be immediately harmful to us, but that wasn't very comforting."
He also met women and children living in in a refugee camp and heard their stories of loss.
"I spent the morning in one of those camps. I kind of got separated from the committee of bishops, and I couldn't get out. I was talking with kids and mothers. They would tell me heart-wrenching stories about sufferings and seeing babies killed and husbands lost. They would tell it with such fluidity, not a lot of tears, just like we'd talk about something that happened to us at work this morning. It was almost like the emotions were deadened by so much suffering. That really stayed with me."
Another incident that stayed with him was the time in Cuba when he translated for Fidel Castro for eight hours.
"I was a basket case for a month afterwards. It was exhausting. He goes so fast. He doesn't stop," Msgr. Gallivan said.
Back in El Salvador, he met with Hispanic Apostolate directors. Among them were Archbishop Arturo Rivera, the successor of the martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero. They spent a few days together about a year after Romero was fatally shot while celebrating Mass. Msgr. Gallivan later slept in a room at the local seminary that he believes belonged to Romero. While in the room, he found files on assassination attempts and violations of human rights that the archbishop was working on at the time of his death, neatly stacked on a desk. "I didn't sleep too well that night," Msgr. Gallivan said.
In 1989, he returned to the Diocese of Buffalo expecting to serve in the Spanish Apostolate, but Bishop Edward Head had other thoughts. He sent Msgr. Gallivan to the middle-class parish of SS. Peter & Paul in Williamsville.
"I said, 'Bishop, I have never worked with white people before,'" he recalled. "I found people very interested in my story, but at the same time ... I think the closeness you experience in some of these assignments that I have had - inner city and Latin America - I think there is something people may see in you that they don't see in others, nothing better, but a different kind of ministry, different gifts. The immediacy of ministry was so much of my growing up in my Latin America years. I think I brought that to the people of SS. Peter & Paul."
In 1999, he returned to Holy Cross as pastor.
Msgr. Gallivan retired in 2014 at the age of 72, but continues to help out at Holy Cross and Holy Angels when he can. He also celebrates Mass a couple times a month at St. Anthony Parish in Lackawanna.
To celebrate his 50th anniversary, a Mass will be held Sept. 11 at Holy Cross, at 3:30 p.m. A reception will follow at Holy Cross's cafeteria at Niagara and Maryland streets. Former parishioners of any of Msgr. Gallivan's parishes are welcome to come. Call 716-822-0578 for reservations.