Dakota Catholic Action

March 17, 1974

North Dakota's First Native Ordained Priest

After 58 years in the active ministry, Rt. Rev. Msgr. John Halloran has retired to St. Vincent's Home at Bismarck. The well-known North Dakota priest returns to the community in which he was born 90 years ago, June 1, 1883. Said to be the first native-born ordained Catholic priest in North Dakota, Msgr. Halloran had the distinction of shaking hands with Sioux Indian Chief, Sitting Bull. Although only six months old at the time, Msgr. Halloran enjoys relating how his father presented him to the chief for the brief hand-shaking ceremony on the occasion of Sitting Bull's visit to Bismarck for a civic celebration. Msgr. Halloran talks about his priesthood and days of service among the people in a special Dakota Catholic Action interview to be found on page 4 in this issue. Friends and former parishioners of Msgr. Halloran may wish to visit or write to him. His new address is: St. Vincent's Home, 1021 North 26th Street, Bismarck, North Dakota 58501.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The following interview was conducted with Rt. Rev. Msgr. John Halloran prior to his planned departure from Williston. Msgr. Halloran is the first native-born ordained Catholic priest in North Dakota. His boyhood background is most unusual because it was contemporary with North Dakota's early history and some of its famous pioneer personalities. Michael J. Halloran, the Monsignor's father, came to Bismarck in 1873, just 100 years ago, when the state's capital city was just a struggling community at the end of the railroad line.

He took his six-month-old son John one day to shake hands with the famous Sioux Indian chief, Sitting Bull, who was in Bismarck for a particular occasion.

To sit and visit with Msgr. Halloran is always a pleasant experience and one comes away with many anecdotes of history that are more interesting than any book could make them.

Q. Monsignor Halloran, give us a brief background and history of your life.

A. Well, I was born in Bismarck, Dakota Territory on June 2, 1883. My birthplace was in a little house on the corner of First and Broadway. There were eight children in the family. Two of them died during the serious diphtheria epidemic. Left, besides myself, were my brothers Francis, John, James, Paul, and Terrence. My father's name was Michael J. Halloran and my mother's name was Mary Agnes Kelly. I attended parochial school in Bismarck at the Lambert Hotel. They used to use the big dining room for all eight grades. That was in 1889, and so I spent two years there and then when they re-opened the academy near Immaculate Conception Church, in the west end of town, that was in 1890, I eventually entered the third grade there. I recall that Sister Magdalen, O.S.B., was the Mother Superior at that time and actually went on to be Mother Superior for sixty years. She was quite prominent in developing my vocation together with Father Clemens of Mandan. So, I attended school there until they practically had to burn the place down to get me out (chuckle). Actually, I left that school with a ninth grade certificate even though there were only eight grades (chuckle) don't ask me how that happened, it just did (chuckle).

Q. What about your vocation to the priesthood -- was it beginning to form at that time in your life?

A. Well, no not really. I hadn't decided on my vocation yet so I just decided to "drop out" of school and took on some jobs. I worked in a stationery store, a bottling works, and a drug store, almost became a druggist. One day an opening came for a letter carrier and I took that job and became the first carrier number one for Bismarck. I carried mail for five and a half years. It was during this time that I started back to school. I went to night classes and took a correspondence course. It was after my father died that I decided to study for the priesthood. Didn't have much money but enrolled at St. Thomas College, St. Paul, Minn., and paid for my continued studies by carrying papers in the city for the first year.

Q. How long were you at St. Thomas College?

A. I spent four years there. Took six years of school in just four years. I graduated from St. Thomas in 1911 and then went to the St. Paul Seminary and was finally ordained a priest on June 11, 1916 by Bishop Vincent De Paul Wehrle.

Q. Do you recall your first assignment in the Diocese of Bismarck?

A. Oh yes, two weeks after my ordination I was made pastor of Hettinger, N. D. I had four parishes in North Dakota and two in South Dakota. Later, I built St. Peter's Church with the help of the local people. St. Peter's was located about six miles north of Haynes. The pastor's residence was located at Hettinger.

Q. How long were you at that first assignment?

A. Well, after a year and a half Bishop Wehrle was asked to send a priest into the United States Army Chaplain service. Bishop Wehrle, when he had to make important selections or decisions, would usually pray over the matter for a period of time. He prayed over this request and then picked me. Of course, he didn't know that I had been in the National Guard Company "A", Bismarck, at one time as a sergeant and, also, I had some experience at St. Thomas Military Academy as a Captain for four years. So when he found this out he wanted to know why I hadn't told him that before. Anyway, I went into the United States Army as a Chaplain with the rank of 1st Lieutenant and served in New Mexico and France and was discharged after eighteen months of service on May 26, 1919.

Q. Did you go back to Hettinger when you returned to the Diocese?

A. No, (chuckle) it took me about a month to get back to the diocese after I was discharged. The reason for this was that I visited with some friends out east and darn near got lost in those big cities so it took me a while to get back here to North Dakota. When I finally did get back Bishop Wehrle was a bit upset with me because I took so long and he said, "I'm going to have to punish you."

Q. What did he do?

A. He sent me to Powers Lake, N. D. in July 1919 and I remained in this part of the diocese ever since. Pretty good punishment I guess because I've enjoyed my assignments in this part of the country and the people have all been wonderful to me.

Q. With all of the changes since Vatican II have you found it difficult to make the adjustments?

A. I've been asked that question several times and I always reply that I have depended on the Holy Spirit to guide me and the Holy Spirit has done a good job. I have had no problems whatsoever. Oh, there are some that are always bellyaching about the changes but it has never bothered me nor caused any difficulties. Changing from the Latin to the English was no problem either. My eye sight is poor, as you know, and I have memorized the entire Mass in English. It still remains my greatest joy to be able to say Mass. No, the changes haven't caused me difficulties. The Holy Spirit works with you in these matters if you let Him.

Q. What parishes have you served in your fifty-eight years of active work?

A. Well, Hettinger for a year and a half, then the army as a chaplain for 18 months, then Powers Lake, Wildrose, McGregor, Lostwood, Stanley, Blaisdell, White Earth, Tioga, Ray, Epping and then to St. Joseph's at Williston in 1943. I was pastor of St. Joseph's for almost 20 years and then in 1955 I left the parish on account of my age. At that time I was elevated to the rank of Monsignor and went back to Parshall for three years. At the end of that time I returned to Williston and Mercy Hospital as chaplain and have remained here for almost 18 years.

Q. What do you recall as the .highlight of your priesthood?

A. I think it was when I was appointed pastor of St. Joseph's at Williston in 1943. I was very happy about this appointment because it brought me back to a great friend and benefactor, Father Edward Patrick O'Neil. Father O'Neil had been the former pastor and his sister, Mary, remained in Williston. They were wonderful people. Father O'Neil died in 1947. And then, of course, the Sisters of Mercy have been very good to me all of these years. Yes, this has to be the highlight of my priesthood being here in Williston with so many good people surrounding me.

Q. Do you think the young men coming out of the seminary today are being prepared properly to assume the responsibilities of the ministry?

A. I think that those who come out nowadays have quite a struggle but, at the same time, I think that they are better trained in a more practical way than we were when we were ordained. But, of course, it remains a great mystery. I gave a talk one time in the form of a mission when I first came to the parish about a vocation. I named the talk "An Anatomy of a Vocation" and I told of some experiences in my own life. A vocation usually starts with the grandparents. In fact, you can usually trace most priests back to pious grandparents or to a community of Irish or Germans or to a nationality where the old pastor of those faithful would single out a young person for a vocation.

Q. What about yourself, Monsignor, who were the persons that influenced you?

A. I owe a great deal to the Benedictine Sisters and to Bishop Wehrle. It took me seven years after being a "drop out" to finally decide that I wanted to study to be a priest. But, again I say, it really all started way back there with the grandparents. Sure, during my time in school there were the temptations. I would see classmates leaving the seminary and going into the service as a career but I really wanted to choose the prairie and the work of the church. For me it has been a happy life, a fruitful life, a wonderful priesthood.

Q. You have served under four bishops during your fifty-eight years of priestly work. How would you describe them?

A. Well, Bishop Wehrle had a lot of missionary experience before he became bishop. He also had a great deal to do with holding the priests together. He forgave faults, overlooked their weaknesses and was a real strength to his priests. I think that he was an outstanding priest himself. We were very fortunate in getting Bishop Vincent J. Ryan as Bishop Wehrle's successor. I knew him in the seminary. He was always a cocky little fellow in the seminary but it turned out that he was a marvelous priest and bishop. And, I might add, a wonderful builder of Christianity. He built the Cathedral, many churches and schools and was responsible for getting the diocese on its financial feet and supporting itself. Actually, those who succeeded Bishop Wehrle had many of his traits. For example, Bishop Ryan had the experience of the work he did in the Fargo Diocese, Bishop Lambert Hoch came to the Diocese of Bismarck with much experience gained from the Sioux Falls Diocese, including the missionary experience of the Dakota country, and then, of course, our present good Bishop Hilary Hacker played a very important and prominent part in the administration of the Archdiocese of St. Paul. So, you see, these bishops have brought with them good training and good ideas. They've all been wonderful men and spiritual leaders for the faithful. I'll tell you this, I think that the Diocese of Bismarck can hold its own with any other diocese in this country. We haven't had any great exodus of priests during these trying times, in this area, compared to what has been happening and what you hear about happening in those larger cities in the extreme east and western part of the United States. The story of the success of the Diocese of Bismarck is the story of the Holy Spirit working through the good bishops that we have had.

Q. Monsignor, what is your opinion concerning women's liberation?

A. (Chuckle). One time in school in our English Class a Father O'Brian had us write a composition on the "woman's vote." I wrote that the only thing that's going to change when women are allowed to vote would be that voting booths would have lace curtains on them (chuckle). You know, at that time many predicted that the country would end up being run by a bunch of fanatic women if they were allowed to vote. It never happened that way. Women's liberation is no problem either, just so long as mothers continue to be good mothers.

Q. Now that you are retiring is there anything special that you would like to do?

A. Well, first of all let me state that I would have liked to continue on as chaplain here at Mercy Hospital. I've been the chaplain for almost eighteen years. But you see, they had to go and build a new hospital and in order to comply with all of the government regulations that are required in borrowing money and so forth, they could not emphasize the office of chaplain. So, we talked it over with the bishop and it was decided that the best thing I could do, having reached the age of 91, was to retire to St. Vincent's Home at Bismarck and let the Lord take care of all the rest. I've got nothing special that I want to do. I have been happy here at Mercy Hospital, very happy and the sisters and people have been good to me. I'm both thankful and grateful.