Building the kingdom: Former chaplain, missionary celebrates 50 years as priest

Father Daniel McCaffrey spent about eight of his 50 years as a Catholic priest in South Carolina, but the impact of his work here is still remembered.

Military personnel, retirees and civilians worship weekly in a Catholic chapel at Fort Jackson that he helped establish during a stint there as a U.S. Army chaplain.  

In the early ‘80s, he offered classes in catechism and other aspects of the Catholic faith to Anglicans who wanted to convert to Catholicism at what is now Good Shepherd Church in Columbia.

It was in South Carolina that Father McCaffrey also developed what has become a full-time commitment to promoting natural family planning.

More than 100 people celebrated the 50th anniversary of his ordination on June 7 at St. Joseph Church in Columbia. He concelebrated a special Mass with Fathers Matthew Habiger and Richard Hogan, two priests who currently work with him at Natural Family Planning Outreach in Oklahoma City. A reception in the parish hall followed the Mass.

“My years in the Diocese of Charleston were wonderful,” Father McCaffrey said in an interview with The Miscellany. “I saw such potential in the diocese down there, and the people were just outstanding. I had some of the happiest years of my life down there.”

A native of Manhattan, Father McCaffrey was ordained in Washington, D.C., in 1958, and in 1959 began eight years as a missionary in Pakistan.

After returning from Pakistan, Father McCaffrey went to Rome for doctoral studies in theology. Then in 1968 he signed up for the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps, where he would serve for the next 20 years.

“I was going to go back and teach in the seminary, but with the Vietnam War going on, I felt an obligation to go in the Army because Catholic chaplains were so badly needed,” he said.

As a chaplain, Father McCaffrey did a tour of duty in Vietnam, as well as service in Korea, Germany, Honduras and many bases around the United States.
He arrived at Fort Jackson in 1980 for the first of his two stints, but soon grew frustrated because the fort’s Catholics were “bounced around like a football” from building to building.

He decided on his own to appeal to Sen. Strom Thurmond for a new post chapel, and met with Thurmond while he was in Columbia in July 1981 for a wedding.

“Thurmond told me to write him a letter detailing what we needed, and to mark it ‘Very personal’ so he would get it,” Father McCaffrey recalled. “Two weeks later someone was at Fort Jackson to see what was needed.”

Five years later, Father McCaffrey returned to Fort Jackson for another stint as chaplain, and had the honor of celebrating the first Mass in St. Michael’s Chapel on Easter Sunday. He said many committed people from the fort were instrumental in building the chapel, but he’s proud of the part he played.

Columbia resident Gloria Agostini worked as Father McCaffrey’s secretary during his years at Fort Jackson.

“He was a really easy-going guy, and when he was interested in doing something, he went after it without stepping on anyone’s toes,” Agostini recalled. “He was a wonderful priest, an all-around nice guy who had an open ear for anybody. He would come in after hours if that was the only time people could come to see him for marriage counseling, pre-cana and other things.”

Agostini said Father McCaffrey offered a “consistently strong message” when he preached.

“He was always just preaching the word of God, and would say ‘Follow the word and you’ll be okay,’ ” she said. “He said to always be there for your fellow parishioners and for your neighbor.”

Father McCaffrey left the Army for a few years in the early ‘80s, and worked in the Diocese of Charleston under Bishop Ernest L. Unterkoefler.

He taught religion at Cardinal Newman School, promoted evangelization, and started a diocesan natural planning organization that held classes and seminars around the state for several years.

“I realized that people were contracepting and living in a state of mortal sin, and nobody knew what to do about the problem,” he said. “This new method of natural family planning had just come along and I wanted to get information about it out so people could live the Christian life.”

Father McCaffrey said Bishop Unterkoefler also asked him to serve as liaison for a group of Episcopalians at Good Shepherd Church who, along with their priest, wanted to convert to Catholicism.

Good Shepherd Church in Columbia was officially established as a Catholic church in 1984, and Father McCaffrey was present at the ordination of Father William Ladkau, a former Episcopalian priest, to the Catholic priesthood. Father Ladkau is still pastor at Good Shepherd.

Father McCaffrey served at Fort Jackson until the late ‘80s, when he left for Germany and then finally retired from the U.S. Army at Fort Carson in Colorado.

He is currently a priest in the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, and works full time offering seminars and missions about natural family planning around the country. Throughout his ministry, he has worked in the Apostolate of Marriage Enrichment for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
One of the main organizers for the anniversary celebration was Anne Nerbun, a parishioner at St. Joseph and program director for Family Honor, Inc. in Columbia. She first met Father McCaffrey when he worked for the diocese in the ‘80s, and recalled his impact as a friend and spiritual advisor to her family.

“He’s been extremely close to our family, has served as a spiritual director and mentor to our children, and married two of our daughters,” Nerbun said. The Nerbuns have seven children.

Nerbun said Father McCaffrey’s effectiveness comes from an ability to combine his sense of humor and love of life with an unshakable commitment to the Catholic Church and its teachings.

“He’s a very joyful priest, very funny and lots of fun to be around, but he’s serious as a heart attack when it comes to the church,” Nerbun said. “He’s not one to mince words about the truth. He’s an evangelizer and expects you to get on board with him. It was good to see so many people at the celebration who remembered him and had stories about how he changed their lives forever. Father McCaffrey was a significant part of this diocese.”

To learn more
about Father McCaffrey’s work and
Natural Family Planning Outreach,