GARDEN CITY — During his 50 years as a priest, Father Edmund McCaffrey served as abbot at Belmont Abbey in North Carolina and founded an organization to support men and women religious.
He has worked tirelessly for the pro-life cause and served with church luminaries such as the late Blessed Teresa of Calcutta and Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen.
Now retired, Father McCaffrey lives in Myrtle Beach and says his role in starting St. Michael Church in Garden City is one of his biggest accomplishments. He will celebrate his 50th jubilee there with a Mass and reception May 13.
“I’m proud of the work I did at St. Michael Church,” he said in a recent interview with The Miscellany. “When I started, it was a little church and we didn’t have any money, but what we built has become one of the largest parishes in South Carolina.”
Shortly after he retired from his position at Belmont Abbey in Charlotte in 1975, Father McCaffrey was asked by the late Bishop Ernest L. Unterkoefler to help start the parish. He celebrated the first Mass at St. Michael in 1976 and was pastor until 1986.
Now the church lists more than 2,700 households and is home to St. Michael School.
Born in Savannah, Ga., Father McCaffrey lived in several different states because of his father’s military service and work as a forester for International Paper. During his teens, the family was transferred to Georgetown, where they attended St. Mary, Our Lady of Ransom Church. But his parents wanted their son to have a Catholic education through high school and there was not one in the area at that time
“They made the sacrifice and sent me to Belmont Abbey in Charlotte,” he said.
The Benedictine monks ran a prep school at the abbey back then, and Father McCaffrey was so impressed by their life that he enrolled at Belmont Abbey College in 1950.
“I fell in love with the place and the place led me to the life,” he said. “I had always thought about a vocation, and I loved Belmont Abbey.”
He professed monastic vows and was ordained to the priesthood in 1959. He later founded the political science department and was its chairman until he was elected abbot ordinary in 1970, a position he held until his retirement in 1975.
After spending 10 years in Garden City, Father McCaffrey was assigned to Divine Redeemer Church in Hanahan and then as pastor at Holy Family Church on Hilton Head Island until his retirement in 2003.
Father McCaffrey is an avid supporter of vocations, and in 1974 he served as co-founder of the Institute on Religious Life in Chicago. He was executive vice president and executive director from 1975-80. The institute’s mission is to promote the growth and renewal of consecrated religious life.
“He’s got a great love for religious life, and a lot of the religious are very grateful to him for his leadership and being a voice for them,” said Michael Wick, executive director of the institute. “He offers support to me in my capacity as director, and as a layman I see him as a really fatherly figure who’s still very much of a spiritual father to many people.”
Wick said Father McCaffrey attended their annual meeting in mid-April, where they honored his jubilee with a special celebration.
Father McCaffrey’s perspective on religious life was especially valuable when the institute was founded, Wick said. This was a time when many men and women religious were evaluating their vocations in light of Vatican II.
“He offered a lot of practical advice so that the religious communities … could renew themselves, and respond to the Second Vatican Council’s message of renewal,” Wick said.
Father McCaffrey is also a co-founder and spiritual director of Eternal Life in Bardstown, Ky., a national organization dedicated to promoting Catholic teaching on life issues.
“He’s been with Eternal Life since the beginning in 1989, and has really helped it to grow and prosper spiritually,” said Martha Spaldings, secretary-treasurer. “He’s incredibly devoted to the pro-life cause, has a great devotion to the Blessed Mother and really encourages people to grow in their love for her. He’s a good, strong voice for the faith.”
Father McCaffrey decided to return to Myrtle Beach in 2003 because he had so many friends there. Now 76, he travels around the country leading retreats and parish missions, and helps at area churches. He has led more than 23 pilgrimages to Fatima, and still tries to go annually.
He said some of his most important work is promoting the sacraments.
“I like to talk about the Eucharist and the importance of confession,” the priest said. “Those are my main apostolic work. I preach about those things all the time.”
Father McCaffrey offers a bit of humor at the retreats he leads by telling people that no matter how many sins they confess or how long it’s been since their last confession they will get the same penance: one Hail Mary.
“That draws them in. I’ll get people who haven’t been in 30, 40 years,” he said.
After 50 years, he is still amazed by the privilege of celebrating the Mass and hearing confessions.
“What a wonderful gift the priesthood is — that we can give them the body and blood of Christ and we can relieve them of the burden of sin,” he said. “After 50 years, if I had to do it over again, I’d do it again and love it.”