|Father David Gaffny has retired as pastor of Immaculate Conception Church in Clarksville. He will continue to serve as administrator of St. Francis of Assisi Church in Dover. Father Gaffney began his priesthood as a missionary in Chile. During a previous tenure as pastor of St. Francis of Assisi, Father Gaffny led the parish through the construction of its current church. Photo by Andy Telli
Father David Gaffny’s trajectory in life was set with an encounter with a missionary priest when he was 8 years old.
He and his mother walked to their parish church in Winthrop, Massachusetts, pick up a crucifix for him. A Passionist priest was there preaching a mission and he mentioned that he was soon heading to China where there were many people who had never heard the name of Jesus.
“That struck me, that struck me very deeply,” Father Gaffny said. “I couldn’t imagine anyone who hadn’t heard the name of Jesus. That’s what I wanted to do, to bring the name of Jesus to people.”
Throughout his life, first as a Maryknoll priest working as a missionary in Chile, and later as a priest of the Diocese of Nashville, Father Gaffny has answered God’s call to serve others.
The priesthood, he said, “is a grace given freely by God, not deserved. God chooses each one of us for specific purposes, all to do with service to others. When he gives us a gift … it comes with a responsibility. So we have to use it.”
Now 85 years old, Father Gaffny retired this summer as pastor of Immaculate Conception Church in Clarksville. Though he has retired as a pastor, he is still serving, spreading the name and word of Jesus. Father Gaffny has been named the administrator of St. Francis of Assisi Church in Dover and is helping with the Hispanic ministry at St. Christopher Church in Dickson.
Once Father Gaffny decided as a boy to become a missionary, his determination never wavered. He considered several missionary orders and settled on the Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America, better known as the Maryknolls. “The whole focus of the Society is foreign missions,” he said. “Maryknoll is an American society. That was attractive to me. So that’s where I went.”
When he was ordained in 1957, China was closed to missionaries. So instead, Father Gaffny went to Chile, where he spent the next 12 years.
When he arrived in Chile, most people attended school only through the sixth grade. Much of his work as a missionary revolved around helping to provide more opportunities for people to receive an education, he said, “and helping the people understand something about the faith.”
In the late 1960s, Father Gaffny was serving as the pastor of a parish in Cholchol, Chile, and he met two children, Maria, 7, and her brother Miguel. “Because I liked the kids so much, I wanted to get to know their mother.” That friendship with their mother Leonor developed into love.
Father Gaffny returned to the United States to contemplate what he should do. “I’m Catholic and I always wanted to be faithful to the Church.”
Eventually he received a papal dispensation from his vow of celibacy and gave up his public ministry as a priest. He returned to Chile, married Leonor and brought the family to the United States. For the next 30 years, he worked for several social service and government agencies, ending his career working for the U.S. Department of Education in Cleveland, Ohio.
Along the way, he and his wife were heavily involved in the parishes where they belonged, serving as catechists and leading marriage preparation retreats in Spanish.
After retiring in 2000, he and his wife moved to Nashville to be close to their oldest daughter, Father Gaffny said. As he had elsewhere, Father Gaffny got involved at his parish, this time St. Joseph in Madison where he taught adult formation classes.
His wife, whose health was never good, Father Gaffny said, died in 2001. Now a father and grandfather, he considered his future for several months and decided to return to the priesthood.
“I thought to myself in a way I would feel comfortable there, but also that’s where I could do the most good,” Father Gaffny said.
His faculties as a priest were formally restored at the Holy Thursday Mass in 2005 at St. Joseph. “I went from the back pew to the altar.”
Father Gaffny was assigned to help with the Hispanic ministry at Immaculate Conception in Clarksville while also serving as pastor of St. Francis. Soon after arriving, he and the parish went to work to build a new church.
“People went from ‘I think this’ and ‘I think this’ and ‘I think this’ to ‘We think this,’” Father Gaffny said. “That was beautiful.”
The new church in Dover was dedicated in April 2009, and shortly after Father Gaffny was appointed pastor of Immaculate Conception. “It was a lot of fun,” he said of his time in Clarksville. “I enjoyed very much the wonderful people.”
Ever the missionary, Father Gaffny believes the Church needs to do more outreach to Catholics and non-Catholics alike. “We teach and do outreach above everything else by good example,” he said. As Catholics, we must look for opportunities to help others, Father Gaffny said. “That’s why we’re here, and it’s a lot of fun.”