Community heroes: Retired Army colonel, now a Roman Catholic priest, pastors the congregation of Scared Heart

Nov. 10—Few are those people whose examples of service to God and country are more fully integrated than that of Father Patrick Egan.

Today, Egan is the pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church in Cullman — a position he's held since 2009 — and although he felt the tug toward priesthood as a young man, his first calling came early and hard.

"I wanted to be a soldier when I was 3 years old," Egan said during an October interview at Sacred Heart. "I always wanted to be a soldier. I remember that I was about 5 when we stopped after Mass. I don't remember when that was, but it couldn't have been a Sunday because my dad stopped and he went and he bought me a helmet at an old Army surplus store — you don't see those anymore — and man, that helmet was gold. and he bought me an ammo belt from World War II."

Having such a supportive and tolerant family, Egan said, was key in the life choices he would make.

"I also had toy soldiers — I had a pretty elaborate set. My parents, God bless them. ... I'd set up battlefields and my room wasn't big enough, so I did it in the dining room and part of the living room, and they let me keep it up and didn't interfere with things. ... I had a rather robust arsenal."

What Egan also had was an increasingly robust drive to enter the military, a drive that would manifest itself more fully in college.

"I jokingly said that I went to ROTC, but I had to go to college to do it," Egan said. "I graduated from UNA, Florence State in those days, at 7 p.m. on June 4, 1971, and at 1500 hours on 5 June, I reported into Fort Benning."

"I wasn't in too much of a hurry, was I," he said.

Although much of the Army, and military itself, is famous for its "hurry up and wait," the career of the young infantry officer seemed to be on a fast track. Showing a strong aptitude toward leadership, Egan would serve in increasingly important positions, including as executive officer, commanding a training company, operations officer, commanding general staff, XO or executive officer of a tank battalion, commanding an infantry battalion, garrison commander and in his final assignment, as assistant chief of staff for installation management — the "operations boss back at the Pentagon, again."

"So, I wrapped up 30 years," Egan said, traveling during those three decades from that first assignment in Georgia to the Pentagon and much of the world, including West Point and, later, Saudi Arabia for Operation Desert Storm during the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War.

Retiring as a colonel and still a young man, Egan then would try serving the needs of the military in the civilian world.

"I went to work (for a former military colleague) for a couple of months," Egan said. "I'm glad I didn't stay because that was not me."

It was at this point that the retired officer — and future priest — said he began to hear God's call more urgently, and to recall that earlier push toward holy orders — and home.

"I got down to St. Bernard in September of 2001, and I've been there since," he said.

"If I really think about it, I was raised by the Benedictine nuns in Florence," Egan said. "I loved being an altar server, and they used to have summer camps down there. ... We'd live the life of a monk and I really liked it. But at that time, I wanted to be a soldier — that's all I ever thought about.

"But it's funny, because (St. Bernard Abbey) Abbot Hilary (Dreaper) was friends with my parents and, at that time, he said, 'I thought we had him.'"

Although St. Bernard wouldn't claim Egan then, the abbot was prescient and the order patient. Thirty years later, the soldier "would switch uniforms, though you still get three hots and a cot," after he found himself more and more in prayer, and increasingly before "adoration every day for 30 minutes, an hour, an hour and a half."

The time had come. With his prayer group for support, Egan said, "I'm going to check this out. And, it was just a wonderful visit right after Christmas. ... I came back in March and ... I thought, man, I've got to give this a shot. So, I had already applied in March and I got accepted."

For Egan, the new career and journey was just beginning. Entering the monastery at 51 made for an unlikely path to priesthood, but, like his focus on the military, he was determined.

"I don't know what I would have done if they had said, no, you're not going to be a priest," he said.

But the answer was "yes," and Egan went to St. Vincent Seminary in 2003 to not only study, but catch up on his education.

"I had to cram 26 hours of philosophy into one year," he said. "Wow."

In navigating graduate school in his 50s, Egan would draw upon his military training and, importantly, lessons he had learned as a child.

"I tell people, one of the greatest gifts my parents gave me is discipline, self-discipline, not being like every one else," he said. "I hated doing homework. I was a procrastinator, but I already had the germ of discipline. I never did drugs. I hated beer. The one time I did get drunk was at my senior high school graduation party — never did that again."

Egan would be ordained in June 2008, at 58, counting not only on military discipline but prayers to sustain him. He had come full circle, something he knew for sure when he returned to North Alabama, taking over the pastorship and leadership of Sacred Heart in June 2009.

"When I got back, as I was getting out of the car, this voice in my head, clear as a bell, said, 'This is where you belong,'" Egan said. "So, I just took that as the Lord speaking to me — and here I am."