News & Opinion » Feature

The Good Father

Meet Father Kieran McCarty, 1925-2008: beloved priest, renowned historian, devoted family man

by

comment
It may have been the first time an Irish harp was played in San Xavier del Bac.

Hymns in Latin, Spanish, English and Tohono O'odham have often wafted through the old adobe sanctuary, among its baroque painted angels and elaborate carved saints. But on the first Saturday of 2009, at the funeral of Father Kieran McCarty, OFM, musician Dave Shaul plucked the strings of a Celtic harp. The 200-year-old church resounded with the lilting melodies of old Ireland.

The jovial McCarty, 83 at his death, would have appreciated the multicultural touch. The Irish-American priest, credited with finding the document by Irishman Hugo O'Conor that established the Tucson presidio, had been the much-loved pastor of the Tohono O'odham church for many years, serving its Indian parishioners through much of the 1960s and ,70s.

He could speak O'odham and Yaqui, and his Spanish was like a native's. He was fluent in the colloquialisms of Northern Sonora, where in the mid-'60s, he'd been a parish priest at Altar, serving the far-flung churches in the chain of Kino missions, from Tubutama to Oquitoa, and Atil to Saric.

Driving his Volkswagen van all over the back roads of the Altar River Valley, Father Kieran married and baptized and buried the Indian and Mexican congregants in these charming churches of the Pimería Alta, the traditional land of the Pimas in Northern Sonora and Southern Arizona.

He also unearthed their colonial histories: McCarty was a scholar as well as a priest, a history detective who rummaged around in obscure archives with consummate skill.

"He lived in old documents a third of his working hours," says anthropologist Bernard "Bunny" Fontana, a close friend.

Henry Dobyns, an independent scholar who studied the same region, remembers: "We didn't spend much time talking. But we'd sit side by side in a dark room looking at microfilm."

The modest McCarty was celebrated among historians for his diligence in locating original documents that brought to life the early history of Tucson and the rest of the Pimería Alta. One book on his beloved Franciscans, for instance, took him to parish archives in Altar and Arispe and Hermosillo and Horcasitas and Ures in Sonora, as well as to the big archives in Mexico City, Seville and Rome. He copied hundreds of documents, bringing them back in microfilm form to Tucson for his own study and for future scholars as well. Drawing on his superb Spanish, he translated many of them, making them more available to others.

"I can't think of a single scholar more generous with sharing his findings," says his old friend John L. Kessell, a historian now retired in Colorado. "He was a wonderfully genuine human being."

Two of his most spectacular finds related directly to crucial moments in Tucson's history.

Father Kieran was on the team that cracked the case of the missing bones of Father Eusebio Kino, the roving Italian Jesuit who founded the chain of 24 missions McCarty loved so much, including Tucson's San Xavier in 1700. (Kino didn't build the present church, but he laid the foundation of an earlier church nearby.)

Kino died in 1711, and his burial place was long a mystery. After intense sleuthing, an international team of archaeologists uncovered his skeleton in Magdalena, Sonora, in 1966.

McCarty was "very instrumental in the ultimate discovery," says his friend Fred McAninch, the retired curator of the Sosa-Carrillo-Fremont House in Tucson. And it was the priest's expertise in dusty Spanish documents that provided the essential clue to the location.

"He was an extremely fluent speaker of Spanish and reader of cryptology," McAninch says. Looking over old records written in archaic Spanish, "He translated a word differently than everyone else. That's how they were able to pinpoint Kino's bones."

And McCarty is widely credited with tracking down the proclamation written by O'Conor, the Irish soldier in service to the Spanish crown who established Tucson as the site of a new presidio. The document is the closest thing the city has to a birth certificate.

"We knew about O'Conor before Kieran found the document," says Sid Brinckerhoff, retired director of the Arizona Historical Society and a former co-owner of the Tucson Weekly. "But we knew very little about him. We had no document that said, 'I pick this spot.' The story was generally known, but not much about O'Conor personally (was known). No one had ever seen any document."

Then, in the early '70s, Tucson's Irish-American priest found the Irish soldier's original letter in an archive in Mexico City. McCarty was burrowing through the Archivo General de la Nación, Brinckerhoff recalls, doing related research, when "he stumbled across it."

O'Conor composed his letter in Spanish, in a flowery hand on Aug. 20, 1775, at the mission San Xavier del Bac.

"I selected and marked out in the presence of Father Francisco Garcés and Lieutenant Juan de Carmona a place known as San Agustín del Tucson as the new site of the Presidio," O'Conor wrote. "It is situated at a distance of 18 leagues from Tubac, fulfills the requirements of water, pasture and wood, and effectively closes the Apache frontier."

He signed it with a flourish, spelling his Irish name Spanish-style, as Oconor.

Father Kieran immediately recognized the document's significance. O'Conor was in what's now Tucson only briefly, and its presidio was only one of 15 he established across the Southwest. But the location he picked out along the Santa Cruz River would eventually metamorphose into the Old Pueblo.

"The document nailed it," Brinckerhoff says. "O'Conor became the founding father of Tucson."

Dobyns, who's also written extensively on Tucson's early history, disputes the McCarty detective story. He counters that a microfilm copy of the O'Conor document was long in the Bancroft Library at the University of California at Berkeley. Both he and McCarty alluded to the O'Conor letter in books published in the bicentennial year of 1976, McCarty in his Desert Documentary, and Dobyns in his Spanish Colonial Tucson.

That may be, Fontana says, but it was McCarty's discovery of the original in the Mexico City archives that was significant. And "it was certainly Kieran who brought it to the public's attention."

Dobyns didn't include the precise date in his text, Fontana continues, and he alludes to the Berkeley microfilm only in a footnote.

"Kieran, on the other hand, published his translation of the original document in full, along with an explanation of it. And it was Kieran, I'm reasonably sure, who called the city's attention to the document when he was a member of the Tucson-Pima County Historical Commission."

And Tucson's birthday has been "commemorated each Aug. 20 ever since."


The Irish-American Franciscan who let everyone know that a red-headed Irishman laid out the site where Tucson grew never made much of his own Irishness, according to his many friends. But his touch of the Gael was hard to miss.

"He certainly was a leprechaun, no question about that," Fontana says. "He had a leprechaun-like sense of humor."

He had a jolly round face and, in his later years, snowy white hair and a round belly, testifying to his love of good food, Fontana says, especially estilo sonorense. "He looked so Irish," Diana Hadley says. "And he sounded so Irish."

As a student of McCarty's at the University of Arizona, where he worked in the 1980s and '90s, Hadley learned the intricacies of deciphering old Spanish documents. She now heads the office of Ethnohistorical Research at the Arizona State Museum. "He was very proud of his Irish heritage."

McCarty was also a mentor to Mark Santiago, now the director of the New Mexico Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum in Las Cruces. In 1994, Santiago wrote The Red Captain: The Life of Hugo O'Conor, the first and only biography of Tucson's founder, when he was working at the Arizona Historical Society.

"I was doing original research on Hugo O'Conor, and Father McCarty helped me. He'd call him 'our fellow Irishman,'" Santiago says.

"He was a wonderful man. He enjoyed life. He was kind. He was very much a Franciscan and very much an Irishman. He had a soft-spoken, biting sense of humor, and spoke in an Irish lilt. He had a mischievous grin, a twinkle in the eye. He was a credit to both professions, priest and historian."

As a historian, McCarty was a stickler for accuracy, but as a priest, he never let dogma get in the way of compassion. One time while he was pastor at San Xavier, he was called in to console the stricken family of someone who'd died. But as he was going in the front door, he glimpsed a traditional O'odham "medicine man" slipping out the back.

A strict Catholic priest might have called down hellfire on the family and denounced their flexible religious beliefs. Not McCarty. He sympathized with the family's efforts to give their loved one whatever spiritual blessings were available, whether Catholic or O'odham.

As he told Brinckerhoff, "They wanted to be sure they were covered."

Another time, on a mission tour down in Oquitoa, Sonora, the late Rev. Charles Polzer, SJ, was angry that the door to the church was locked. Like McCarty a historian at the UA, Polzer was a Jesuit, McCarty a Franciscan. By all accounts, Polzer was as severe as McCarty was jolly.

As UA anthropologist Tom Sheridan tells the story, Polzer was furious that he couldn't get into the church.

"He leveled a curse on Oquitoa and all its people," Sheridan says.

Curses don't exactly fit within the church's doctrines, either. But McCarty was mortified, and he "went back later and assured the people he would lift the curse."

By any measure, Father Kieran was an unconventional priest. He'd been a chaplain in the Air National Guard; he rode motorcycles and learned to fly a plane himself.

Fontana had the misfortune to be McCarty's first passenger after he got his pilot's license. For that first flight, the two headed off, unsurprisingly, on an airborne mission tour, aiming for Santa Ana de Cuiquiburitac, a chapel ruins in what's now the Ironwood Forest National Monument northwest of Tucson. Father Kieran alluded casually to the plane's nickname, The Flying Anchor. A nervous Fontana asked why he called it that. Well, McCarty deadpanned, "When the engine stops, the plane drops like an anchor."

He chomped on cigars and smoked a pipe; "He didn't mind taking a drink," Fontana says. Bob Vint, restoration architect for San Xavier, remembers Father Kieran sitting calmly on the church patio, drinking martinis out of a thermos. He was friends with politicians--Pima County supervisor and fellow Irishman Ray Carroll was a buddy--and compassionate toward sinners.

"He broke all the rules," Hadley says.

Chief among them was the clerical ban on marriage for priests. In the 1960s, McCarty fell in love with a Mexican woman, Antonia Rodriguez, whom he'd met in Sinaloa. The two married and had a son, born in 1967.

"Once people hear the story, they see it was nothing bad," their child, Robert McCarty, says. Now 41 and the married father of three boys, the younger McCarty is a produce broker in Nogales. "My household was a loving place to grow up in."

His father, he says, "was an adventurous type. He traveled down the coast of Mexico, to Sinaloa, Nayarit, Jalisco. Mazatlán, Sinaloa, was where my mom was from. They wrote letters to each other. It turned into a romantic relationship."

Even after he and Antonia married, Father Kieran continued on with his priestly vocation, serving as the pastor at San Xavier and managing to "remain in good standing with his order," as a friend put it.

He moved his family to Nogales, and in his later years, after he left San Xavier and worked at the university. "He became more of a professor and a researcher than a priest," Robert says. "He had an apartment in Tucson and lived in Nogales from Thursday to Sunday. When I was a teenager, he was not really functioning as a priest, saying Mass."

McCarty's marriage was known to his many friends, and they tried to protect his privacy

by keeping it secret. But Robert is eager to speak about his father. He sees no shame in

his heritage.

"I'm very proud of my dad," he says. "He was a very good man. I'm very proud to be his son. He had a wife he took care of, and a son he took care of. We never lacked anything. He was at my Little League games, my football games.

"He was always there for me. He was a wonderful father and a wonderful priest."


The future Father Kieran was born Robert Patrick McCarty on June 19, 1925, in Tama, Iowa, the grandson of Irish immigrants. His McCarty grandparents operated a dairy farm outside of the tiny town west of Cedar Rapids. His mother's family, the Greelises, city folk from Dublin, ran a hardware store.

Their American-born children, Francis McCarty and Geraldine Greelis, met in town, and after they married had three children: two boys, Robert and John, and a daughter, Pat. Francis worked as a milkman, and Geraldine was a schoolteacher, their grandson says.

A landlocked town on the flat prairie, Tama lay on the historic Lincoln Highway, America's first cross-country road, wending from Times Square to San Francisco. When the Depression hit, the McCartys fled the Midwest. Like so many other prairie refugees, they left for the promised land of California, traveling west on the historic highway. Young Robert was 6 for this first great adventure.

The family settled in the rolling hills of Santa Barbara, the lovely Pacific city dominated by a San Franciscan mission. Founded in 1786--just three years after work began on Tucson's San Xavier--Santa Barbara is one link in the chain of 21 Spanish colonial missions up and down the California coast. The McCartys were parishioners there, so the future priest was introduced at an early age to the Spanish mission system that would loom so large in his later historical research.

Growing up among the Franciscans, Kieran felt the call to the priesthood. He was an altar boy first and then enrolled in a pre-seminary as a young teenager, according to his son. His mother was delighted.

"Being Irish, my grandma especially was a very devoted Catholic," Robert McCarty says.

Her second son, John, tried seminary for two years and decided it wasn't for him, but Kieran thrived in the religious life. A photo surviving from those days shows him as a handsome young seminarian, with blue eyes and a head of wavy blond hair, playing the organ. He was a talented musician, and sang in the seminary's Padre Choristers, McAninch says, the young priest-in-training giving a Gaelic cast to the group's specialty of Spanish and colonial Mexican music.

On the occasion of his ordination, his parents sent out a joyful invitation: "Mr. and Mrs. F.P. McCarty have the happiness to announce the Ordination to the Sacred Priesthood of their son," on Dec. 27, 1949, at the Old Mission, to be followed by his first Mass on New Year's Day, 1950.

The young priest picked a religious name that reflected both his scholarly bent and his Irish heritage.

"It was when he became a Franciscan that he assumed the name Kieran," Fontana said in his eulogy, "after a pair of sixth-century Irish saints, monastics who, appropriately enough, strove to preserve religion and learning in some of the darkest of the Dark Ages."

He quickly picked up a master's in 1950 at the Franciscan School of Theology, then set off on his parish work, shipping out to assorted parishes around the West. He labored in Sacramento and Washington state before he alighted in Arizona, a place his son says he called "God's country."

The Franciscans assigned him to Scottsdale to run their retreat house, Casa de Paz y Bien. But the order recognized his historical vocation by the late 1950s, Fontana says, and sent him off to Washington, D.C., to become a researcher at the Academy of Franciscan History. He earned a master's in Latin American history at Catholic University, and began editing The Americas, a scholarly journal of Latin American history. For his 1973 doctorate, he wrote a history of the early Franciscans in Sonora and Arizona. Dedicated to his friend John L. Kessell, "who shares my lonely vigil in the past," it became the first of his three books.

With that dissertation, Father Kieran began his lifelong project of doing the gut work of history, traveling to archives great and small to microfilm important primary sources, the birth, marriage, death, municipal and military records on which great historical discoveries rest.

"Kieran was a consummate researcher, and his work led us down many unexplored paths," Brinckerhoff says.


The priest's 1964 appointment to Altar, in the middle of Kino mission country, was life-changing: For the first time, his priestly and historical vocations merged. He could emulate his heroes, the roving Jesuit Kino and an equally roving Franciscan, Francisco Garcés, who traveled the region a half-century after Kino. Garcés' remains lie in Tubutama, one of the Sonoran mission churches McCarty was to serve.

Nowadays the gathering point for migrants looking for coyotes to take them into the United States, Altar then was a sleepy provincial town surrounded by ranchos and farms, its countryside punctuated by Kino's late-17th-century churches.

Father Kieran, now Padre Kieran, got himself a turquoise VW van and drove to every remote settlement and hamlet, ministering to the faithful and the faithless alike. He fell in love with the people, and the people fell in love with him.

An Arizona Daily Star story from 1966, dateline Tubutama, Sonora, recounts the response when the padre came to the mission village to say Mass on Holy Thursday.

"The strong, pure love the Mexicans have for their priest shows up in a hundred ways," reporter Bob Thomas wrote.

"The look on a small altar boy's face when he asks for a farewell blessing. The privilege coveted among Tubutama señoras of preparing the priest's breakfast or dinner in their homes. The unhesitating way young and old kneel at Father Kieran's feet to confess sins. ... Or the laughing spirit of cooperation of the Tubutama men when two dozen of them used chains, ropes and lots of muscle to haul the priest's car out of the nearby river."

His close friend Kessell, a fellow historian, and Kessell's wife, Marianne, drove down to see him in Altar. The two scholars had met when Kessell came out west to become the National Park Service historian at Tumacacori, Arizona.

"I'll bet it was during 1963 that I first corresponded with Father Kieran. He was the outstanding Franciscan scholar. Charlie Polzer was the outstanding Jesuit scholar. I got in touch with both early on."

The Kessells arrived in Altar "in our 1959 white Chevy Impala, and followed Kieran around in his VW bus to a number of missions he was serving. The people just loved this man! They insisted we have meals everywhere we went."

A picture Kessell took on the trip shows a charismatic McCarty in his Franciscan robes, his bulky form occupying a dirt street in a Sonoran village, his trusty van at his side.

Even after he gave up the Altar post and moved to Tucson, for years afterward, McCarty would bring friends to Sonora, and the people would flock to see their beloved priest. Fontana recounts that he traveled with McCarty, businessman/historian Ed Ronstadt and John Schaefer, then-president of the University of Arizona, on what was to be a quick one-day tour of the missions.

"Kieran had to kind of hide. He had married them, baptized them. They were saying, 'Padre, you have to come have a beer, come to our home.'"

Kieran's son, Robert, remembers delighted adults approaching their old pastor. They'd say, "Do you remember me? You gave me my first Communion 30 years ago."

And if he'd mastered the art of priestly compassion, his scholarly knowledge of the churches was equally formidable. When McAninch and another friend went with him on a missions visit, "He explained everything to us," McAninch says. "He was a real scholar. He had a Ph.D. from Catholic University. Ph.D.'s are one thing; his knowledge was something else.

"It was a tremendous thing to learn about the missions from someone like Kieran. He was the authority of authorities. He knew more about that than anybody. Jim Officer (the late author of Hispanic Arizona, 1536-1856) called him the great historian."

Nevertheless, he remained humble, McAninch says.

"He was a real modest man with respect to his accomplishments. A lot of times in academic circles, there's a lot of pride--he never acted like that. He never was above anyone."

Nor did his successes squelch his sense of humor. He loved to tease the fastidious McAninch. On their mission trip, when McAninch worried about eating the chicharrones--fried pork fat--offered by a starry-eyed parishioner, the priest laughed.

"You're always thinking of disastrous results," he said. Then, turning to his own meal, he picked up the greasy delectables and chowed down.


When McCarty was assigned to San Xavier in 1966, friends joked that at that point, he really did think he was Padre Garcés reincarnated. Garcés had been the San Xavier priest starting in 1768; he signed the O'Conor presidio document in 1775.

The re-enactment of the Anza expedition, an early bicentennial project, gave Father Kieran the chance to actually play the part of the Spanish priest. Garcés had gone along on the original 1775-1776 journey, led by Juan Bautista de Anza from Sonora to San Francisco (although the priest peeled off at the Colorado River).

The re-do on horseback was the brainchild of Brinckerhoff, who played Lt. José Joaquin Moraga, second in command of the original expedition. Some 70 people in costume traced out Anza's route, covering the Arizona segments in separate short journeys. In old photos of Father Kieran on the trail, his smile is mile-wide.

"He wore his habit," Brinckerhoff says. "We gave him a broad-brimmed hat. He said Mass in the evenings."

The priest mounted his considerable bulk on a horse. "I don't think he rode very well," his friend remembers with a laugh. "We went at a slow pace."

McCarty's wife, Antonia, died in 2000, and he himself fell ill with Parkinson's. He tried going back to Sinaloa on his own, and when that didn't work out, he returned to the Franciscans in Santa Barbara. They placed him in a nursing home for Alzheimer's patients.

Diana Hadley and Homer Thiel, a historical archaeologist who researched Tucson's early families for the Rio Nuevo project, went to visit. They wanted to photocopy the priest's papers, as well as some writing he had begun and would never finish.

"I was looking up materials on San Agustín," Thiel says. The archaeologist gave the priest a copy of his own research, and McCarty beamed. "He was excited. He was pleased somebody was still interested in Tucson history."

But he hated the nursing home.

"It was a beautiful house," Hadley says. "The patients (were) all spiffy, nails done."

But they had dementia, and Father Kieran still "had all his wits about him," Thiel remembers.

The two Tucsonans sneaked him out for breakfast, breaking the home's rules. The matron was furious when they got back.

"She said we couldn't take him out without permission," Thiel says. "Diana played dumb. Kieran got a big kick out of it."

When they were leaving, he delivered a clear message: "Get me out of here," he said.

Pretty soon, Robert did, driving to California and bringing his father back to Arizona, to "God's country." He lived for a time in a small care home in Nogales, but then transferred to Villa Maria, a full-fledged nursing home in Tucson, when his condition worsened.

Last September, the Patronato de Kino, a group advocating sainthood for Father Kino, staged a Mass and celebration for Father McCarty at the home. Hordes of people came, Hadley says, and in a way, "It was like having him at his own funeral. People kept getting up to speak and praise him."

Even at the end, Robert says, "He would tell you the dates of Father Kino, the date of my birth, my kids' births."

On Dec. 27, 2008, 59 years to the day of his ordination, Father Kieran McCarty died. At his funeral on Jan. 3, the separate strands of his life came together in the sanctuary of his beloved Mission San Xavier del Bac.

Tucson's bishop, the Most Rev. Gerald F. Kicanas, and other priests were on the altar. His fellow historians and his politician pals were in the pews, and so were the church's Tohono O'odham parishioners. As the harpist broke into Irish melodies, Father Kieran's son, flanked by his own family and a flock of Mexican cousins, pushed his father's coffin up the aisle and brought his body to the altar.

"Mexican, white, American, Irish--he had the gift of making you feel good," Robert McCarty said later. "He gave you that sense of peace."

Add a comment