Bishop John R. McGann dies at 77

      A funeral mass will be offered at St. Agnes Cathedral at 2 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 4.
      Growing up on Bainbridge Street in Brooklyn in the 1920s and '30s, John McGann began to learn the lessons that would help him become the spiritual leader of one of the country's largest dioceses. For more than 24 years, McGann helped his flock navigate life's lessons as the second bishop of the Diocese of Rockville Centre.
      He will long be remembered for his dedication to Catholic education and the plight of the poor. McGann got a close look at the problems facing the underprivileged during his childhood and it never left him.
      During an interview before his retirement in early 2000, McGann said he was inspired by his parents, Thomas and Mary McGann. "I was going to school in the Depression and it was a hard time for a lot of people financially. [My parents] always showed a good example to us and then reached out to help other people, teaching us that we had to be concerned about other people."
      When his father died in 1937, McGann's mother raised their seven children alone and made sure that they received a Catholic education.
      An entry in McGann's 1944 yearbook from the Cathedral College Preparatory Seminary in Brooklyn showed his growing leadership skills. "The first desk in the fourth row is always a hubbub of activity from nine in the morning till well into the night. There is usually a pile of mail, checks, money and other business accouterments, and if the facilities would allow, there would probably be four or five telephones installed. Behind such a business-like desk sits John McGann, orator, actor, financier, athlete. We know that John will handle the future in the same business-like fashion."
      McGann studied at the Immaculate Conception Seminary in Huntington from 1944 to 1950.
      Beginning his priesthood at St. Anne's in Brentwood when it was still part of the Diocese of Brooklyn, Bishop McGann was a part of the Rockville Centre diocese since its inception in 1957.
      The diocese's first bishop, Walter Kellenberg, first appointed McGann an assistant chancellor and then his personal secretary in 1959. McGann would serve Kellenberg in this position for the next 12 years.
      McGann was ordained second auxiliary bishop for Rockville Centre in 1971. Soon after, he was appointed vicar general of the diocese and Episcopal vicar of Suffolk County.
      When Kellenberg retired at the age of 75, Pope VI named McGann as his successor. The second bishop was installed on June 24, 1976, at the Nassau County Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
      He took Psalm 100 as his motto, "Serve the Lord with gladness."
      And he did. "I'm a Catholic because I believe and I'm willing to give my life for that," he said in 1999. "And I know that I'm going to meet opposition and sacrifice and difficulties. But I also know that I'll get the opportunity to live the life that I want to live."
      In addition to attending to the day-to-day management of the diocese, McGann participated in several historic events. He hosted Pope John Paul II at Madison Square Garden during the pontiff's 1979 New York visit.
      McGann also greeted Mother Teresa during her visit to the Rockville Centre diocese in July 1986. And in 1993, he led 500 young people to Denver for Pope John Paul II's World Youth Day.
      The bishop played a key role on several national advisory councils and committees, including the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Catholic Telecommunications Network of America and the National Advisory Council to the U.S. Bishops.
      McGann said if there were one thing he would have liked to see improved more during his tenure, it would be the shortage of priests. In response to the priest shortage, McGann ordained the diocese's first class of permanent deacons in 1979.
      Although the bishop led marches against abortion and prayed in front of abortion clinics, he was criticized by some for not voicing his objections loud enough.
      When McGann's own retirement became imminent, he asked the Pope to assign a coadjutor bishop to spend several months learning about the diocese before taking over. Bishop James T. McHugh was chosen and McGann spent several months introducing his coadjutor to the diocese.
      McGann retired on Jan. 4, 2000, following his 75th birthday. He spent the last two years living at St. Agnes Rectory, offering guidance when necessary to McHugh, and enjoying retirement. McHugh died following a battle with cancer in Dec. 2000. Rockville Centre's fourth bishop, William Murphy was installed in September.
Loss felt
      Parishioners and priests from across Long Island and the nation mourned the passing of the bishop.
      "Bishop John McGann will be sorely missed in this diocese, which he guided with care and compassion for 24 years," Bishop Murphy said in a prepared statement. "He was a priest of total dedication and a bishop who cared for his flock with deep and abiding love... The parishes, schools, religious congregations, health care services and Catholic Charities that are so much a part of the identity of this diocese are a direct result of his leadership and guidance."
      Murphy said McGann shared "wise and fatherly counsel" with him during the new bishop's first five months. "No bishop could have done more for his successor than Bishop McGann did for me."
      Fr. Thomas Harold, pastor of Holy Name of Mary Church in Valley Stream, knew the bishop. They shared the same interest in golf and had attended a Mets game last summer together. Fr. Harold saw him most recently at a New Year's Eve dinner he and other priests had with the bishop.
      "I can't think of a public figure on Long Island who would have had a greater impact on people for the last 50 years," Fr. Harold said of the man who ordained him. "He was here with Bishop Kellenberg at the start of the diocese and he was the bishop for almost 24 years. He confirmed thousands and thousands of kids, and ordained close to 200 priests for the diocese.
      "He was a leader who had [earned] tremendous respect and affection," Harold said, "and he achieved a lot, both locally and nationally. He stood up for the poor, especially for the homeless and those needing affordable housing, and he even took on the question of justice nationally and internationally.
      "It's very sad for us all. I think we're all happy that he didn't suffer."
      Fr. Gregory Cappuccino of Valley Stream's Blessed Sacrament Church said that "We are all very saddened. He was very loved, and gave all his energy and strength to this diocese.
      "For me, he is best known for his deep care for people," Fr. Greg said. "He always saw whatever came in front of him as very important, especially anything that had to do with helping people in their many needs. He was a gentle man; very, very personable, who I think had a very deep and prayerful life."
      Fr. Greg said that Bishop McGann had a "profound humility toward himself, always a person of charity to everybody. I think he gave the diocese an incredible amount of pastoral outreaches. ... He was a whole churchman.
      "This man came alive when he was around people, Fr. Greg said. "He was a total people-person. He will be so missed."

John C. O'Connell contributed to this story.