COATES, Minn. — Over the past four decades, the small country parish of St. Agatha has had to install a new furnace and a new roof, but it’s still working on the same pastor.
It has been 40 years since the Rev. James Whalen first showed up to say Mass at St. Agatha, located just off Highway 52 about 20 miles south of the Twin Cities. At the time, Whalen was only a couple of years out of the seminary; he was sent to Coates as a sub for the Rev. Mathias Gillen, who had broken his arm.
They know how to keep a pastor at St. Agatha. Gillen, who died of a stroke in November 1960, had led the parish for nearly 30 years. Gillen also spent 51 years as a faculty member at the College (now University) of St. Thomas, where Whalen taught journalism a mere 35 years.
Whalen’s 40th anniversary at St. Agatha makes him the longest, continuously serving pastor of the same parish in the 222-church Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
The parish is planning to celebrate with a Mass and luncheon on Sunday, Oct. 22. The Mass, to be concelebrated by Whalen and Archbishop Harry Flynn, starts at 10 a.m. It will be followed by a reception and luncheon at Union Hall in nearby Vermillion. All are welcome.
St. Agatha was founded in 1871 by mostly Irish immigrants who split from the mostly German St. John’s parish in Vermillion. St. Agatha isn’t a large parish, but it is growing and now has 84 registered families. “It’s the preaching that brings them in,” Whalen quipped.
It’s a close-knit parish, and Whalen has come to know generations of its members. Over the past 40 years, he has been part of their lives at 61 marriages, 213 baptisms, and 47 funerals.
And that furnace? The smelly old oil burner blew up on Good Friday in 1963, and they were glad to get rid of the thing.
Whalen was ordained in 1958 and came to St. Thomas a year later. He developed the university’s journalism department and was honored as one of the nation’s top journalism professors. He retired from the classroom seven years ago and continues to reside at the university.