Obituary: Otmar Gallagher / Capuchin missionary in Puerto Rico and Papua New Guinea
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In his 91 years, the Rev. Otmar Gallagher made Pittsburgh the bookends of a far-flung and influential life as a Capuchin missionary.
A Pittsburgh native who returned to the city in 2002, he died at Mercy Hospital on Tuesday.
His community knew him as Father Otmar, a diehard Pittsburgh sports fan who mined for any scraps of news he could find on the Pirates, Steelers and Penguins during his service in Puerto Rico and Papua New Guinea. The chances of finding such news were almost as remote as Papua New Guinea's southern highlands, where he led the establishment of the first Catholic presence in 1955 and went on to establish a diocese.
Father Gallagher oversaw the building of schools, churches, parishes, convents and friaries during his tenure there.
After his return to Pittsburgh, he lived his last years at the St. Augustine's Friary in Lawrenceville, where the Rev. Francis Fugini was his provincial superior during his years in New Guinea.
"I went there on four occasions," said Father Fugini, who described Father Gallagher as "gregarious when he was with people he knew well but was otherwise quiet. He so loved the people and the nation that he sought and received citizenship and renounced his American citizenship. He wanted to identify with the people. When he became ill and had to come back, he reversed that."
Sister Kate Holohan, a member of the Sisters of St. Francis in Oldenburg, Ind., served 22 years in the mission that Father Gallagher built into the Diocese of the Southern Highlands in Mendi. When she got there, there were no roads, she said.
"Everything had to be flown in," she recalled. "Most of the homes of the people were grass huts. It was such a privilege to minister with him. He was a good shepherd. He was a very down-to-earth person whose life was very rich and full. When I heard of his passing, I thought of these words in scripture: 'I thank my God each time I think of you and when I pray for you I pray with joy.'
"When we would come back on home leave, we would visit his family, his sisters, in the Pittsburgh province [of the Capuchin order]," said Sister Holohan. "It was very alive there."
After his ordination in 1948, Father Gallagher was assigned to establish a mission in Puerto Rico, which was a dream fulfilled, said Father Fugini. "The dominant thing for him was in mission work. He wanted to help people."
In Puerto Rico, he served as a parish priest and a chaplain to patients who had tuberculosis and leprosy. When he left in 1955, the city of Trujillo Alto honored him as its adopted son.
From Puerto Rico he went to lead the establishment of a mission in Papua New Guinea, where he and five other friars introduced the gospel to people in the southern highlands.
He also served as a parish priest and a high school chaplain there before returning to the United States, where he was a chaplain at a hospital and nursing home in Port Charlotte, Fla., from 1993 until 2002.
In his last years, he served as a confessor at St. Mary of the Point Parish Downtown.
Father Gallagher, who was baptized at St. Norbert Church in Overbrook, attended divinity school at St. Fidelis Seminary in Butler County and studied philosophy at St. Fidelis Friary in Victoria, Kan.
His funeral was Saturday, with interment in the friars' plot of St. Augustine Cemetery in Shaler.
First Published November 26, 2012 12:00 am