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Myrna Gallagher, 83: 'Passionate evangelizer'

Co-creator of Emmaus retreats, turned church volunteer work into lifelong vocation

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Myrna Gallagher created the Emmaus retreat, which has changed the spiritual lives of thousands. She died Oct. 15, 2020, at the age of 83.

Photographer: JONATHAN MARTINEZ | FC

Myrna Gallagher created the Emmaus retreat, which has changed the spiritual lives of thousands. She died Oct. 15, 2020, at the age of 83.

MIAMI | Myrna Gallagher started out as a volunteer, teaching religious education at the newly founded St. Maurice Parish in Fort Lauderdale. By the time she retired decades later, as director of religious education at St. John Neumann Parish in Miami, she had devoted her life to teaching the faith to children and their parents.

Her greatest accomplishment, however, might have been the parish retreat she created: Emmaus, which ignited the fire of discipleship in thousands of "brothers and sisters" who underwent the three-day experience.

Gallagher, 83, died Oct. 15, 2020. She had spent the last years of her life as a resident at St. Anne's Nursing Center in Miami.

"I was so happy" to hear she died on the feast of St. Teresa of Avila, said Sister Rosa Monique Peña, calling Gallagher, like St. Teresa, "a passionate evangelizer."

An Adrian Dominican and longtime director of catechesis in the Archdiocese of Miami, Sister Rosa Monique worked closely with Gallagher from 1977 until 2004. "As a DRE (director of religious education) she was outstanding. The catechesis in her parish was very successful. And she was always willing to train other directors," she said.

Sister Rosa Monique now works in the Dominican Republic. When she shared the news of Gallagher's passing with a local Emmaus group, she told them: "Now you have your founder that just finished her walk to Emmaus. Now she is there with the Lord Jesus having supper and having a good time with him."

Sister Rosa Monique called Gallagher "a true catechist" because of her creativity in trying to reach her students. "She was never a book catechist although she was a stickler for learning the doctrine, but in a very creative way. That's why she was very successful. She was also a stickler for making sure her catechists were very well formed."

But Sister Rosa Monique said she only found out about Gallagher's role in the Emmaus retreats a few years ago, after moving to the Dominican Republic, where she noted the movement "has spread like wildfire."

On the 40th anniversary of the movement, Archbishop Thomas Wenski presents a bouquet of flowers to Myrna Gallagher, who together with Father David Russell, then pastor of St. Louis in Pinecrest, started the Emmaus retreats in the archdiocese in 1978.

Photographer: COURTESY

On the 40th anniversary of the movement, Archbishop Thomas Wenski presents a bouquet of flowers to Myrna Gallagher, who together with Father David Russell, then pastor of St. Louis in Pinecrest, started the Emmaus retreats in the archdiocese in 1978.

An Emmaus group she was working with mentioned they were sending a delegation to Miami to visit the movement's founder. When she asked who the person was, they told her: a lay woman named Myrna Gallagher.

"I was so happy to know that the work of the ministry created by Myrna has reached so far. It's a beautiful ministry and has had a lot of success among women — of course, because women are the pillars of the Church. But it also has been incredibly successful among men," Sister Rosa Monique said.

 

FIRE SPREADS

"The beautiful thing about fire is it spreads," said Father David Russell, founding pastor of St. Maurice and later pastor of St. Louis and St. John Neumann parishes, where he and Gallagher continued to work together until he retired.

"We started back at St. Maurice. When I founded that parish, she was there from day one," recalled Father Russell. "She started as a volunteer that turned into a vocation."

He noted that Gallagher, who lived in Fort Lauderdale, commuted daily to St. Louis and St. John Neumann, both located in southern Miami-Dade County.

"In the parish, they used to say I was the head and she was the heart. She had an incredible gift of availability to everyone and anyone. And she understood that the total parish comes to life through the animation of small groups," Father Russell said.

It was at his request that Gallagher created Emmaus when they were at St. Louis. He noticed the very active Cursillo group and asked for a Cursillo retreat just for parishioners, rather than for people from throughout the archdiocese. When told that's not how Cursillo works, he turned to Gallagher.

"So I said to Myrna, come up with a new kind of a retreat experience that is parish centered, and she wrote the Emmaus and fine-turned it through experience," Father Russell said.

Based on the Gospel of Luke 24:13-35, Emmaus retreats help people to experience God, renew and deepen their relationship with the Lord. The movement marked its 40th anniversary in 2018 and has spread not just within the Archdiocese of Miami, but in other places throughout the U.S., Europe, Central America, South America and the Caribbean — including Cuba. (Click here for the 35th anniversary story.)

During Emmaus' 35th anniversary celebration, Myrna Gallagher receives a certificate for her inspiration and commitment in creating the weekend, which has changed the spiritual lives of thousands. Next to her is Guillermo Salomón, an Emmaus brother from Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Doral.

Photographer: JONATHAN MARTINEZ | FC

During Emmaus' 35th anniversary celebration, Myrna Gallagher receives a certificate for her inspiration and commitment in creating the weekend, which has changed the spiritual lives of thousands. Next to her is Guillermo Salomón, an Emmaus brother from Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Doral.

"It has that gift of being essentially lay-led and sacramentally grounded," Father Russell said. "You gotta have a nucleus that becomes the renewer of the larger parish. As more people make the Emmaus, it forms that incredible fraternity and sisterhood."

"Myrna understood that sometimes more good is done in the parking lot than in the church," Father Russell added. "She valued the role of laity ministering to laity."

 

LOVE OF GOD, CHURCH

Born in Cleveland, Ohio, March 30, 1937, Gallagher moved to Fort Lauderdale with her parents at a young age. Before volunteering to teach religious education at St. Maurice, she worked with the migrant community in western Broward County.

She eventually earned a master's degree in religious studies and continually attended workshops and training sessions. During Father Russell's sabbatical year, and the year he taught in the seminary, Gallagher worked in the archdiocesan Office of Lay Ministry.

She is survived by two nephews — one of whom lives in Fort Lauderdale — and a niece.

"She had an incredible love of her family," Father Russell said. "Above all, love of her God and the Church, and she felt a mission to give her life to the Lord. Her ministry was centered on the children that she loved and energizing adult ministry, especially through Emmaus. And marriage ministry – she had a huge marriage ministry going."

During the time she lived at St. Anne's, Father Russell would drive down to visit her every week. "For the last nine months I was not able to see her. Fortunately, the day before she died, I was able to get into the hospital and anoint her again," he said.

Father Russell will preside at her funeral Mass, which will be celebrated at St. John Neumann on Monday, Oct. 19, 2020 at 11 a.m. The Mass will be private but livestreamed on the parish's Facebook page.

"If we open it up, every Emmaus person from all over the county would be there. It would be unmanageable," Father Russell said.

The Emmaus community in the Dominican Republic is also planning to host a tribute, via Zoom, Oct. 23, 2020, Sister Rosa Monique said.

On its website, St. John Neumann parish asked that donations in Gallagher's memory be made to the 2020 ABCD — the Archbishop's Charities and Development drive – and designated for St. Anne's Nursing Center and Residence. Donations can be made online at https://give.adomdevelopment.org/ or by mail at ABCD, Archdiocese of Miami, 9401 Biscayne Boulevard, Miami Shores, FL 33138.

The parish also suggested: "To honor our precious Myrna Gallagher, share the love and mercy of Jesus, proclaim the Gospel always, be available to anyone in need, invite someone on retreat and pray."

Comments from readers

Sue DeFerrari - 10/19/2020 01:54 PM
What an amazing gift to have known Myrna! I am so grateful... Myrna knew the Lord, loved the Lord, and served the Lord and in doing so created spaces, so many beautiful spaces, for others, so many others including me to do so as well! She lived her life in the Lord so authentically that it animated others to seek such authenticity in relationship with Jesus and with others! For me, Myrna lived out the saying of St. Catherine of Siena "Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire." Jesus Christ IS Risen and lived/s beautifully through the life of our friend and sister, Myrna Gallagher!
Vilma Angulo - 10/17/2020 09:49 PM
Myrna radiated her love for Christ. She transformed thousands of lives through the Emmaus retreats but she also brought that same spirituality and zeal to catechetical ministry. She built relationships with her parishioners and students. She walked alongside her fellow DRE’s and colleagues on our journey to encounter Christ in our ministry. Her joy permeated her vocation and how blessed we were to have known her. Surely our Risen Lord greeted her with the words “Well done good and faithful servant!...Come and share your master’s joy!
Leyda Vazquez - 10/17/2020 12:16 PM
Myrna was an admirable, wise, faithful lay woman. Her pastoral and catechetical activities contributed significantly to bring about the reign of God to the people of South Florida and far beyond. A colleague, a mentor, a leader, a passionate disciple, a woman that understood, accepted, and extraordinarily lived her lay vocation, she leaves a legacy to new generations, and a void in all of us who labored alongside her. Myrna, feast in Eternity.

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