Father James Vaughan, waiving to parishioners who organized a car parade to see the beloved priest at Van Rensselaer Manor last month.
Father James Vaughan, waiving to parishioners who organized a car parade to see the beloved priest at Van Rensselaer Manor last month.

The Evangelist is starting a new interview series talking with pastors in the Diocese of Albany. We want to find out how they came to their vocation, talk about their highs and lows, and what advice they have for men discerning the priesthood. We felt what better way to start then to talk with Father James J. Vaughan, who is pastor emeritus at Sacred Heart Church in Troy. Father Vaughan, 94, who just celebrated his 70th year in the priesthood, became pastor at Sacred Heart in 1973 and pastor emeritus in 2000 when he retired. The Evangelist’s Mike Matvey talked with Father Vaughan, who was born in Syracuse but grew up in Troy, while he was rehabbing at Van Rensselaer Manor in Troy. 

TE: How did you become a priest?

FV: I was in the seventh grade at St. Michael’s School (in Troy) and the nuns were teaching, of course, and they always had an altar made in the room and talked about the Mass. I was involved in that and I said, ‘Gee, I would like to be a priest.’ But also the parish priest had a big part because they were always with the kids. They were always there for you, and you always looked to priests. In high school, I did go to the proms and all that, but I didn’t get close to any particular girl ... I wanted to be a priest all the way. Besides that, I did have two priests in my family; that is my mother’s brothers were priests, and, on my father’s side, my uncle. They never said to me, ‘Do you want to be a priest?’ They just gave me the example of being a priest.

TE: Do YOU remember your ordination?

FV: My ordination was in 1950. I did have a decision to make when I graduated from high school (because we) were still at war. I went through some priests and asked their advice about that because a lot of my buddies were going into the service. And (one priest) told me it’s better to become a priest first because if you don’t, you might meet somebody in the Army or Navy and not continue wanting to be a priest. So I took that advice and I was sent by my diocese to ‘prep-sem,’ they called it; college of two years and that was in Bloomfield, Conn., outside of Hartford. I spent two years there and then went over to the ‘major-sem,’ which was in Rochester and finished it up. The y train you in the work of ministry, so you are busy doing things that they were teaching you. I never had a doubt about it. I always wanted to continue to the end.

TE: What are your memora¬≠ble moments?

FV: I have had many of those. Of course, I did more than parish work. I was in the Navy; I went in the Navy as a chaplain because I wanted to serve my country. When I went in the Navy, I was with the Marine Corps out in California, and then I went back to parish work.

My first parish was St. Mary’s in downtown Troy and I was only just ordained. I went there as an assistant and served there for about eight years. And I was close to the families and to the kids because I was younger and played ball and all that stuff. Then I moved on to Athens, that was my first parish (St. Patrick) as pastor. And not only that, but I served in the prison of Coxsackie; I was head chaplain there. All of these were right up my line.

I was particularly interested in hearing confessions. Hearing confessions was my liking because so many people came back to the Church after being away from it. They asked me to go to confession, and that helped them get back. 

One time, I was head of the altar boys at St. Mary’s and on Christmas Eve we had a Midnight Mass and we heard confessions all day. This man came up to me as we were just starting to go to the altar and he wanted to go to confession. So I said OK. If I ever said no, he probably would have never gone. But he was 40 years away from the Church. I will always remember that one.

TE: How did you deal with difficult times?

FV: There was one parish I was in, I won’t name it, that I was pastor and we had a high school and the nuns that were teaching high school went to the bishop of our diocese and said they could no longer continue that high school. So I got involved and I was the one accused of closing the school. I always call that my crucifixion year because the kids turned against me because they thought I could keep the school open. That was the worst occasion. 

TE: What helped you through that?

FV: We priests have a retreat every year and we always had a priest that we could go to for questions. So I survived that because of the help of priests.

TE: What would you say to someone who was thinking about becoming a priest?

FV: I had others that wanted to be priests and I encouraged them and they went along but in the end they went to college and met girls. That’s why I wish we could have optional celibacy because those guys would have been priests, too, and I believe that. The shortage of priests now is so bad that something has to happen. I had four boys that wanted to be priests until they went to college and met somebody and got married, naturally. But I would tell (the men who are thinking about the priesthood) to see their pastor and tell the pastor about it and he will help (them) to get into the seminary and that was what I was always doing.