St. Helen church gets new priest

By Helena Rodriguez: Freedom Newspapers

PORTALES — At one point, James McGowan wanted to be a stand-up comedian. He also considered careers in military and police work. But ultimately, he following a calling he received in first grade to become a priest.

However, this was not before being a jack of all trades while he tried to figure out where he was going and if this calling was God’s will.

He began the seminary at age 18, but then opted to attend Eastern New Mexico University, where he became a self-described party animal in the 1980s with the former Sigma Nu fraternity. He worked in security, restaurants and hotels before returning to the seminary 10 years ago at 33.

McGowan, who happens to have a blue belt in Kojosho karate, only three belts away from a black belt, has been appointed the new priest at St. Helen’s Catholic Church in Portales. He replaces Father Tobin Hitt, who has been reassigned by the archdiocese of Santa Fe to San Martin de Porres church in Albuquerque.

McGowan — a native of Brooklyn, N.Y. who grew up in Rio Rancho — comes by way of Clayton where he was pastor of St. Francis Xavier church. Prior to that, he served as a police chaplain.

“In college, my friends would joke that I was going to become a tele-evangelist. Some of them knew I wanted to be a priest, but I’m sure some of them are still shocked. I was a bit of a party animal, a John Belushi of those days,” said McGowan, now in his fourth year of priesthood.

McGowan said his return to Portales has brought him full circle.

“When I found out I was coming back to Portales, on one hand I thought, ‘You got to be kidding me, of all the parishes in New Mexico I’m going to Portales.’ I couldn’t believe it. On the other hand it was a good feeling, like a coming home.”

McGowan already has plans to begin making some changes at St. Helen and is looking forward to the opportunity to teach religious classes at ENMU.

“That is one of those ironies because I was not the best student when I was there,” he said.

The evenings that McGowan spent performing at the Duke City Comedy Club in Albuquerque were not wasted though. He said humor comes in handy in his sermons.

“I think this will be a challenging role. I’m in a bigger parish now with more families. Another challenge is language. I speak a little Spanish but I need to relearn the language,” McGowan said.

He would also like to see more social activities and community service projects within the parish.

When he has spare time, McGowan writes fiction and collects police badges, patches and coins.