Time to Speak — A tribute to Father Joseph McGee

By Marty McGee

Father Joseph McGee
Father Joseph McGee

On a gentle slope in Calvary Cemetery in Louisville rests the tiny, flat, plainly adorned, solitary grave marker of my uncle, Father Joseph M. McGee. Its simplicity is remarkably fitting for someone whose humble earthly trappings — in life, and now in death — surely have been transformed into prosperous surroundings in Heaven.

We all were inconsolably saddened upon receiving word on the evening of July 18, 1988, that Father Joe — as we, his family, knew him — had been fatally injured at age 55 while vacationing in Gulf Shores, Ala., in the company of three other priests. It was dusk and a young motorist accidentally struck him from behind while he was walking along the road to dinner. His spirit passed within minutes.

Details of the tragedy have faded in the quarter-century that has passed, but thankfully, the wonderful legacy of Father Joe McGee has not. The impact he left on the thousands of people whose lives he touched is immense. Yes, his work as the superintendent of Catholic schools and as a pastor and associate at a number of local parishes, including St. George and
Holy Spirit, has been widely lauded; but it was his wise, kind and loving nature as a man that hopefully will continue to define his memory for generations to come.

I was 28 when Father Joe died — old enough to have known him well, yet too young not to harbor regret about what I, and so many others, are still missing to this day. In the last 25 years, countless numbers of people have expressed to me their abiding love and admiration for him. Their sincerity and sympathies are genuine and heartfelt. They will search for the right words to describe precisely why they felt so strongly about him, and invariably they will fail. That’s OK. We know just what you mean.

Time has convinced me that Father Joe was blessed in ways that few people ever have been or ever will be. The second of eight children born to my grandparents, Joseph and Isabelle Beam McGee — whose graves rest right alongside his in Calvary — he worked purposefully to fulfill his many God-given talents from early on, choosing the seminary as a young teen before being ordained in Rome in 1958 at age 25.

The four surviving McGee siblings are pictured above with nephew Marty McGee, back left. The siblings are, from left front, Grace McLeod, Tee Dee Rapier and Catchy Catlett and Paul B. McGee, top right.
The four surviving McGee siblings are pictured above with nephew Marty McGee, back left. The siblings are, from left front, Grace McLeod, Tee Dee Rapier and Catchy Catlett and Paul B. McGee, top right.

Throughout his life, he maintained a keen inborn sense that he was here to serve the Lord through his people, doing so in his own way. He combined thoughtfulness, wisdom and compassion with warmth and humor, endearing himself to rich and poor, white and black, friends and strangers. With a deep understanding and empathy for what is now popularly termed “the human condition,” he was gifted with an infectious smile and an extraordinary ability to make people feel good about themselves, and by extension, to feel good about the Catholic faith and about God. People related closely to him as a fellow mortal while also revering his status as a holy man. Quite honestly, he tied it all together in understated but spectacular fashion.

He loved the horse races, golfing, playing cards, watching football, telling funny stories and being smack in the middle of joyous family gatherings. He was a fine athlete, a brilliant scholar, an engaging speaker and a charismatic leader — yet he still exuded an unmistakable humility to suggest it all mattered little in comparison to being a servant of God. He might have had faults, perhaps major ones, but I can’t recall any and still have yet to find out if indeed any existed.

On May 26, Father Joe would have turned 80. Years ago, when he was at St. George, the parishioners would host an annual party for him on his birthday. It would be something light-hearted and casual, just as he preferred. Oh, for just one more of those.

No doubt there have been better men to walk the Earth, but I’ve yet to know one. This one happened to be a Catholic priest, a man of utterly true devotion, character, and soul. We, his family, thank you for remembering him the way you tell us you do, with love. We still grieve his loss but take great solace in knowing that if anyone ever benefitted from the promise of our Lord’s resurrection, it is him. Praise be to God.

Marty McGee
Marty McGee

Marty McGee is the nephew of Father Joseph M. McGee and a member of St. Albert the Great Church. Father McGee was superintendant of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of Louisville from 1974 to 1983. An award is presented annually in his honor to recognize outstanding Catholic educators.

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