Fr. Cregan: ‘A Marine for Christ’

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"Stick with the Church."

You could say those four words are Father John Cregan's motto - ones he's remembered ever since first hearing them from the Sisters of Charity at his New York grade school in the 1940s. He remembered them during his 22 years with the U.S. Marine Corps; he remembered them in the foxholes in Vietnam; he remembered them when, at nearly 50 years of age, he was ordained a priest; and, as pastor of Blessed Sacrament Parish in Alexandria and the bishop's delegate for clergy at the Chancery, he remembers them still.

Nothing but the Bronx

Born Nov. 13, 1939, son of the late Christopher and Mary Cregan, Father Cregan attended St. Margaret of Cortona School, Fordham Preparatory School and Fordham University, all in the Bronx. Though he's 40-plus years removed from his time in the borough, he seems to remember every name, every detail.

Father Cregan grew up walking the few blocks from his home to his Catholic school, where the Sisters of Charity became a "big part of my formation." Because those sisters centered everything on the Faith, "you knew early on that was the main thing in your life," he said.

He became an altar boy in the third grade, serving at Mass regularly - sometimes more regularly than a 9-year-old boy would like.

"After sometimes two Masses I would hide because the sacristan would always come looking for me," Father Cregan said, sitting in his ninth floor office of the Chancery building in Arlington. "I'd be shootin' hoops out in the schoolyard and they'd come get me to serve Mass."

But though his devotion to the Faith grew stronger with time, and though the priesthood was suggested to him in eighth grade, Father Cregan's mind was on serving his country.

A military career

While at Fordham University, Father Cregan enrolled in the U.S. Marine Corps Platoon Leader Class (PLC) program. Knowing he had to fill the then-mandatory obligation of three years military service, Father Cregan followed the example of older kids from his neighborhood and joined the Marines. Three years morphed into more than 20 - a path to which Father Cregan is sure God called him. He spent tours in North Carolina, Florida, Virginia, Cuba, Japan and Vietnam, all the while maintaining his faith.

"There was never a part of my life where I didn't practice the Faith and live the sacramental life," he said. "The Faith was always important to me. Somehow it just seemed very true, real to me, very important. I look at it as a grace."

The transition from military service to Church service officially began in Vietnam in 1968. Working as a rifle company commander, Father Cregan lost half of his company in battle.

"It's tough to see these young guys getting killed and hurt," he said. "When one of the guys got hurt, everybody felt it. I looked at it as a time with death."

Lying in his foxhole late at night, looking at the stars and fingering pieces of a broken rosary, Father Cregan began to realize his next calling: the priesthood.

The phone call that changed his life

Thirteen months later, back on American soil, Father Cregan began making "notification calls" - sometimes as many as three a week - to inform families that their loved ones had been killed in combat.

"It helped me - all of that - to see how fragile life was," he said. You've got a limited amount of time, he began telling himself. What are you going to do with it?

While serving in Norfolk, on what would be his second-to-last tour, Father Cregan attended two retreats. By the end of them, his call to the priesthood was as clear as "a blinking neon light," he said. "It finally got to the point that I knew I just wouldn't be at peace for the rest of my life" if he didn't at least make a phone call.

So, while sitting at his desk at Marine headquarters, Father Cregan opened the Yellow Pages, flipped to the Diocese of Arlington entry and picked up the phone.

A few months later, while on a week's leave from the Marine Corps, Father Cregan began taking classes at Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md. He returned to Arlington the next week to officially retire at the rank of lieutenant colonel.

Discernment

At Mount St. Mary's, Father Cregan said he continually felt more certain and at peace with his new path in life. He felt none of the struggles that at times he witnessed in others, and couldn't help but wonder why.

"Maybe you had all your struggles before you got here," a friend said.

Father Cregan was ordained by the late Arlington Bishop John R. Keating on May 9, 1987.

He served at St. Patrick Parish in Chancellorsville, 1987-91; Nativity Parish in Burke, 1991-93; St. Elizabeth Parish in Colonial Beach, 1993-96. In 1996, he was named pastor of Blessed Sacrament, where he remains today.

After 13 years shepherding the church that he says is "alive with faith," Father Cregan said he has most enjoyed watching the parish and school's children grow up - some even into Marines who served in Iraq.

Father Cregan recently completed his third year as bishop's delegate for clergy, and has become a living example of the words of his former teachers: "stick with the Church."

"That's a simple way to live your life," Father Cregan said. "That's where you find God's will. God doesn't want good for you; He wants the very best."

Retired Marine Lt. Col. Father John Cregan should know.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2009