By Jill Kruse-Domeyer
Witness Editorial Assistant
CEDAR FALLS — Twenty-two-year-old Hannah Ackerman of Cedar Falls never had the opportunity to meet her great-uncle Bishop Paul Leonard Hagarty, OSB, but a handmade rosary has recently helped her to connect with the Catholic faith community he served in the Bahamas for decades.
Ackerman’s great-uncle was born in Greene, Iowa, in 1909 and graduated from Loras College before joining the Order of St. Benedict at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota. He was ordained a priest in 1936 and was sent the following year to be a missionary in the Bahama Islands.
There, Hagarty served in a variety of roles, including as the auxiliary chaplain to British and American troops stationed in the Bahamas during WWII. In 1960, when the Diocese of Nassau was established, Hagarty was appointed the first bishop, a role in which he served for more than 20 years. Bishop Hagarty died in 1984 and is entombed in the cathedral in Nassau, the Bahamian capital city.
Ackerman said she knows of some of the details of Bishop Hagarty’s life thanks to information her mother, Margaret, and other relatives have shared with her.
“Growing up, I often heard my mom talk about her dad’s brother, her ‘Uncle Paul,’ Bishop Paul Leonard Hagarty, and I also heard stories through the years from my uncles and aunts,” Ackerman reflected. “Mom and her siblings knew him growing up. He would stop to visit on his travels to the states and to Iowa. She said he was very humorous and had that Irish wit, and it was always a very special visit for the family.”
Ackerman, who just completed her junior year at the University of Northern Iowa, is a history major and has had a strong interest in learning about Bishop Hagarty, a man who had the opportunity to meet several important religious and world leaders of his day and was himself honored to be named an Officer of The Order of The British Empire.
“It’s so fascinating to see pictures of my great-uncle meeting with Pope Pius XII, Pope John XXIII, Pope Paul VI, Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh, and one where he is attending Vatican Council II,” Ackerman commented.
This past school year, Ackerman got the idea to try to connect with the people of the Bahamas, to forge a friendship with them, as a way of honoring her great-uncle. She made a rosary out of blue glass pearls and sent it with a letter to Mary Star of the Sea Catholic Church in Freeport, Bahamas, a parish that had been founded by Bishop Hagarty.
Before she sent her rosary on its way, though, Ackerman, who is actively involved at St. Stephen the Witness Student Center at UNI, asked Father Nicholas March, St. Stephen’s chaplain, to bless it for her. Father March was happy to do so, he said, and was impressed with Ackerman’s desire to reach out to the faithful of the Bahamas.
“In an age when people are less interested in history and find it hard to make connections beyond the world of social media, Hannah stands out as a young person who does this intentionally,” Father March reflected. “Her faith guides her to care about the lives of others and to do the hard work of research and reaching out in the real world.”
“I was honored to bless her rosary before it made the journey to the Bahamas,” Father March said, before adding, “I only wish I could have hand-delivered it!”
Two months after sending her rosary to the Caribbean nation, Ackerman received a letter in response from the current archbishop of Nassau, the Most Rev. Patrick Pinder, STD. She learned that the pastor of Mary Star of the Sea Parish had passed along her letter and rosary to the archbishop, who decided to respond to it personally to thank her.
“He shared very kind words and told me about his personal connection to my great-uncle, including that Bishop Hagarty ordained him to holy orders,” Ackerman said. “It was really neat that he knew him.”
Ackerman hopes that the connection she has formed with the people of the Bahamas can continue. She would like to travel to the islands to possibly meet Archbishop Pinder, she sad, and also to visit the cathedral where Bishop Hagarty is buried and see some of the places where he spent so many of his years of ministry.
She said of her great-uncle, “I have great admiration for how he spent his life in service of God and that he helped grow the faith of Bahamian people from the early days.”
Father Nicholas March and Hannah Ackerman are pictured next to an image of the Virgin Mary on the day the priest blessed the rosary for her great-uncle’s parish in the Bahamas. Ackerman sent the rosary in December of 2017. (Contributed photo)