Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
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Fifty years of priesthood for Father Armand Nigro: ‘I am profoundly grateful to my parents and ancestors, and to the people I’ve tried to minister to’
by Mitch Finley, Inland Register staff
(From the Sept. 14, 2006 edition of the Inland Register)
Jesuit Father Armand Nigro (right) celebrates 50 years of priestly ministry this year. (IR file photo)
Jesuit Father Armand M. Nigro, a native of Spokane, recently visited his home town from his current assignment at Holy Spirit Center, a retreat facility in Anchorage, Alaska, to celebrate 50 years as a priest in the Society of Jesus. Friday, Aug. 11, a Mass was celebrated at Father Nigro’s home parish of St. Aloysius. A reception followed at the nearby Knights of Columbus Hall.
Armand Nigro was born in his parents’ home on Spokane’s Fairview Ave., March 29, 1928. He attended Cooper Elementary School for seven years, then Gonzaga High School, and after his junior year he entered the Jesuit novitiate. As Father Nigro remembers it, “Father Toner and Father Altman, the president, said, ‘You’re wasting your time going back to high school.” They suggested he go to the Jesuit novitiate, located then in Sheridan, Ore., and finish there. “So that’s what I did. I was 16 and entered the novitiate in 1944.”
He took his first vows in 1946. He completed his first year of college at Sheridan, then moved to the Jesuit scholasticate at Mt. St. Michael, near Spokane, for three more years of college work. Following that, from 1951-1953 he was sent for two years to work at Holy Cross Mission, on Alaska’s lower Yukon River.
“I was in charge of the school boys,” Father Nigro says, “from age 7 when they were in second grade, to when they finished grade school. Since some of them were older before they got there and there weren’t any schools in the villages then, you might have a 16-year-old still in grade school. But they were bright, and they made quick progress.”
Next, he completed four years of theology studies at Alma College, now the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, above Los Gatos, Calif. Father Nigro was ordained by Bishop Bernard Topel on June 16, 1956, after his third year of theology. The ordination took place in Spokane’s St. Aloysius Church, where the new priest had been baptized and confirmed. “Actually,” he says, “I was baptized in what was called St. Mary’s Chapel, a little chapel in what later became Mary Queen Parish.”
Following his fourth year of theology, Father Nigro was sent for his Tertianship, or third probationary period, to Port Townsend, Wash. “It was like the novitiate, so there was more prayer, study of the constitutions (of the Society of Jesus), and we were out all the time, every weekend, helping out in parishes. I was sent to Spokane,” to St. Aloysius Parish, “to give the Novena of Grace for the first of five times. I also spent a couple of months as a chaplain at Sacred Heart Hospital,” now Medical Center, in Spokane.
Having given the Novena of Grace five times, Father Nigro says that the novena really hasn’t changed much over the years, “except that I think I was the first one to invite a woman,” his sister, Sister Rose Marie Nigro, of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace, “and get the okay, to help give the novena. It was the first time anywhere in the world that a woman was invited to do this kind of thing. Now they do it as a matter of course.”
In the fall of 1958, Father Nigro was sent to Rome for graduate work in philosophy and spiritual theology. The following summer, he was sent to Austria to study German. “I didn’t realize I was so fatigued,” he said, “but I had to take a break, and at the end of the summer I was feeling much better. I was recalled to the Province at that point, and I started teaching at Seattle University following Christmas break of 1959, in January, 1960. I finished the doctoral dissertation in 1963, and received my degree from the Gregorian University in Rome.”
Father Nigro taught philosophy and Scripture at Seattle University until the spring of 1965. Next, he taught philosophy at Mt. St. Michael until 1970. At that point, he joined the Religious Studies faculty at Gonzaga University and remained there for the next 30 years. Along the way, he also put in about four years teaching at seminaries in Africa.
In 1999, Father Nigro accepted an early retirement because, he says, “they were a couple of million dollars in debt, and they had to save money somewhere, so they cut down on faculty. That was the year that Gonzaga’s basketball team went to the Final Four, or the Final Eight, or whatever it was, and the applications roared up and they had to start hiring again; so I was in-between on that.”
Beginning in 1957, and until his retirement from Gonzaga University, during the summers Father Nigro gave many retreats, and he has continued doing that since his retirement. Since the summer of 1999, he has been full-time in what he calls “spiritual ministry.” In 2005, for about nine months, he was pastor of two parishes, in Dexter and Oak Ridge, Ore., on the Willamette Highway that goes to Crater Lake from Eugene. “It was great,” Father Nigro says, “because the people did all of the administration, all the reports to the bishop. When I was sent there, they said that I was the administrator, and I had the last word. I tried to discuss that a bit with the liaison, the priest in charge with the archdiocese, and finally I said, ‘Good, if I have the last word, my last word is whatever the people want to do, that’s fine with me, unless it’s immoral,” he said, laughing. “So they did everything. Nobody was on the payroll, they did everything from taking care of the yards to all the books, and administering the parish. Isn’t that wonderful?”
Father Nigro’s entire priestly formation and formation as a Jesuit took place prior to the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s. So he is among those priests who had to make the transition from the pre-Conciliar to the post-Conciliar church. “It was a piece of cake for me,” Father Nigro says. “I loved the pre-Vatican II church, too, I just felt very comfortable. But some of the things (from Vatican II) I thought were great, especially with regard to the liturgy, I thought that was wonderful, and facing the people, and praying in their language.
“What was upsetting to me,” he said, “and to a lot of us, was the earthquake that rolled through Religious communities and the priesthood, and so many of them left. That was sad, and it was very wounding to the church. And then the whole thing with Humanae Vitae (the 1968 encyclical of Pope Paul VI forbidding the use of artificial contraceptives). For me, I never had any problem. I would bring (into his university classes) the nurses and the doctors to talk to the kids about the Natural Family Planning. I never had any problems, but so many left the church at that time.”
With regard to the changes in the Mass following Vatican II, Father Nigro believes that “we didn’t lose anything; it depended on the priest. What is the priest doing? How is he leading the liturgy? How is he presiding? I wouldn’t want to go back to the old liturgy for the people. And yet, see, when I say Mass alone, if others aren’t present, I say the Latin Mass. I love it! I love both Masses, but Latin isn’t for the people, they wouldn’t understand a word of it.”
Fully aware of the profound hurt caused many Catholics in the Diocese of Spokane by the clergy sex abuse scandal of recent years, Father Nigro says, “First of all, I understand fully why some Catholics would stop going to church because of this. But I would just hope and pray that they will accept the diocese’s and the whole church’s attempt to bring reconciliation and let us know what we can do to help with their healing. With regard to people not directly involved but who were scandalized and left because of that, I would want to apologize to them on behalf of the church. Because I’m a priest it’s been very difficult, even for us. Now, when I travel, I don’t see anybody in clericals anymore. Hardly ever, in an airport or someplace like that. But I wear them, and then people do come up and ask, ‘Are you a Catholic priest?’ It’s still a wonderful opportunity to continue evangelizing, once they know who you are.”
On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of his ordination, Father Nigro reflects thoughtfully and says, “Gratitude is the primary thing for me. I’ve felt spoiled all my life. I am profoundly grateful to my parents and ancestors, and to the people I’ve tried to minister to, because they have loved so much, much more of God into me than I could ever have mediated for them.
“Also,” Father Nigro concludes, “I’ve never had a Jesuit superior that I didn’t revere or was not grateful for. Every single superior has just been a wonderful brother. I’ve never asked for an assignment. Whatever they gave me turned out to be the best for me.”