But while Father Cathal Gallagher has been given an opportunity to sort out his immigration status by the immigration authorities, he is now out of a job after his local bishop installed a new pastor in the town of De Smet, where Fr. Gallagher has lived for more than a decade.
And this move, even more than the threat of deportation that was supposed to take effect on July 1, has caused rancor and upset in the three parishes in Kingsbury County served by the Gweedore, County Donegal native.
However, the one indisputable silver lining is that Fr. Gallagher is being allowed stay put for the time being. And he intends to.
“I haven’t got a full answer (from the office of Citizenship and Immigration Services) but I have been told to do three things,” Fr. Gallagher told the Echo Tuesday, the day that was to be his last in America until a last minute phone call came from CIS.
“I was told that immigration is working with Washington in an effort to resolve my case. I have also been told to report to Sioux Falls on July 14 for fingerprinting and photos.
“But most of all I was told don’t leave the country,” Gallagher said.
Gallagher faced deportation this week because his legal status in the U.S. had lapsed for a few weeks some years ago.
Now, even despite his reprieve, Fr. Gallagher, a member of the Columban Fathers missionary order, has had to say goodbye to his parishioners in De Smet, a small town in eastern South Dakota made famous by author Laura Ingalls Wilder whose written works inspired the “Little House on the Prairie” television series.
He has bid similar farewells to the faithful in nearby Arlington and Iroquois parishes.
“Oh my God they were outside,” Fr. Gallagher, who is 58, said of the huge congregation which attended his final Mass in the church of St. Thomas in De Smet last Sunday.
“It was very nice, very impressive, very touching,” he said.
Members of all three parishes are adamant that Fr. Gallagher should be allowed stay on.
But according to a report in the De Smet News, the bishop for the diocese of Sioux Falls, Bishop Paul Swain, has run afoul of parishioners who believe he did not do enough to hold on to Fr. Gallagher and acted too quickly in replacing him.
“At this point it appears the bishop has abandoned father’s case,” said one parishioner.
“Well this is of course something that none of us wanted to happen,” was Bishop Swain’s response to local reporters.
He said lawyers for the diocese had tried to figure out a way to keep Fr. Gallagher in the country.
“And they informed us a little earlier this year that there was no way that that decision was going to be reversed,” Bishop Swain said of the deportation ruling.
Based on this advice he had acted to find a new pastor for the three parishes.
However, the latest twist in the case could prove to be a new headache for Bishop Swain.
While the original ruling indeed cannot be reversed, it is possible for CIS to reopen the case and take an entirely new look at it.
And if that happens, Fr. Gallagher can rely on the support of the entire South Dakota congressional delegation, that being two senators and an at large member of the House of Representatives.
Fr. Gallagher first arrived in South Dakota a decade ago at the invitation of Bishop Robert J. Carlson, then-head of the Diocese of Sioux Falls.
It was quite a change for a priest who had spent 22 years in Japan. But Fr. Gallagher quickly fell in love with the prairie, its small towns and people.
As soon as he was eligible, Gallagher applied for permanent U.S. residence.
In 2003, two years after applying, he was informed that he had been successful and that a green card was in the mail and that this would supplant his temporary religious worker’s visa. It never arrived.
Instead, Fr. Gallagher’s application had, it turned out, become victim of what he feels might be a more literal, post 9/11 interpretation of immigration law.
What’s certain is that the Department of Homeland Security’s office of Citizenship and Immigration Services has decided that somewhere along the line, Fr. Gallagher’s legal status had lapsed for a period of a few weeks.
That same office has now decided that the lapse does not warrant immediate deportation, but all else in the case remains up in the Dakota sky.