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November 11, 2005

  With the death of Paul Taggart, the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington -- and, indeed, the secular community -- lost a veritable giant who stood astride two cultures separated by a generation warp. Taggart belonged in both.

He was an accomplished preacher who got his start as a radio announcer, a persuasive advocate who was once an insurance salesman, a sociologist who was sympathetic to those who struggled in cultures here and abroad which

Courtesy of the Diocese of Wilmington

looked upon them as an underclass, and a politician who mastered the art of the possible and who, had he chosen a different vocation, might well have served as mayor, governor, senator or in a combination of those offices.

As it was, he elected after a wartime tour aboard a battleship, during which he experienced combat, and several years in the business world to become a priest. He rose to be a pastor, monsignor and vicar general, the second-ranking official in a diocese, chosen as such by three bishops of strikingly different personalities and bent.

Many have wondered why Taggart was never elevated to wear the episcopal purple himself. It is the practice for the Vatican to select bishops from lists of

Monsignor Taggart

recommended candidates submitted periodically. It is impossible to believe that Taggart's name could have been left off any such lists that went forth from Wilmington. One has only to conclude that it wasn't there because he didn't want it to be.

He once indicated that by explaining that it would be difficult for a man in a diocese as small as Wilmington to effectively govern confreres, all of whom he knew personally -- on a first-name basis, so to speak. Therefore, his becoming a bishop would almost certainly mean assignment to a different place and Taggart so knew and loved the city where he was born and reared that he could not abide that. A manager who declined a corporate promotion because it involved transfer would understand.

Nevertheless, he went well beyond the customary promise of obedience to their bishop that priests take by enthusiastically supporting the five bishops under whom he served. When James Mulvee was appointed bishop of Wilmington, Taggart immediately flew to Manchester, N.H., to extend in person a welcome on behalf of the diocese. At the time he was diocesan administrator for the second time.

Taggart, a native of predominantly Irish-American St. Ann Parish, where he later served as pastor, was ordained in 1951. That meant he came of age in his profession in the '60s, the decade of upheaval. As it so often seems to happen, he proved to be the right man in the right place at the right time.

His church was shaken to its roots with the massive change emanating from the Second Vatican Council. Having grown up in the precouncil church, he was steeped by education and the atmosphere of a largely insular community in the rigors of its dogma and seemingly immutable traditions. Many priests of his age and background resisted what their Pope had proclaimed as reform and, at best, eventually went along with scarcely-concealed reluctance. Quite a few simply walked away.

Taggart, on the other hand, embraced change. He was at the right hand of the then bishop, Michael Hyle, as that bishop sought to implement such things as English liturgy, responsibility for freely choosing what formerly had been imposed by command and entering into rather than avoiding the modern world. Transformation was more than theoretical as real controversies threatened to divide the Catholic community into several factions.

At the same time, the civil rights movement demanded that principles subverted for a century be put into actual practice. Taggart was recognized as being in the forefront of that effort -- literally in the front in the case of Martin Luther King's march in Selma, Ala. Years before, Taggart was instrumental in founding the local chapter of the National Conference of Christians & Jews and the Catholic Interracial Council.

When riot broke out in Wilmington in the wake of King's assassination, Taggart, then pastor of St. Paul parish, spent a harrowing night with parishioners living in the city's near west side, site of the worst unrest. He was point man for the diocese's involvement with disaffected youth and was prominent in the chorus protesting the months of repressive deployment of the National Guard and advocating enactment of open accommodations legislation.

He was less inclined to publicly oppose the Vietnam War although sympathetic with the young people and others who demonstrated against it. In part that reflected his being a Navy veteran from the 'greatest generation', but more so his friendship with James Walsh, a Maryknoll bishop who spent 12 years in prison for his opposition to communism in China and unwillingness to acknowledge the legitimacy of an independent Chinese Catholic church.

In his capacity as a diocesan administrator, Taggart was director of the local effort to support foreign missions -- his late sister, Barbara, was a medical missionary in Asia -- a member of the building commission which oversaw the construction of St. Mark's High School and development of All Saints Cemetery -- where Taggart will be buried. He was a funds raiser par excellance -- with the ability to make front-page news of communion breakfasts by bringing to town the likes of Teresa of Calcutta, Fulton Sheen, Maria von Trapp, Frank Sheed and Mazie Ward.

Twenty years ago, columnist Bill Frank wrote of Taggart, "I am sure that historians will give this true blue Wilmingtonian a special niche in diocesan annals."

In response to his passing, the present bishop, Michael Saltarelli, issued a statement which said, in part: "We have lost a most respected priest. His ministry and service in this diocese is legend. He is one of the giants on whose shoulders many of us stood."

After retiring from his final post as rector of the Cathedral of St. Peter in 1994 and during a long and painful illness, Taggart awaited patiently the eternal reward promised to every 'good and faithful servant'. When the role of the clergy who made the diocese the vibrant institution that is is called, Paul Taggart will answer in the company of Edmond FitzMaurice, Francis Tucker, John Lynch, Thomas Reese, Thomas Lawless, James Enright, Justin Dinny and James Grant, other giants who have been patiently waiting for him to join them.

Requiescat in pace.

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