January 30, 2024 // Diocese

Faith in the Face of Tragedy

After the deaths of his two daughters and his brother, Deacon Jim Tighe found peace in the presence of Christ

Catholic deacons don’t take a vow of poverty, but Deacon Jim Tighe knows how little temporal goods matter. Things you can own just don’t carry the weight they once did.

“I think of all the stuff I bought when I was 21 or 22 years old – that’s all gone now,” he says. “Ultimately, all that stuff doesn’t last.”

His current assignment isn’t expected to last long, either: Deacon Tighe, who has served his diaconal ministry at St. Jude Parish in Fort Wayne since 2011, is now also the administrator of St. Mary Mother of God Parish. He was appointed to the post after the church’s pastor, Father Wimal Jayasuriya, was appointed Bishop of the Diocese of Chilaw, Sri Lanka, in December. A new pastor is expected to be appointed in June, and Deacon Tighe is expected to return to St. Jude full-time.

Though his job at St. Mary is running the day-to-day operations of the parish – “signing things,” he says – he also brings a pastoral presence when he is there: He has a gentleness of spirit that comes from realizing what really matters. Even deep theological questions – on which he is fluent – pale before the Real Presence of Jesus Christ.

That spirit was hard won.

On March 14, 1999, his two children, Shelley and Megan, were killed in a car accident. Ask him how old they were, and he explains that Shelley was 19, home from college, and Megan was 16, a sophomore at North Side High School. And then he is silent for a long time.

Suddenly, he and his wife, Pat, were alone.

“I remember that first night at home,” he says. “We were sitting in bed, and we realized we had nobody but ourselves.”

But that feeling didn’t last long.

“I felt the presence of Christ, and so did Pat,” he says. “Nothing we owned mattered anymore, but Jesus was with us.”

People offered well-meaning advice, but it often only served as a reminder.

“They’d say, ‘Don’t worry, they’re with God.’ And I’d say, ‘Yeah, but I’m in Fort Wayne,’” he says. “People asked me afterward why we stayed here. I tell them the kids are here, and we’re not going anywhere without them.”

But the grief wasn’t finished.

On September 11, 2001, Deacon Tighe’s brother, Stephen, died in the terror attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. Stephen worked for Cantor Fitzgerald, as did Stephen’s brother-in-law, Timothy O’Brien – Stephen’s wife, Kathleen, lost both her husband and brother that day. Stephen, 40, left behind Kathleen and four children; Timothy, 41, had a wife and three kids.

Both lived in Rockville Center on Long Island, where Deacon Tighe grew up, one of five children. Rockville Center lost dozens of people in the attack.

“I think that in the long run, what that has done for me is the recognition that life is a journey. It’s a constant transition,” Deacon Tighe says. “We all have two choices: We can either curl up in a corner or come face to face with what happened.”

That doesn’t mean there won’t be raging emotions.

“Was I mad at God? Oh yeah,” he says. “It was like, ‘We’ve had enough of this. What are you doing to us?’ Especially after losing Stephen, it was like, ‘Why us?’”

Father Tom Shoemaker, Pastor of St. Jude at the time, said he remembered visiting Tighe on 9/11, along with Mary Pohlman, who was the Pastoral Associate at St. Jude.

“Mary and I went to Jim and Pat’s home, where the four of us sat and prayed,” Father Shoemaker told Today’s Catholic. “Every time the phone rang, Jim jumped. There was no good news. As the day wore on, it became more clear that Stephen would not be calling. In the middle of tragedy, Jim and Pat talked about their daughters and remembered the terrible day of the previous tragedy. Strong in their faith, both were able to focus on the gift of their loved ones, the grace of God that had never left them, and the Kingdom of Heaven.”

One night, he was alone in the darkened sanctuary of St. Jude Parish, locking up for the night. But instead of leaving, he knelt in front of the Tabernacle and began to pray.

“And I found myself yelling at Him. ‘Why? This make no sense! Why did this have to happen?’” he says. “Eventually, I calmed down, and just sat with the presence of Christ. I realized I wasn’t looking for clouds to open up and to hear God’s voice. This isn’t Hollywood, it’s an ongoing conversion experience.”

Deacon Tighe knows our entire lives, with all their twists and turns, are an ongoing conversion experience.

Nate Proulx
Deacon Jim Tighe poses with Bishop Rhoades following his diaconal ordination in 2011.

As a young man, he was considering a vocation to the priesthood, and even began attending seminary in New Jersey, but he realized the priesthood wasn’t right for him. After college, he wanted to break into the broadcasting industry and took a position through the Jesuit Volunteer Corps at a radio station in Nome, Alaska. Pat, who was from Chicago, was also volunteering in Nome with the Jesuit program as a registered nurse.

In 1974 they were married, despite her being a Cubs fan and him rooting for the Mets, and moved to Anchorage. Jim’s radio career took them to California’s Bay Area, then Sacramento, and eventually Fort Wayne’s 101.7 FM, at the time an easy-listening station. He would go on to spend a decade working at WOWO, where he was known as “Jim Tighe the Weather Guy.” Area Catholic listeners might remember him from his stint as the host of the morning show on Redeemer Radio.

After Shelley and Megan died, they were regular attendees at a grief support group – eventually they became grief support group leaders. Losses that might have shattered their marriage instead gave them new understanding.

“We saw a Jesus we didn’t necessarily know from grade school,” he says. “I saw in Jesus the presence of God with us – personally, not distant. … I think we both just understand that God is with us.”

Four or five years after Stephen died, then-Bishop John D’Arcy was beginning a permanent diaconate program for the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, and Father Shoemaker nominated Tighe.

“I think at that time we were both looking for ways to deepen our faith,” he says of himself and Pat.

The program was formation for both of them: All the married candidates’ wives attended every session, so they knew what their husbands – and they – were getting into. “They learned as we learned,” he says.

He was ordained in 2011, and he says the vocation is much more than just a job.

“It is who you are now,” he says. I pray the surrender prayer every day – I am the servant, and the servant doesn’t get to discuss what he’s going to do that day. He goes and does it.”

At the same time, being a husband is also who Deacon Tighe is.

“You don’t do this without your wife,” he says. “(Bishop Rhoades) has been great. He says, ‘If Pat doesn’t want it, we won’t do it.’”

Now, much of his day is spent keeping the busy St. Mary Mother of God parish running.

“Every parish is unique,” he says. “But it’s like a family reunion – everyone’s different, but we’re all connected in Christ. I just want to keep (the parish) in good shape until the next guy comes along.”

When Deacon Tighe gives homilies, he focuses on the fundamentals and often talks about the four pillars of the church: the teachings of the faith, the sacraments, living out our faith, and prayer.

“I figure my job is to make some of these things clearer,” he says. “I try to avoid theological terms.”

He’s well-versed in the details – “Pat says, ‘All you read is theology!” – but centers his ministry on being pastoral, because in the end, he says, everything but the presence of God in our lives falls away.

As Deacon Tighe told Our Sunday Visitor in 2021 for a feature on the 20th anniversary of 9/11: “There came a point after our daughters’ deaths when we realized that Christ alone was our way through this. Everything else didn’t mean anything. That’s the whole essence of Eucharist. The presence of Christ in our lives is our way out.”

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