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MPR’s Paul Gruchow interviews Father Larry Gavin, of Wilmont Minneosta, about his sexuality and his vow of celibacy.

This recording was made available through a grant from the National Historical Publications & Records Commission.


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PAUL GRUCHOW: What was the process by which you decided to become a priest anyway? What were the attractions in it for you?

LARRY GAVIN: It's always kind of difficult to answer. I had an uncle said he thought I'd be a coach. And when I asked him why, he said, well, because you always got along with people so well. And I think maybe that's the key to the why of an attraction to priesthood was that even though athletics might have been at that moment something I was getting along with people at, that there was a deeper calling within me to come to people at another level.

Now, I'm sure at 17 when I went into college dedicated to the priesthood, I wasn't intellectualizing at that level. But as you came up against the difficulties and the studies and all of this, I'm pretty sure probably if you'd asked me this in '53 when I was ordained, it was a matter of God's will and serving God. With another fat man, John XXIII who came along and called a council and kind of brought God down into our midst instead of off up here somewhere, we suddenly realized--

PAUL GRUCHOW: Father Larry Gavin, Wilmont, Minnesota. Father Gavin is plump, friendly, given to talk in scholarly abstractions. He was once a college lecturer in church history, and he prepared himself for life in a small town by reading rural sociology, unassuming a little black priest's hat hangs on the hallway stand.

But it is the cloth baseball cap with the fertilizer slogan that he wears around town. Father Gavin talks about himself and his sexuality. Does detachment for people and the fact of a life of celibacy ever seem contradictory to you?

LARRY GAVIN: I guess we're kind of-- the same type of evolution in my thinking of celibacy is about-- I don't really know as I walked out that, first of all, you went into a college situation and a seminary situation for eight years, really, with no high school dating in the real sense of that word at all so that you kind of had an eight year period of limbo in which you were kind of protected off.

College, you did some dating, but it was still you're going towards priesthood celibacy. And so not in any seriousness of this. I remember back in an era of the '40s where the whole sexuality bit is not in front of you in the same sense as it has been since then. And then actually in the '50s, having to come to grips with what this was really all about, how you-- were you technically standing alone or were you coming to grips with your sexuality in the midst of men-women relationships that were not going to end up in marriage.

And I would say that possibly until mid-'60s when actually sitting down and trying to talk sexuality with college nursing students that I ever really have to work through in my own mind how I could talk sexuality and walk away from a commitment that was completely one of marriage to a commitment of one being fully man within a world and a celibate man.

PAUL GRUCHOW: I guess there are questions that lay people always have about clergy. There's just a natural curiousness that people have about each other. And I think one of them is this question of how do priests and nuns face up to that question? Is it something that priests and nuns worry about or think about, or does there come a point in life it doesn't much matter?

LARRY GAVIN: There's always the old stories, the priesthood who said, well, when you're 70, you have no problem at all. And then it comes down to breakfast the day after his 70th birthday and says to the assistant, it must be 71.


And I think this is kind of the real tone of the thing that the political sphere demands that the husband and wife be there, that almost every sphere demands that they're not necessarily husband and wife, but man-woman syndrome is always there in front of you. And I think what's happened within the church in the past few years, particularly in, say, the relationship of our staff has gone to a point where we're talking team. Our team has gone to a point where we're talking community.

And that community talks of a point in which we're really a supportive role of loving concern for each other, that the completion of the team say here is myself and three celibate women. But we're aware that I'm a man and that there are women and that we are complementing each other in this.

I guess we become aware of the fact that we really need the completeness of God's creation and sexuality, that I really kid myself if I don't think that I need to be accepted by, well, individual women, say, that within the community that the women that I work with in the parish level that I accept them as women not as thing that they accept me as man not just as father, a neuter that sits out here by itself.

And the same with my relationship with religious women. See, when I was ordained, I was told in so many words that there were just two spheres in which I really functioned, that of my family and that of my fellow priests. Now, obviously, when you came to celibate life and you're pretty well protected.

But anything else that came on a level of real feeling or of sensitivity, you were in danger. You really, really run-- the front doorbell here since we sat here hasn't rung. Part of this is because we built up a facade around ourselves that we're so busy that they don't come to father.

The other is that he was so authoritarian that you didn't come to him for something that was maybe really a need. And how do we hit the balance that I can be so busy that I'm not available, but possibly this is another myth. And the other is, how do I overcome the fact that maybe I am really interested in these people as people?

PAUL GRUCHOW: Did you think when you first became a priest about the title father at all or having people call you that. Did that confront you in any way?

LARRY GAVIN: No, I don't-- as far as title goes, no, I really-- I have had a couple of periods in my life in which I wasn't too sure that I wanted it as a reverence type of thing or as setting me apart. I kind of grow through that in the sense of a real feeling that maybe my greatest objection is invalid in the sense that I feel that I'm demanding from them more than they want to give.

And two, I usually found that when I tried the mystery thing or Joe or Larry or whatever you want to call it that in one sense, I was taking something away that they really wanted within their own lives, that it was my hang up not theirs that was getting in the way of the thing.

As far a the other, it's really interesting when you get in the middle of celibacy and you say, well, about the only time I ever missed the title of father as really a human father is when one of those cute little first graders look up at you. And you suddenly realize, hey, you know? Maybe that's when you start really seeing the part that was pressed maybe too much in the past of sacrifice, that maybe it isn't the sacrifice of sexuality or sexual action as much as procreation type of thing that could be said.

That's about the only time the nostalgia really comes sailing in is some blue-eyed little gal looks up at you and you say, well. That might be. But other than that-- it's kind of interesting that it's only first graders who give you nostalgia. I don't know whether I'm still in the Victorian age of that or what, but I must admit that I do notice the other ones around.

PAUL GRUCHOW: Father Larry Gavin, Wilmont, Minnesota. This is Paul Gruchow.


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