Prior to his senior year at Boston College, where he was expected to start at quarterback on a team that had played in the Cotton Bowl the previous season, Edward D. Cowhig left college for the priesthood.
Called "my best signal caller" at the time by legendary Eagles coach Frank Leahy, he was accepted at St. John's Seminary in Brighton, and ordained in 1945 by Cardinal Richard Cushing. It was the start of more than a half-century of service that included 245 jumps as a military chaplain that earned him the headline "The Parachuting Padre" in a 1952 Globe article.
Father Cowhig died Jan. 6 at his home in Scituate of congestive heart failure. He was 90.
Father Cowhig was a gifted athlete, an outstanding student who was first prefect of our class at the seminary, and a great Army chaplain who mixed easily with people," said his close friend, Bishop Joseph Maguire, the retired head of the Diocese of Springfield and a former two-sport athlete at BC.
"I couldn't say enough in tribute to him. Even in retirement, he helped out at various parishes, going wherever he was needed. Father Cowhig was a natural leader and a wonderful gentleman and priest and I was always proud to say he was my friend."
One of Bishop Maguire's regrets was that he missed Father Cowhig's appearance at quarterback in the 1940 Cotton Bowl in Dallas, where BC lost to Clemson, 6-3, after a 9-1 season. "I was playing that day with the BC hockey team," he recalled, "but I caught up to him two years later at the seminary."
A 1937 graduate of Boston English High School and a member of its Athletic Hall of Fame, Father Cowhig grew up one of five siblings on Boston Street in Dorchester.
Three of his four brothers also were football players: Jerry was an All-Scholastic at Mechanics Arts High School and a Notre Dame captain who played professionally, primarily with the Los Angeles Rams; Jim played for the High School of Commerce and then starred at Fordham; and Frank put on the pads at Boston College High and BC.
Their father, David, was a champion bowler and sculler in Ireland who met his wife, Mary Ellen (McCarthy), on the boat that brought them to America in 1903.
Father Cowhig, who had a 43-yard interception for a touchdown in BC's 14-0 victory over Indiana in 1938, missed the opportunity to play for the 1940 BC team that went 10-0 and defeated Tennessee, 19-13, at the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans on New Year's Day 1941. But according to a 1940 Globe story, he had contemplated the priesthood since his sophomore season.
"Edward loves football," his mother told the Globe, "but the decision was an easy one for him."
Between ordination and 1950, when he entered the US Army Chaplain Corps, Father Cowhig was assistant pastor at Immaculate Conception Church in Revere and also served at St.
Frances de Sales Church in Charlestown.
During his 12 years in the military, he served Army personnel at Fort Bragg, N.C., and Fort Campbell, KY, and in Korea, Germany, and Okinawa, mainly with the 82d Airborne Division.
While at Fort Bragg, Father Cowhig helped start a 600-member
chapter of a Catholic church group, the St. Michael's Society, which
he referred to as "my boys." He leaped off chairs at the base rectory in preparation for parachuting with his fellow paratroopers.
He parachuted from 1,250 feet during "Operation St. Michael's," while smoking a cigar, a tradition he upheld no matter where he served. Father Cowhig would conduct Mass in drop zones after jumps.
He resigned his commission in 1962 after attaining the rank of major and moved to Scituate, where he lived for many years with his sister, Peggy.
From 1963 (at St. Michael's Church in Lowell) until his retirement in 1995, Father Cowhig held assistant pastor positions at several parishes, including St. Joseph's Church in Somerville, St. Jude Church in Norfolk, and Gate of Heaven Church in South Boston. He was pastor at Sacred Heart Church in Gloucester in 1971.
"Uncle Ed preferred to be an assistant. He wasn't as much interested in administration as in serving the Lord and working with people," said Father Cowhig's nephew Denis, of Sherman, Texas. "He was a great storyteller. A favorite was when one of the troopers at Fort Bragg complained that my uncle's homily on Sunday was too long because the exhausted soldier had just come back from a 20-mile overnight hike and wanted to get some sleep."
Father Cowhig, who earned a Master of Divinity degree at St. John's Seminary in 1975 and a master's in guidance counseling
as a priest at Framingham State College in 1976, provided counseling to disabled veterans.
He was chaplain at Pondville Hospital in Norfolk and Walpole from 1971 to '77 and a work release counselor for the state's Department of Correction.
In 1972, he was called to the state prison at Walpole at the request of convicted murderer William Sullivan, who was dying of leukemia. Sullivan told Father Cowhig that the codefendant in the case, George Reissfelder, was not involved in the shooting death of a Railway Express clerk at Boston's South Station six years earlier.
Father Cowhig, hoping justice would be served, told authorities about Sullivan's admission. Reissfelder's court-appointed attorneys, future senator and presidential candidate John Kerry and Roanne Sragow, won Reissfelder's release in 1982, based in part on Father Cowhig's testimony
"I think Sullivan knew a priest would be believed," said Father Cowhig's nephew. In 1986, Father Cowhig was featured in a television documentary that chronicled the Reissfelder case.
Father Cowhig leaves three other nephews and three nieces. A Mass of Christian Burial was held Tuesday at St. Mary of the Nativity Church in Scituate, where he was a parishioner.
"We mourn the passing of Father Cowhig, who was called to the priesthood during tumultuous times in the history of our nation and world," Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley archbishop of Boston, said in a statement. "He ministered with love, commitment, and a desire to bring the message of Christ to parishes and communities across the Archdiocese. We pray that God grant him eternal rest."
Burial was at New Calvary Cemetery in Mattapan.
[The Boston Globe, Boston, MA, 18 Jan 2010, Mon, Page B10]