'So how's my old altar boy doing?" I didn't need to look up to know it was Monsignor Tom Cahalane. His Irish brogue is a giveaway.

Last week I went to see Msgr. Tom, whom I've known for more than 40 years, since I was an altar server at downtown's St. Augustine Cathedral. We talked about his life as a parish priest for the last 50 years.

Today the parishioners of Our Mother of Sorrows Catholic Church on South Kolb Road near 29th Street, where Cahalane has been pastor since 1981, will celebrate the golden jubilee for this son of West Cork, first with a midday Mass at the church followed by a nearly sold-out reception at the Doubletree on South Alvernon Way near Broadway. Seven family members traveled from their native Ireland to be here.

His five decades of service to God and people has been joyous, said Cahalane, who was ordained in Ireland on June 8, 1963.

The joy, however, was not instant.

As a young priest of 24, "I had more fear than joy," he said. Now as he approaches 75, "I have more joy than fear."

Parishioners and visitors at the festivities also will honor Our Mother of Sorrows for the 28th anniversary of the dedication of the present church, the 35th anniversary of the parish fiesta and the 55th anniversary of the parish.

"We have grown together," said Cahalane of his relationship with his parishioners.

Under Cahalane, Our Mother of Sorrows has grown into an active parish known for its social-justice and charitable work. Among its projects, the parishioners support a women's winter shelter in Tucson, a children's refuge in Agua Prieta, Sonora, and a shelter in Haiti.

But much more needs to be done, he acknowledges.

"We are only scratching the surface," he said.

Service to God and to people comes from his parents, Thomas and Hannah Cahalane, and extended family. When he was growing up in the emerald countryside, there were always people in need.

"Mother always welcomed itinerant people who came to our home. She always had food ready for them. It is a significant part of 'love thy neighbor,' " Msgr. Tom said.

Another significant person in his life was his cousin, the Rev. Cornelius "Con" Cahalane, a priest serving in the Tucson Diocese when Cahalane was a lad. He wrote his young cousin to encourage him to give up the verdant rolling hills for the lush Sonoran Desert.

Msgr. Tom's first assignment was in Scottsdale when Maricopa County was part of the Tucson Diocese. After four years he moved to San Manuel, where he served for two years.

In 1969, Cahalane was assigned to the cathedral, where he served with Monsignor Arsenio Carrillo. While there, the tall young priest with curly brown hair served as director of the Catholic Youth Organization and Vicar of Education for the diocese.

He was equally a student and a leader.

"I learned a lot through the teens. I found great reception and openness."

While he felt rewarded, Msgr. Tom wanted to serve a parish as pastor. He approached his new parish with his lifelong philosophy that the "Lord is present and merciful, and we are all called to leadership and service."

Msgr. Tom is a true parish priest. But he also is a poet priest.

Along his 50-year spiritual journey, Cahalane has written poetry, largely keeping it to himself or sharing it with his family and close friends. At the their urging, he self-published a collection of his work,

"The Poet Within," using his Gaelic name, Tomãs õ Cathalãin, in recognition of his deep Celtic roots.

One of his poems reads, in part:.

"Fifty years a' priesting have now elapsed

Since the commissioning ordination day.

Now there is prayerful pause on the desert journey,

...Towards the land of promise

...The land of mystery so near yet so far."

Msgr. Tom embraced the desert, Tucson and its culture, and his adopted country, with vigor and love, knowing that God was with him.

He would tell you that in his Irish brogue.

Ernesto "Neto" Portillo Jr. is editor of La Estrella de Tucsón. He can be reached at 573-4187 or at netopjr@azstarnet.com