Once, en route to visit a Westbrook relative, Father Jim Gower mentioned being descended from the medieval poet, John Gower, who was celebrated by his good friend, Geoffrey Chaucer, as “moral Gower” and “noble Gower,” the latter phrase echoed by Shakespeare. 

The Rev. James Manley Gower, who died at 90 in Bar Harbor early Monday fully earned such “Gower” praise in his life of service as a parish priest, peacemaker and citizen marked by a boundless love for all he met.  

But it was his mother, Mary Barnes, an Irish immigrant maid from Sligo, who knew the Irish dispossession and famine and modeled his capacious love and compassion for the suffering. “Whatever you do, do good,” she taught.

After working his way through the University of Notre Dame, with a World War II Navy interruption in dangerous diver service before pursuing a second degree in philosophy, Jim worked for GE, tried law school and interned in Washington before choosing the priesthood.

“He was a priest of the people, the best we ever knew — a saint,” said Judy and Dale Ferris of Waterville, where Jim was a curate for 14 years, counseling and befriending so many — and initiating the Waterville Head Start program — that the armory was required in order to accommodate a farewell dinner. (Jim also introduced the VW beetle locally.)

A Waterville lawyer who served Mass for him recalled loving every minute he spent with Jim. When Jim retired, a parishioner there observed that church leaders never appreciated what they had in him.

But Jim revealed early what they had. Asking old friends what they could do for Bar Harbor, with its seasonal economy, led to them founding the College of the Atlantic. Agreement with Hugh Curran, a University of Maine faculty friend, that the demonization of nature is deeply rooted in Western consciousness; his interest in Teilhard de Chardin’s and Thomas Berry’s recognition of nature as sacred; and recognition that contemporary students could be reached through ecological concern contributed to COA’s human ecology focus.

He served on the COA board for 30 years and taught a peace studies course. Next year, COA will initiate a speaker series and scholarships in his honor.

Jim modeled Vatican II’s call for engagement with the modern world. He read widely, much about peace and social justice; he made two arduous weekend Zen retreats. His homilies often focused on Gospel nonviolence, discomforting the comfortable.

With requests to substitute on Sunday often came pleas not to rile the folks in the pews. He relished relating reports of complaints by summer Opus Dei congregants.

Parishioners found both a deep faith and wisdom in him. He once asked a young student who considered the priesthood, “Have you ever gone out with a girl?” To his no response, Jim advised, “I think you should try that first.”

His reputation for community commitment led to his key role in realizing senior housing in Bar Harbor in 1982.

After serving as chaplain at the University of Maine, where students remember his warmth and inspiring homilies, a leave put Jim on the road in 1983 organizing Pax Christi groups. He lived hand to mouth, with donated gas money to the next stop, sleeping in his car when a rectory or convent did not offer lodgings, in a 25,000-mile double circuit of the country.  

On return, Jim gathered a dozen Pax Christi groups in Maine, from Saco to Aroostook County. His witness guided Pax Christi Maine for over 30 years.

Song was often the expression of his faith and love. A frequent square dancer, he danced one Saturday night at a Pax Christi assembly in Erie until soaked in perspiration, then joined in singing Irish songs into the wee hours. At an 85th birthday bash at Most Holy Redeemer Church in Bar Harbor, he was still singing and dancing.

In the 1980s, Jim provided accompaniment in Nicaragua as part of a Maine Witness for Peace delegation. Hearing an anti-government editor complain of shortages of what were luxuries there, he impatiently reported that he grew up cleaning his teeth with salt water and his butt with newspaper!

On his return, he helped to load cargo containers full of humanitarian aid to the Nicaraguans.

Children invariably flocked to Jim — in Nicaragua and when, in retirement, he sat on a Bar Harbor Green bench on warm Sunday afternoons. His love for children, which his many nieces and nephews knew well, was also reflected in turning the spacious Bucksport rectory parlor into a day care center. 

Friends recognized his abundant love with a statue of St. Francis on the church lawn. Like Francis, he lived humbly, traveling light, possessions few, his car ancient, clothing threadbare — taking Jesus as his guide.

Jim’s constant focuses were Gospel nonviolence and family unity.

In a 2008 letter to a Houlton Quaker Pax Christi member, he identified Christ’s most important message as the free gift of one’s life instead of retaliating with violence and foresaw the day when the Catholic Church “will be the largest peace community in the world.”

His advice to them: “Be the church you want the Church to be.”  

In retirement, Jim made himself available wherever invited to talk about weekly Shalom dinners as a vehicle for bringing families together. Told of Jim’s fading health, a fellow priest, Father Phil Tracy, remarked simply, “I love that man.”

Father Jim Gower’s kind eyes and radiant smile warmed every room he entered, every gathering, manifesting the peace of Christ he served. Those who knew him recognized a saint in our midst.

Bill Slavick of Portland worked closely with Father Jim Gower in Pax Christi Maine, the Catholic and ecumenical peace movement.