By the time Father John McShane arrived in Ely in 2013, he had become well accustomed to the “Frontier Parish,” spending more than 20 years as a Catholic priest across Nevada’s rural interior.
“I love the beauty of the area,” he said.
What he has seen in rural Nevada, and on the streets of Las Vegas, led him to do more.
In 2000, McShane created the Las Vegas chapter of the St. Benedict Labre Homeless Ministry, named after an 18th century French mendicant, a worshiper committed to a life of poverty, pilgrimage and prayer. The patron saint of the homeless, Labre spent more than a decade walking through continental Europe until his death in 1783.
The new parish met on the street corner, G Street and West McWilliams Avenue to be precise. Immediately, McShane witnessed firsthand the harsh realities within his flock.
“We had a couple deaths,” he said. “I thought, maybe I could do something extra to make life more livable.”
McShane maintains his homeless ministry by traveling to Las Vegas every Monday.
Born in San Francisco in 1943, McShane grew up in a Catholic environment. He served in the Army Reserve from 1964 to 1970, earning a history degree from the University of San Francisco in 1967.
“Being a priest has been in my thoughts since grammar school,” he said. “After tasting the world, I still had the desire.”
At 27, he left for seminary school in Columbus, Ohio. Four years later, the newly ordained priest received his first assignment as a deacon in Hawthorne. He briefly returned to Reno in 1974, where the Bishop of the Diocese assigned him to Carson City as an assistant pastor.
There, he led prayers at the State Senate and Assembly, and his parish included Governor Mike O’Callaghan. He returned to the Reno Cathedral in 1977.
“I love the history of Nevada,” he said. “And it wasn’t too far from San Francisco.”
Two years later the Church assigned him to the Las Vegas Diocese, where parish members came from all over the United States and the world.
“It was a totally different experience,” he said. “A faster pace and a lot more cosmopolitan.”
In 1982, he began his travels across the basins and ranges of the state, spending the next 14 years administering the faith in Tonopah, Virginia City, Fallon and Laughlin until returning to Sin City in 1996. Three years later, he became the chaplain of the Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada, working with the poor, immigrants, refugees and the elderly.
“I was trying to help the people on the margins,” he said.
He studied the practices of Mother Teresa, activist Dorothy Day and French writer and philosopher Simone Weil. In 1933, Day cofounded the Catholic Worker movement and newspaper in New York City, advocating direct aid to the poor and homeless. Weil, who was born ethnically Jewish in 1909, joined an anarchist militia fighting in the Spanish Civil War and eventually died in London attempting to join the French Resistance in her Nazi-occupied homeland.
“They believed in social action and voluntary poverty,” McShane said. “I think that’s where the church belongs.”
But while he focused on the “invisible people,” his vision and strategy clashed with those of the church establishment.
In 2004, amid disagreement, Las Vegas Bishop Joseph Pepe dismissed McShane from his position as CCSN chaplain, and two years later reassigned him. McShane left for the frontier again, this time to Caliente and Amargosa, splitting the next seven years between the towns before coming to Ely.
“We form relationships,” he said. “We have a tremendous amount of volunteers. I applaud the effort of young people in their 20s and 30s. Sometimes young people are maligned as seeming unconcerned, but they are deeply concerned.”
The Catholic Church faces significant challenges in the 21st century, including the repair of a tarnished image after a well-publicized worldwide child sex abuse scandal. In addition, McShane identifies a “vocational crisis,” admitting some difficulty in recruiting young pastors.
“We have to show ourselves to the world,” he said. “We have to join with others and become a little bit more mainstreamed. We need to try to work a little harder to stimulate interest. We need to stretch a little bit and move beyond the perimeters that have been set for us.”
Despite the difficulty, McShane has faith.
“We have a good Pope,” he said. “He’s calling us to smell like our sheep.”