Msgr. J. Gaston Hebert remembers his ordination day, May 26, 1960, with all the clarity of yesterday.
“Bishop (Albert) Fletcher was, of course, the bishop and Msgr. (Joseph) Murray was the VG (vicar general) and master of ceremony. Bishop Fletcher was an extraordinary man. Very humble, true Arkansan, a man of the earth. We had a class of eight. Unfortunately, of those, I am the only one left … It was a good class. Things were very simple at the time. It was a wonderful occasion. I remember my parents being there and my sister and her husband. It was emotional giving them the first blessing at the altar rail. A wonderful day … It is all very fresh in my memory.”
While he has been retired completely for 10 years, he still stays up to date with events in the Diocese of Little Rock and changes at his former parish, Christ the King Church in Little Rock, while he lives in Albuquerque, N.M.
The Hot Springs native will always have an impact on the Diocese of Little Rock, even though he hasn’t lived in the state for nearly nine years. The former pastor was also the vicar general under Bishop Andrew J. McDonald and Archbishop J. Peter Sartain and served as diocesan administrator when the diocese didn’t have a bishop from 2006 to 2008.
From 2000 to 2010, he also served as a chaplain and temporary administrator at his home parish. St. Mary of the Springs in Hot Springs. He compiled a book of his favorite homilies and columns and self-published a novel, “Priests: The Guise and the Guys Behind the Collar,” in 2014.
Msgr. Hebert chose to move to New Mexico to be near his niece, Gay McCollum, her husband Tom and their children and grandchildren, who all live close by.
“My niece is extremely kind to me and very caring,” he said.
During the pandemic, his contact with his family has been limited, the 85-year-old said in a phone interview with Arkansas Catholic. It has only been in the past couple of weeks that the McCollums have come to his home chapel for Sunday Mass.
Even before the pandemic, Msgr. Hebert admits he was slowing down. His mobility was greatly affected after a dog attack in a local park.
“On April 1, 2019, I was walking in the park and a 150-pound mastiff attacked me. Bit off my bottom lip to the chin. So a couple of hospital stays and plastic surgeon later, they tried to sew things back together to create a bottom lip. I still do have numbness in my bottom lip … It doesn’t look real great, but I have grown a goatee to disguise that.”
Before the incident, he was known to help out at his local parish, Our Lady of the Annunciation, when they needed a priest for Mass or confessions.
“I have a lot of mobility issues. It is difficult for me to do a lot of walking,” he said. “I don’t need a cane around the house, but if I go out of the house I use a cane. My health is pretty good.”
Now his days are limited to seeing his family, picking up his groceries, cooking his meals, celebrating Mass, praying his Divine Office and keeping up with his favorite history books by Hampton Sides.
“I don’t read fiction anymore. … He has written some absolutely marvelous works, ‘Blood and Thunder,’ ‘On Desperate Ground,’ ‘Ghost Soldiers,’ ‘Hellbound on his Trail,’” the former Catholic High English teacher rattles off.
For his 60th anniversary as a priest, there were no events to mark the day.
“The extent of my celebration was I ordered dinner in from P.F. Chang’s,” he said with a laugh. “I shared it with my niece and her husband. They sat on one end of the table, and I sat at the other.”
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