Fr. Digal: St. Bernard’s singing, ‘Pied Piper’ priest
Father Danilo “Danny” Digal, who led the post-Katrina rebuilding of Our Lady of Prompt Succor Church in Chalmette and strived to reunite the scattered faithful of St. Bernard Civil Parish, died in his native Philippines after a long battle with diabetes and kidney disease.
A priest for 38 years, Father Digal died on July 20, the day before his 65th birthday.
“He died as a man truly committed to the Lord Jesus and to priestly ministry,” said Archbishop Gregory Aymond, the main celebrant at Father Digal’s Aug. 6 Memorial Mass at Our Lady of Prompt Succor, the church shepherded by the late priest from 2003-13.
“He truly died to himself in order to serve and to love God’s people,” said the archbishop, recalling how every time he met with Father Digal at OLPS, he would express two dueling emotions: his lingering concern for the welfare of his hurricane-dispersed flock and his “humble pride” in the courageous people of St. Bernard Parish.
“Who will follow in his footsteps? Who will pick up his chalice?” the archbishop asked congregants. “I am quite sure there is someone in this church this morning – perhaps a Filipino young man – who is being called to follow Jesus and follow the example of Father Danny.”
Left homeland to serve N.O.
Born in Tagbilaran City, Philippines, on July 21, 1951, Father Digal attended Divine Word College and Immaculate Heart of Mary Seminary in his hometown. He completed his philosophy and theology education at San Carlos Major Seminary in Cebu City, Philippines.
Father Digal was ordained to the priesthood on April 10, 1978, in Surigao City, Philippines, his assignments in that diocese including tenures as a program director of a Catholic radio station, a pastor and diocesan chancellor.
He relocated to the Archdiocese of New Orleans in 1986, in response to the American church’s shortage of native vocations. His first assignments were as parochial vicar of St. Benilde in Metairie, Visitation of Our Lady in Marrero and St. Angela Merici in Metairie.
Father Digal was incardinated into the Archdiocese of New Orleans on April 27, 1993, and subsequently assigned to pastorates at Nativity of Our Lord in Kenner, Infant Jesus of Prague in Harvey and Our Lady of Prompt Succor in Chalmette.
In 2014, a year into his final pastorate at Holy Spirit Church in New Orleans, Father Digal retired from active ministry due to failing health.
Devotion to ‘Momma Mary’
At the Mass, which included the singing of Psalm 23 (“The Lord is My Shepherd”) in the Filipino language of Tagalog, homilist Father Joel Cantones, Father Digal’s seminary classmate and pastor of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Hahnville, praised the “dynamic” priesthood of his friend. He said Father Digal’s “greatest performance” was putting OLPS Church back together after Katrina – using the pastoral style that Pope Francis is always calling for: a man so present to his flock that he “smells” like his sheep.
“He didn’t just talk the talk; he walked the walk. He rolled up his sleeves and worked for and with his people,” Father Cantones said.
Father Digal’s compassionate side was evident in 1988, when he and Father Cantones – along with fellow local Filipino priests José Roel Lungay and Jaime Apolinares – brainstormed ways to raise money for their typhoon-damaged Filipino seminary.
“Father Danny suggested that we do Christmas caroling,” said Father Cantones, noting how the resulting quartet – “The Singing Priests of New Orleans” – had their most memorable performance at the United Nations Arts and Cultural Center. A solo sung in Father Digal’s rich baritone summed up the man himself, said Father Cantones: “Lord, you alone are the one I love. My life is short, and whatever I do, I will try my very best – honestly, sincerely, always.”
Father Cantones also pointed to Father Digal’s devotion to the Blessed Mother – whom he called “Momma Mary” – and his passion for the New Orleans Saints and Filipino boxing legend Manny Pacquiao.
The late priest’s rendition of “Tomorrow,” from the musical “Annie,” still resonates with Father Cantones.
“Indeed, Father Danny, the sun will come out again to you tomorrow, not in this world, but in the world to come,” Father Cantones said. “The voice of the Father will say, ‘This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased. Welcome home to my kingdom – the true ‘homeland security’ – where there will be no more tears, no more sorrows, no more pain.’”
Proud of adoration chapel
Lifetime OLPS parishioner Juanita Coco remembers the pastor whose door was always open and who “made it his business” to visit every hospitalized parishioner.
“He totally blew us away with his homilies. The humility he had – he would touch everyone’s heart!” said Coco, who like so many displaced St. Bernardians, commuted from great distances to help revive the flagship church. Although Father Digal’s tasks included refurbishing the church, rectory and school, his proudest achievement was bringing an adoration chapel to OLPS, Coco said.
“He saw to it that our parish would come back by all means,” she said, describing how Father Digal made sure members of every storm-shuttered church in St. Bernard was represented on parish committees. If someone had been active in a specific ministry before Katrina, Father Digal would encourage that person to resume it at OLPS.
“A clustered parish is what we called it – ‘OLPS Clustered Parish’ – because we all joined together,” Coco said.
“After Katrina, we would walk the parish – it was like a war zone,” she added. “Father Danny saw to it that we had a group of people that would go door to door, street to street, even though there were very few people in the parish. If we saw a FEMA trailer, we would knock on that door. He saw the influx of Hispanics (to the area) and made sure our brochures were written in Spanish and English.”
Amid the sadness, the pastor made sure hope – and humor – reigned. When Altar Society members would arrive to clean the church on a Saturday morning, their pastor would occasionally leap out of hiding from a pew to give them a good-natured jolt.
“He would be sitting there, waiting for us to come in!” Coco said.
A healing ministry
Father Digal devoted his retirement to raising funds for the Divine Mercy Shrine in the Philippines, expressing in emails to Holy Spirit parishioner Elsie Tuazon that the work had “spiritually healed” him. Although his illness necessitated a driver to take him to his dialysis appointments, Father Digal continued to celebrate Mass whenever possible.
“Every time he (celebrated) Mass he was given a small stipend,” Tuazon said, “and every time he would give that stipend to a young priest, because he remembered what it was like when he started out.”