By Seth Gonzales
The Texas Catholic
Since 1994, Father Michael Dugan has been providing for the spiritual and educational needs of students at St. Elizabeth of Hungary Catholic School.
These days, he’s witnessing the fruits of his labor as alumni of the school return to thank him for being their role model. Recently, one alumnus even told Father Dugan of his discernment for the priesthood.
“When you hear things like that, it’s almost like the beauty of a parent who gets to watch their own child grow up,” Father Dugan said. “I feel my role is as a spiritual parent and I’ve had 20 years of watching children grow up.”
When he’s not visiting students in class during school hours, Father Dugan can be found in his office at the school’s parish, leading a diverse congregation of 1,500 families from across the southern Dallas region. Integrating both communities is a constant work in progress, he said, but a necessary one.
“I have always been a great proponent of the fact that the school is a very important part of the mission of the parish community,” Father Dugan said. “The school has to be involved in the parish and the parish has to be involved with the school.”
Still, principal Rachel Robb said it’s his outreach to the students that has earned him “rock star” status.
“One time he went into a religion class, picked up a student’s paper and the student was like ‘Oh my gosh, he touched my paper,’” said Robb, who taught at the school for 14 years before becoming principal this year. “They see him as approachable and as a real person, someone who you can really talk to.”
As an altar server during Mass, eighth-grader Faustina Richardson said she believes one of Father Dugan’s best attributes is his ability to put everyone at ease.
“He always makes the students laugh during our school Masses, especially the young ones,” Richardson said. “Whenever we do something for him during Mass, he always says thank you.”
It’s a culture Father Dugan said he has intentionally worked to create.
“It’s important that the pastor be able to establish a relationship with the kids that are a part of this community because here is a foundation moment for young people to experience their parish priest as someone who is approachable and someone they can have fun with and share life with,” Father Dugan said. “The hope is that they know they have a home, a place that’s their base where they can always seek for truth and continue to grow as good Catholics.”
It’s a home that alumni of the school haven’t forgotten. One of them is Christina Mullen, now a Dallas-based commercial litigation lawyer, who said Father Dugan made a big impression on her in two ways.
“What makes him special and sets him apart from many members of the clergy is his approachability and humility,” said Mullen, a 2003 graduate of the school “Father Mike always made himself ‘one amongst us.’”
Graduate Raymond Tolentino credited Father Dugan with his decision to continue his education at Georgetown University and eventually pursue a legal career in Washington, D.C.
“It all started with Father Mike,” Tolentino said. “His ability to teach us what it meant to be a Catholic in modern day society and why social justice is important, he was one of my role models I had growing up.”
For Father Dugan, the word “Catholic” is not a loose adjective in the phrase “Catholic education.”
“It can’t just be the greatest science or technology education,” Father Dugan said. “It has to be more than that. The reason most of them come to St. Elizabeth is the opportunity for their children to be formed as Catholics.”