Every morning after daily Mass, Little Compton resident Dr. Joseph "Joe" H. Hagan heads to to socialize with his fellow locals.
A deeply spiritual man, Hagan's faith has helped him lead a phenomenal life. It’s one that has included conversing with presidents and popes, and serving at the Vatican as a Gentleman in Waiting for the past 20 years.
“John Paul liked to tease,” Hagan said, relating a conversation between the two.
But Hagan has never lost sight of home. A Renaissance man, the 76-year-old continues to find ways to serve his town and represent his state as an educator, legislator, college administrator, Vatican official and Lay Dominican.
A History of Faith, and National Service
Born in Providence, Hagan was raised in the Roman Catholic faith. He attended parochial schools and earned a bachelor’s degree from Providence College and a master’s degree in social studies and administration from Boston University.
Discerning a calling, he entered seminary.
“I studied for two years and determined it was not my vocation,” he said. “But I remain in the order as a Lay Dominican.”
Hagan taught in the Providence Public Schools from 1958-61. Then for the next three years, he served as legislative assistant to the U. S. House of Representatives in Washington, D.C. He became staff assistant to the President’s Committee on Juvenile Delinquency from 1964-65.
“The chairman was Robert Kennedy, who was Attorney General at that time,” he said.
The decades that follow include a number of notable posts, including serving as special assistant for Congressional Relations in the U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity from 1965-68; Vice President of Public Affairs at Bryant University; and a member of the National Council of the Humanities, appointed by President George H. W. Bush and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. He served in that capacity for eight years.
In 1978, Hagan became the president of Assumption College in Worcester, MA, where he would serve for the next 20 years. During that time he also became a trustee of John Cabot University in Rome and was appointed as a Gentleman in Waiting at the Vatican.
“You are recommended for that position generally by someone, a high official in the Church,” he said. “So I traveled to Rome in both capacities.”
From 1999-2001, he also served as interim president of Roger Williams University in Bristol.
Bringing His Faith Back Home
Currently, Hagan serves on the Rhode Island Board of Governors of Higher Education, a post he has held since 2006. He is also very active in town affairs in Little Compton, having served as town moderator and chairman of the Zoning Board and Budget Committee.
A parishioner of St. Catherine of Siena Parish, he attends daily Mass and serves as a lector, Eucharistic minister and 4th degree Knight of Columbus.
Hagan also holds the Grand Cross of St. Gregory the Great, an honor from the pope; Grand Cross of the Order of the Holy Sepulchers, and is a Knight of Honor of Devotion and Obedience of the Order of Malta. His wife, Patrice, is a Dame of Honor and Devotion and Obedience in the Order of Malta and has received a Papal Medal for her service to the Catholic Church, particularly for serving the poor.
The couple has one son, Kevin O’Malley Hagan. A graduate of Providence College and Roger Williams School of Law, he practices in Newport. He is married to Dominica, an Italian, and the couple has a two-year-old son, Thomas Antonio.
Reflections on Catholicism
According to Hagan, everyone is nervous when they meet the pope, and the popes do everything to put them at ease.
“Bush was very pleasant, as Clinton was, and pleased that I was an American on duty,” he said. “They are religious. Clinton is a spiritual man who reads the Bible. Bush is very spiritual. He and his wife are devout Methodists, and they got along beautifully with the pope. Bush is prolife, and Pope John Paul admired him. My opinion is that Bush is truly a Christian man, and the pope liked him very much.”
He said that Pope Benedict XVI is very traditional, but also warm and sweet.
“He has a beautiful personality. You can see it in his face,” said Hagan. “I think there was some question about his health when he was elected, but at the age of 84, he is extremely healthy, healthier now than when he was cardinal.”
The Hagans left for Rome on Sept. 19 to attend the ordination of the deacons of the North American College. They live in their own apartment in Rome, but plan to return home to Little Compton for Thanksgiving and Christmas. He notes that he is in Rome at least three months a year.
“I see the Church as being renewed,” Hagan said. “You would be so inspired by the young men who are preparing for the priesthood. They are incredible. We are going to have a group of wonderful priests as we go along.”
Hagan acknowledged the tragedy of the clergy abuse crisis and expressed sadness for the victims and the loss of credibility of the Church. But, he said the priesthood remains faithful, and the people in the pews, even with all the problems, remain faithful to Mass and have a great love for their priests.
This year, Hagan might stay in Rome even longer to teach a course in leadership studies, delivering a series of lectures at John Cabot University, where he is now chairman of the Board of Trustees.
Hagan said that all lay people today must work hard to be an example of real Christian living.
“St. Paul said that you can tell a Christian by their love, and when issues come up, we should just confront them in a Christian way,” he said. “People can believe what they want, but it is what it is, and you have to be fearless not to just go along. St. Dominic said to be a champion of the faith and a true light of the world. And I take that very seriously even as a lay person.”