By John Connolly and Peter J. Smith

PASADENA, California, February 29, 2008 ( – A terminally ill Roman Catholic priest is the center of a tempestuous legal battle between a court-appointed temporary guardian – who has demanded his return to an Arizona care center – and family and friends – who believe such a move could kill him.

Fr. Bernard “Brian” Gallagher, 76, a retired priest from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Yakima, Washington, is the focus of a custody struggle between his family and a woman acting as his legal emergency guardian. Imelda Guadalupe “Lupe” Kowalczyk has insisted to authorities that Fr. Gallagher is mentally incompetent and cannot make his own decisions, among which is Fr. Gallagher’s well-documented desire to live with fellow religious in California and to finish his days with constant access to the Mass and the sacraments.

Earlier this week, Fr. Gallagher was taken, at his own urgent request, and over the objections of Kowalczyk, from a nursing home in Payson, Arizona to the well-equipped cancer care facilities at Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena, California. Once there it was discovered that Fr. Gallagher was suffering from an infected bladder, the beginnings of aspiration pneumonia from poor feeding tube treatment, as well as other symptoms. He had also lost a considerable amount of weight.

But sources say Arizona law enforcement is now exerting pressure to return Fr. Gallagher into the custody of Kowalczyk, who had deprived him of all contact with friends and family and the right to the Catholic Church’s sacraments. Those who are close to the terminally ill priest say any move from the hospital could jeopardize his life.

An attorney representing Fr. Gallagher, has instructed the hospital that the priest “not be moved and certainly not be moved at the behest of the very person whose motives and legal actions we are questioning in the California courts.”

Power of Attorney

In January, Fr. Gallagher was diagnosed with a stage IV brain tumor while undergoing treatment for a broken arm he suffered from a fall in Arizona. Fr. Gallagher, a California resident, had been visiting the Kowalczyk family in Arizona for a few days when he fell.

Family and friends close to Fr. Gallagher said Kowalczyk then took charge of his health care, while repeatedly deceiving those closest to him. Kowalczyk had power of attorney, which Fr. Gallagher had given to her and a friend, David Picella, in 2006. Kowalczyk, however, did not at any point notify Picella of Fr. Gallagher’s condition and misled him as to the priest’s whereabouts.

Those family and friends who are now fighting to keep Fr. Gallagher in California claim that Kowalczyk gave them the impression that the priest had been airlifted to Phoenix to undergo major brain surgery, but that doctors were unable to remove successfully the cancerous tumor.

However, when family members and friends made a surprise visit to the priest at the Payson Care Center, where Kowalczyk’s had had him moved, they found Fr. Gallagher had a full head of hair, with no sign of major brain surgery. The priest’s right to access the Catholic sacraments also had not been respected.

At the time of their visit friends and family were unable to convince Kowalczyk to let Fr. Gallagher go home to California for treatment. Instead they were informed that she planned to take care of Fr. Gallagher until he died and that she would receive caregiver money. She told Nicolas Gallagher, the priest’s brother in Ireland, that she was building an extension in her house for the priest, using the caregiver monies.

“It looked like the nurses weren’t paying close enough attention to take care of things,” Marian Bower, Fr. Gallagher’s cousin told “He didn’t have any clothes, just a blanket over him. They didn’t want to help him up to go to the bathroom, they just told him to use the bedpan.” attempted to contact the Payson Care Center, but was told, “We have no comment. Thank you.”

Power of Attorney Revoked, Emergency Guardianship Seized

Documents obtained by show that Kowalczyk seized emergency legal guardianship of Fr. Gallagher shortly after learning that the priest, dissatisfied with her unwillingness to return him to California, relieved her of her power of attorney and reassigned any health-care directive and legal control over his finances to his cousin James Logsdon.

“I, Father Brian T. Gallagher, fully revoke the Power of Attorney from Lupe Kowalczyk from St. John’s, AZ as having power of attorney over my affairs,” reads the letter, signed by Fr. Gallagher and also signed by witnesses on February 16, 2008. Again on February 19, Fr. Gallagher repeated this instruction before witnesses, which was recorded by friend Denise Riggio. (Listen to recording:

The priest also expressed his wish to return to San Juan Capistrano or live in a religious institute, “so that I may be with the Blessed Sacrament daily as well as receive the sacraments daily till the end of my days.”

Kowalczyk, however, sought and obtained Temporary Guardianship and Temporary Conservator over Fr. Gallagher after she asserted that the priest was mentally incompetent. A hearing to review guardianship is scheduled for March 13 in Apache County, Arizona, where she resides. The same day that she obtained emergency guardianship, Kowalczyk ordered Payson Care Center staff to cut off Fr. Gallagher from all visitors and all means of communication, including reception of the sacraments.

Several of Fr. Gallagher’s friends had traveled from California to visit him on February 23, but were abruptly turned away by several nurses following Kowalczyk’s “no visitor” orders. The visitors observed other signs of neglect, including a mattress on the floor to catch the priest if he fell off the bed, lack of bed sheets, insufficient clothing on his body, and the fact that he was lying flat on his back with his feeding tube installed, which can cause aspiration pneumonia.

Those closest to the priest claim that Fr. Gallagher is by no means mentally incompetent. Friend Eileen Querubin, a social worker for over 18 years, faxed a letter to Payson Care Center administrators stating that the priest’s patient rights were being violated. She related the many conversations he had with her and other visitors, saying, “Based on my professional judgment, Father Gallagher is not incompetent,” adding that she feared for the priest’s “safety and best interest.”

Priest’s Wishes Finally Honored Above Temporary Guardian

Kowalczyk is now fighting with the help of Arizona law enforcement to return Fr. Gallagher to her custody, but Fr. Gallagher’s legal counsel say they intend to protect the priest and expose the fraudulent grounds of her guardianship status. contacted Kowalczyk for comment on February 25, but she denied any knowledge of Fr. Gallagher and hung up on our reporter. She declined to comment when called again on February 28, instead directing reporters to contact her lawyer. She did not provide a name or phone number for her legal counsel.

“All we want for him is the dignity that every human being regardless of their station in life has,” said Bower. “He’s not getting that with [Kowalczyk]. And I can’t-I can’t stand by and allow that to happen. I can’t ignore that my cousin was being so mistreated, and he deserves all the dignity in the world.”

“When Fr. Gallagher was moved [from Arizona to California] he was very happy, smiling from ear to ear, saying ‘I’m home now, even though I’m in the hospital, I’m in California now,'” said Denise Riggio, a long-time friend of Fr. Gallagher’s who visited him earlier this week. “He is in a comfortable room, being monitored, has an IV, and is open to all visitors. The change was from bad to wonderful.”

Listen to Audio Recording of Fr. Gallagher Rescinding Kowalczyk’s Power of Attorney: