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Father Tim Hirten, Air Force chaplain and former pro basketball player, dies at 66

The Rev. Tim Hirten, a Bellmore native, was

The Rev. Tim Hirten, a Bellmore native, was a priest in New York City and Long Island Roman Catholic parishes before serving as an Air Force chaplain for 18 years, reaching the rank of major. He died Aug. 15 at age 66. Credit: Maureen Agostinacchio

Father Tim John Hirten’s devotion to God took him all over the world and provided comfort to those in harm's way.

As a chaplain in the Air Force for 18 years, Hirten served in Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and South Korea — achieving the rank of major while providing religious guidance and sacraments to U.S. troops on active duty and in combat zones.

When Hirten, a Bellmore native, would return home from an oversees tour, he would relate his experiences through homilies said at private family Masses or at his hometown church, St. Barnabas in Bellmore. Among those stories was a remembrance from one of Hirten’s first deployments shortly after 9/11.

"Upon landing in Baghdad, they were headed over to the barracks and they took on heavy fire," recalled brother-in-law Steven Agostinacchio, 64, of Bellmore. "He used to say, ‘There are no atheists in a fox hole.’ Everybody gathered around with their heads covered while the bombs were blasting and Tim, on his knees, crawled around and heard confession to whoever wanted it while the bombs are dropping on him."

Hirten had been stationed in Texas after a three-year tour in South Korea ended last year. He died Aug. 15 at Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, Texas, said his sister Maureen Agostinacchio of Bellmore. He was 66.

"He was larger than life," said niece and goddaughter Colleen Guarneiri, 35, of Merrick. "He did so much for other people and his country, always putting others before himself."

Born on Oct. 30, 1953, at Mercy Hospital in Rockville Centre, Hirten devoted the first part of his life to basketball. Despite getting cut from the team his freshman year, he played well enough at St. John the Baptist Diocesan High School in West Islip to earn a full scholarship to play at the Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio, where he scored 1,149 points, grabbed 627 rebounds and was inducted into the school’s athletics hall of fame, according to the website for the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA.

After graduation, the 6-foot-5 Hirten turned pro, playing small forward in the European Basketball League and in the Philippines, Belgium and Israel. He also went to training camp with the Knicks, Nets, 76ers and Pacers, narrowly missing the Nets opening night roster in 1975, the website stated.

Hirten also played five seasons with the Washington Generals, the longtime hapless foe of the Harlem Globetrotters.

Hirten began studying for the priesthood at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome in 1987 and was ordained in 1993.

After his ordination, Hirten played on an all-priest basketball team named the Runnin’ Revs. He just missed a long-range shot from the opposite free-throw line during halftime at a Knicks game at Madison Square Garden that would have netted him $1 million — money he intended to give to Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Bayside, Queens, where he was serving as associate pastor at the time.

In addition to Sacred Heart, Hirten served at the Basilica of Regina Pacis in Brooklyn and St. Joan of Arc Church in Jackson Heights, Queens, before beginning active duty in the Air Force.

In 1979, years before his ordination, Hirten started the Catholic Sports Camp at St. James Catholic Church in Seaford. The camp still operates at various parishes around Long Island.

Hirten, who also earned a master’s degree in social work from Fordham University, visited more than 75 countries and spoke eight languages — English, Spanish, French, Italian, Flemish, Korean, Hebrew and Filipino, Maureen Agostinacchio said.

"He loved to speak to people in their languages," said his brother Terry Hirten, 65, of Lindenhurst. "Even if he only knew a few words, he would try to communicate with them."

Tim Hirten, who served as a commentator on ABC's "Eyewitness News" coverage of Pope John Paul II’s visit to New York in 1979, was offered a role in the 2006 Martin Scorsese film, "The Departed." He turned down the movie role due to concerns over foul language and mature themes in the script, instead choosing to serve as a consultant on the film, said his sister, 62.

"He was a traditional priest in a lot of ways because he was trained in Italy," she said. "But he was definitely able to connect with younger people also, because of the sports and the languages."

In addition to Maureen Agostinacchio and Terry Hirten, Tim Hirten is survived by brothers Michael of Florida and Robert of Seaford; sister Nancy Hirten of Bellmore; and 15 nieces and nephews.

A three-day wake was held at St. Barnabas Church in Bellmore in August, followed by a funeral. Hirten was buried at the Long Island National Cemetery in Pinelawn.

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