Northwest Passage Maker

Priest Prolife

Father Joseph Anthony DeFolco Jr. is known to some as one of two Catholic priests sought out by the Washington, D.C.-area sniper in the days before he and his teen-age accomplice were arrested. Yet his ministry is anything but yesterday's news.

At the time of the shootings, Father DeFolco was pastor of Assumption Church in Bellingham, Wash. Now he's pastor of St. Michael's Church in Snohomish, about a 75-minute drive to the north.

In a recent interview with the Register, Father DeFolco — or Father Jay, as most call him — said he never did find out why John Allen Muhammad tried to contact him. He allows that Muhammad may have wanted to establish contact with investigators through him, as the authorities speculated. Or maybe Muhammad, although a Muslim convert, was seeking spiritual counseling.

Currently, Father DeFolco is busy establishing a second parish in which he will serve as pastor. To be called Holy Cross Church, the parish will serve the adjoining cities of Lake Stevens and Granite Falls. Construction will roll out over several years. For now, Holy Cross Masses will start in September at a Lake Stevens public middle school.

Father DeFolco is accustomed to pastoring two parishes. During the first four years of his six years at Assumption, he was also pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Bellingham. Also, Holy Cross is Father DeFolco's second church-building assignment, as he oversaw construction of a church in the early 1990s.

Father DeFolco has been a priest for 19 years, all within the Archdiocese of Seattle. His journey to the priesthood began at an early age. “When I was 10 years old, I told my parents for the first time that I wanted to be a priest,” he recalls. “I used the example of Father Gallagher as a reason why I wanted to be a priest.”

When Father DeFolco was 7 years old, his brother Robert died at age 19 of a rare illness. It was a sudden death, and the family went through very difficult times. Father Bill Gallagher, who was their pastor at St. Luke Church in North Seattle (now Shoreline, Wash.), befriended the family. “It was because of his helping my family that I wanted to become like him,” says Father DeFolco. “I wanted to follow his example.”

Born in Centralia, Wash., and raised in North Seattle, Jay DeFolco was the youngest of four children. As the years went by, he continued to be inspired by priests who served at St. Luke's. He graduated from the University of Washington in Seattle, earning a degree in philosophy. Later, he graduated from the seminary at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. He was ordained at age 26 on June 29, 1985, at St. James Cathedral in Seattle. Over the years, he served in various communities within the Archdiocese of Seattle - first as parochial vicar and a Catholic high school campus minister, later as pastor.

Another priest who greatly influenced the young DeFolco was Father Phil Bloom, also at St. Luke's parish. “He was the one who got me involved in teaching religious education, when I was a freshman in high school,” Father DeFolco says, adding that he saw Father Bloom as a man of deep spirituality who preferred a simple lifestyle. Father Bloom is now pastor at Holy Family Parish in South Seattle. Father Gallagher, a former pastor of St. James Cathedral, is retired.

Of priestly ministry in the Pacific Northwest, Father DeFolco says: “We're very much in missionary country here. Thirteen percent consider themselves Catholic. Only 30% are affiliated with any denomination or any religion. There are many who have never experienced church, religion, faith. So there is a real need for us to be evangelizing.”

Just before he moved to St. Michael's, in June 2003, the people of Assumption Church gave Father DeFolco a memorable and festive send-off. He was surprised — but he probably shouldn't have been. His parishioners' love for him was not exactly hidden.

“I was both a parishioner and his pastoral associate,” says Kathy Ernst, who remains a pastoral associate at Assumption. “I believe the marriage of my daughter and her husband was the first Father Jay celebrated in Assumption Parish. Father Jay loves witnessing marriages, and the experience was a graced memory in a long line of memories I have of Father Jay.”

Ernst, whose ministry under DeFolco was liturgy and outreach, says Father DeFolco was supportive of her decision to pursue a doctorate in ministry. “He himself is a passionate learner, diving enthusiastically into the study of Spanish and encouraging me — and, in fact, all of our staff — to do intensive language study and become more culturally aware and sensitive.”

Father Kenneth Haydock, pastor of Holy Rosary Parish in Edmonds, Wash., has known Father DeFolco since Father DeFolco was ordained. “He's not a one-man show,” says Father Haydock. “He very much responds to people, and he reaches out. He builds consensus.”

Those skills will no doubt serve him well as Father DeFolco builds a new church for his diocese — and builds on a ministry whose doors are open to all inquirers.

Armando Machado writes from Mount Vernon, Washington.