By Dan Branch
Father Patrick Casey’s unique faith journey took him to Vietnam, where he rappelled out of helicopters to provide medical aid to wounded soldiers. After being ordained as a Missionary Oblate of Mary Immaculate (OMI), he served Catholic communities in Northern Minnesota and inner-city parishes in the Mid-West. Now he is the rector for the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Juneau.
Casey was born in Los Angeles, California to immigrants from Dublin. His father left Ireland as a thirteen-year-old stowaway on an American-bound freighter. After being caught, he was put to work shoveling coal. Custom officials interned him on Ellis Island until Catholic nuns arranged a home for him with a family in New Jersey. Kind acts like this by Catholic clergy would inspire Casey to join the priesthood.
Casey’s parents met and married in New Jersey and then moved to Los Angeles where they eventually owned a group of flower and gift shops and ran a catering business. Casey and his siblings helped out in the family businesses.
During his childhood, Casey enjoyed the company of the priests and sisters that came to the family home for dinner. To repay the Daughters of Mary and Joseph who taught her children, Casey’s mother organized a drive to collect the box loads of S&H green stamps needed to buy them a new Chrysler station wagon. At the time supermarkets gave out the stamps as a reward for shopping in their stores. When his mother was very ill a priest showed her great kindness and care. So, when a recruiting priest visited his eighth grade classroom, Casey seriously considered joining the priesthood. But it would be many years before he took that step on his faith journey.
After graduating from St. Anthony’s High School in 1964, he enrolled as a freshman at UCLA with plans to be a doctor. A year later he received his draft notice.
Because he had studied science at UCLA, the Army offered Casey a place at the Officers Candidate School. He accepted and started his military service as a Lieutenant. He was assigned to the U.S. Army’s First Division in Vietnam where he worked as surgical scrub nurse in a mobile hospital unit in Anquan. The base was attacked and overrun with the help of teenage suicide bombers from China. After the battle, Casey was shocked to learn that some of the bombers were prepubescent children. Later, he transferred to the 45th Medivac Unit at Tai Nin where he worked on a medical evacuation team.
His new unit operated mobile mass casualty hospitals that used helicopters as mobile ambulances to collect the wounded from battlefields. Over rough terrain, Lt. Casey’s team had to rappel out of the hovering helicopter. They only had minutes to stabilize the wounded and get them into the helicopter. The military trained him to maintain a professional detachment that allowed him to function when faced with horror and sadness. Later he paid the price for detachment with many nights of sleep disturbed by battlefield flashbacks. In time he healed thanks to his faith, which reminded him of God’s love for the wounded and the home God gave to those who died in spite of his efforts to save them.
When heading into a mass casualty situation, Casey invited Catholic priests to accompany the chopper. The kindness and concern they showed to the wounded and dying soldiers later inspired Casey to join the priesthood. He would try to emulate them when he became a priest.
After completing thirteen months of military service, Casey returned to California. No politicians or civic leaders welcomed him home. No one thanked him for his service as is done with today’s veterans. Anti-war protestors picketed the airport in Oakland where he landed. When he returned to UCLA to complete his undergraduate degree, Casey learned not to talk about Vietnam or his military service with fellow students or his professors, including the famous anti-war protestor, Angela Davis. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Biology and Sociology in 1969 and went on to graduate from the school’s physician’s assistant program in 1972.
Casey served as a physician’s assistant in Los Angeles orthopedic clinics for three years after graduation. Later he worked in a cardiovascular unit in Omaha, Nebraska. There he started to consider whether he should marry his girlfriend and raise a family. He also explored the possibility of becoming a priest by talking with the Oblates of Mary Immaculate in Omaha. The good experiences he had with priests and sisters during his childhood made him comfortable with the idea of living in a religious community. Inspired by priests he met in Vietnam, one of whom had been an Oblate Missionary, he joined the Oblates with plans to work in one of their overseas medical missions.
He entered the Oblate seminary in Alton, Illinois and studied theology for three years at the Boston Theological Union, which is part of Harvard Divinity School. There he enjoyed studying the writings of Father Karl Rahner, who taught that salvation was an ongoing process—a faith journey.
Father Casey was ordained a priest in 1980 at Precious Blood, his childhood parish in Los Angeles. He found the experience wonderful but humbling.
Because the parish needed a priest, the Oblates sent Father Casey to his first posting in International Falls, Minnesota where he lived in community with two other priests. Some of his parishioners needed his counseling to deal with stress after the town’s main employer started laying off large numbers of employees.
When the son of one of his parishioners ran off to Minneapolis, Father Casey accompanied the boy’s father to the Twin Cities. They found the young man drug addicted and living on the streets. The runaway’s dad embraced him like the father in the gospel parable had embraced the prodigal son.
After leaving International Falls, Father Casey worked at the Oblate seminary in St. Louis. Two years later he became the pastor at Holy Guardian Angels, an inner-city church with forty active parishioners. The people were nice but the church building was a concrete bunker in the heart of the Peabody Projects, an African-American community plagued with drug-related violence. Once, while Father Casey was saying Mass, a man confronted him during the consecration and demanded money.
Father Casey taught at the parish school. Some of the seventh and eight graders wore beepers on their ankle so their drug-dealer employers could summon them for a runner job.
When the St. Louis Diocese incurred a large tax debt the bishop ordered the closure of Guardian Angels. Father asked to keep the church open for one more year so his parishioners could find a new spiritual home. He obtained use of a large bus and used it to drive people to a different Catholic church every Sunday in Advent. After saying mass for the last time at Guardian Angles, his parish processed through their community carrying the church’s records, crucifix, and other items used in the liturgy. The parish boarded the bus and rode to the new church that most of them had decided to join.
From St. Louis, Father Casey moved to St. Paul and then Chicago where he served two other inner-city parishes. One, St. Malachy, was originally built to serve an Irish-American neighborhood. When the Irish parishioners moved out, the church stayed to serve the African-American Catholics who replaced them. For Father Casey, this was consistent with Catholic Church tradition in America. The Church doesn’t leave a community just because the community changes. As long it can, the Church stays to provide Catholics in inner-city neighborhoods a place of worship and a place to educate their kids.
After six years in Chicago, Father Casey was assigned by the Oblates to the Juneau Diocese. He first served the communities of Wrangell, Petersburg, and Kake. After the intensity of Chicago, it took him six months to adjust to the quiet life in Southeast Alaska. But he was ready for the change. In Chicago, he found it harder and harder to bury children who had been shot dead in the street. To make matters worse, gang members would sit in the back of the funeral parlor listening to their boom boxes while he conducted the funeral service. Once, right after Father Casey had conducted a funeral service for a young man, two gang members shot and killed the child’s father as he prayed.
After three years in Central Southeast Alaska, Father Casey’s faith journey brought him to the Cathedral Parish where he continues to serve as rector. As he has during his 35 years as a priest, Father Casey quietly does what needs doing for the parish, including maintenance of the church buildings, saying Mass, and carrying the sacraments to the sick and dying at the hospital.
Dan Branch lives in Juneau, Alaska and is a parishioner of the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary parish.