By Tracey Primrose
Father Pat Twohy, SJ, 82, calls himself “an uncomfortable elder.” While he accepts and even embraces the passage of time, he does not feel worthy of the respect and reverence traditionally given to tribal leaders in the communities where he has ministered for the last half century. How could his Native brothers and sisters call him an elder when he is still learning from them?
When he arrived on the Colville Indian Reservation in eastern Washington in 1973, he was just “a skinny kid with long hair driving a borrowed Pontiac Catalina.” Before he could stretch his legs from the long ride, an older woman told him, “Don’t just stand there. Help me with these pies.” The community was burying a 9-year-old boy who had been beaten to death, and Fr. Pat walked right into a sea of pain, suffering and unfamiliar faces, carrying pies.
His vocation story started at the Jesuit high school in Yakima, Washington, where he grew up. If the yearbook at Marquette High School had a category called, “Most Unlikely Future Jesuit,” Pat Twohy would have been pictured. A mediocre student and the class cutup, he had dreams of becoming a professional baseball player, but God had other ideas.
On a retreat, he had a profound experience of Christ, one that knocked him to the floor. His classmates figured that Pat was goofing around, as usual. But more than six decades after that encounter, he can still see Christ’s face and can still feel his love, overwhelming and indescribable.
As he began to consider the significance of that episode, Pat was also worried about a situation at home. He went to his aunt, who told him to pray the rosary every night, which he did for four years without anyone knowing it. By the time he had finished his senior year, whatever struggles his family had were resolved. “This was an important event for me. It taught me the power of prayer.”
His mother, an educator, was deeply interested in other faith traditions, and Pat was captivated by a publication of his mother’s that had a photo of an Indian holy man. “I wanted to know everything about this man: What does he have inside? What does he know? How does he understand the holy? I grew up in a time in the church when there was only one real church. And not only that, but you were also on your way to hell if you weren’t following the Catholic faith. And I quickly realized that was total nonsense. Nobody owns the holy. Nobody owns Jesus and the Spirit.”
At 18, he entered the Jesuit novitiate in Sheridan, Oregon. He earned his undergraduate degree in English and a master’s in English literature from Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, and a Master of Divinity degree from Regis College at the University of Toronto. At some point during his 13 years of Jesuit formation, Fr. Pat spent a summer assisting Jesuits who were working in Native ministry. After ordination, while serving as the director of campus ministry at Gonzaga, he asked to go back to the reservation for a month or two in the summer.
That month or two turned into 11 years on the Colville Reservation. Fr. Pat says it is still “mysterious how I got on the rez. The driving force is the Spirit. It came from the Spirit, and it did fit with the times as Father Pedro Arrupe, the Superior General of the Jesuits, was talking about going to the margins to be with the people.”
Fr. Arrupe’s call reinforced what the Jesuits in the Northwest had been doing since 1841, when, at the invitation of a delegation of Bitterroot Salish and Nez Perce, Fr. Pierre-Jean De Smet, SJ, established the first Jesuit mission in Montana. Before long, the work of the Rocky Mountain Mission had expanded to include parts of Idaho, Washington and Oregon.
By the time Fr. Pat came to the Colville Reservation in the early 1970s, change was in the air. Native culture, music and dance were slowly being incorporated into Catholic liturgies. “For so long, Catholic Native people were taught that their sacred traditions were not allowed in church, so when we began opening up that possibility, it was very painful. The main thing was to let them guide us.”
After his time on the Colville Reservation, Fr. Pat was missioned to western Washington’s Swinomish Reservation, where he also served the Tulalip, Lummi, Upper Skagit and Stillaguamish Native people. On Sundays, he would celebrate Mass at the historic mission church in Swinomish and then drive 40 miles to Tulalip for another liturgy.
From the beginning of his ministry, Fr. Pat’s deepest desire has been to accompany people, in their joy and in their sorrow. The hardest days, he says, are the funerals for young people lost to the opioid epidemic or senseless violence. Once, struggling for words when trying to comfort a grieving mother, Fr. Pat said that he did not understand God in such a moment of unimaginable sorrow. The mother’s reply, “God is goodness and nothing else,” was humbling. Recalling that moment, he says, “I came to learn, and that’s a pattern that has continued. It binds us so deeply when we can be with people during the hard times. There has been a lot of heartbreak, but it’s the most intense love I have ever experienced.”
During his two decades on the Swinomish Reservation, Fr. Pat made a concerted effort to learn the Native language. In the beginning, when he tried to speak, he says, “The grandmas were complaining, it hurt their ears.” But now, when asked to speak in Coast Salish, he does not falter. It is a language he loves because it comes from the people he loves.
In 2005, Fr. Pat left Swinomish to begin a new role as the director of the Rocky Mountain Mission, where he is proud to serve alongside Jesuits who share his love for Native ministry. Although he has lived in the dorms at Seattle University for the last 17 years, Fr. Pat’s heart is firmly planted on Native soil. On Sundays, he says Mass for Native homeless at the Chief Seattle Club in downtown Seattle and then travels to say Mass for Native people at St. Leo Parish in Tacoma. He also drives once or twice a week to one of the neighboring reservations, visiting the sick, burying the dead, and joining Smokehouse ceremonies and family gatherings. The author of Finding a Way Home and Beginnings: A Meditation on Coast Salish Lifeways, both available on Amazon, he is busy working on a third book.
“My greatest joy is being with the people. I find that if I go on a trip somewhere, I miss them so much. So why would I do that, especially as I know that with my growing years, I am in the end zone? I want to spend all of the time I can with them. They are my extended family. It’s a bond of the heart!”
Editor’s Note: There are currently eight Jesuits working full time with Native people in the Northwest: Fr. Brian Pham, SJ, at Gonzaga University Law School; Fr. Jake Morton, SJ, and Fr. Joe Fortier, SJ, on the Colville Reservation in Washington; Fr. Michael Fitzpatrick, SJ, on the Umatilla Reservation in Oregon; Fr. Peter Byrne, SJ, on the Coeur d’Alene Reservation in Idaho; Fr. Craig Hightower, SJ, and Fr. Victor Cancino, SJ, on the Salish-Kootenai Reservation in Montana; and Fr. Patrick Twohy, SJ, with tribes on the Northwest Coast. Fr. James Torrens, SJ, and Fr. Tom Colgan, SJ, work part time with Native people in Spokane and with neighboring tribes.