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Seattle University


Magnificent Milestones

Written by Mike Thee
September 14, 2011

Four Seattle University Jesuits are celebrating very significant milestones this year. Pat O’Leary, S.J., chaplain for faculty and staff, is marking the 50th anniversary of his ordination; Steve Sundborg, S.J., president, and Pat Howell, S.J., rector, are both celebrating 50 years as Jesuits; and Dave Anderson, S.J.,  chaplain for alumni, is marking his 25th anniversary of entering the Jesuit Order. Collectively, the four have served nearly 200 years as Jesuits. It’s a staggering statistic, especially when you stop and think about all the lives they have touched through the years in their various ministries. 

One recent afternoon, the four jubilarians, as they are known, sat down for a conversation about why they decided to become priests, what they remember about the day they entered the Jesuits—or in Father O’Leary’s case, his ordination—and what they treasure most about the lives they’ve chosen. 

O’Leary’s call to the priesthood had a lot to do with family, he says. His mother died when he was young and so he moved in with relatives in Tacoma. He lived a half a block from St. Leo’s parish and went to Bellarmine Prep, which meant he had a lot of opportunities to interact with Jesuits. “The example of the Jesuits I knew there and the faith of the family I’d come from were the seeds of my vocation,” he says. 

Father Sundborg, too, was influenced by the Jesuits, in his case the Jesuits of Alaska. “I always had this sense that they were already sort of welcoming me (as a young person). That was the biggest influence.” Then in high school at Georgetown Prep, he found himself identifying particularly with his young Jesuit teachers who were not ordained yet and only about a decade his senior.  

Father Howell says he “had a very strong sense of the presence of God from when I was seven onwards. It was at that time that I thought I would really be a priest, and that never diminished.”  The North Dakota native wound up at Gonzaga University, which, he says, “was quite a leap in itself when you consider we lived 1,100 miles from (Spokane). In a lot of ways, I feel I was led to being at Gonzaga, and I had just a wonderful, rich experience there. I remember talking with other guys and they all noted how happy the Jesuits were, no matter what age, and we thought, ‘That’s gotta be a pretty good life.’” 

Father Anderson says he’s a Jesuit today because of “God’s persistence. I always felt a sense of attraction to being a Jesuit—and also a lot of resistance—but there was just this feeling that God kept calling me. I remember my grandmother, when I was five or six, looking me in the eyes and saying, ‘I want one of my grandsons to be a priest.’ I don’t know if she ever said that to anyone else, but I never forgot that.” 

In high school, Anderson made a Search retreat at which he had “a deep experience of God’s presence and a call to the priesthood that was really clear to me.” Echoing Howell, he says his interactions with Jesuits when he was an undergraduate at Gonzaga University solidified his decision to follow in their footsteps. 

O’Leary has vivid memories of his ordination 50 years ago. “You’d think I’d have all kinds of pious and spiritual thoughts of that day,” he says, with a laugh. But that wasn’t really the case. “The night before (the ordination), all of a sudden I get a knock at my door, and it’s one my best friends who was to be ordained with me, and he said, ‘I can’t go through with it.’ So, I was more concerned about what he was going to do than my own ordination.” In the end, O’Leary’s friend got ordained. As for the ordination itself, O’Leary remembers it mainly as one of the hottest days in Spokane history. The following day was as much of a scorcher, and so he recalls fighting through a steady stream of perspiration as he celebrated his first Mass.  

Sundborg and Howell joined the Jesuits the same year. Sundborg remembers taking a flight from Washington, D.C., and then getting on a Greyhound bus from Portland to the novitiate, which was 50 miles southwest in Sheridan, Ore. The bus left him off at the base of a hill where he was met by a pickup truck that took him up to the farm on which the novitiate sits. Sundborg and another novice jumped in the back of the truck with their suitcases. “You wind up through the prune orchards and you go past this bull, and for me it was just a totally different world. I’d never been on a farm. I never will understand how I ever got on that airplane in Washington, D.C., a month after my 18th birthday and left my family behind. I don’t know how I did it. I was a very naïve, green 18-year-old.” 

Pat O'Leary, S.J., left, demonstrates a particular gesture he has made famous for fellow jubilarians, (left to right) Dave Anderson, S.J., Pat Howell, S.J., and Steve Sundborg, S.J. 
Before Howell headed up that same hill to enter the Jesuits, he and a friend spent the previous day in vigil at a Trappist abbey about 20 miles away from Sheridan. “What a wonderful and what a bizarre thing to do!” he says, recalling the experience with a laugh. 

Most of the novices, like Sundborg, were fresh out of high school. At 21, Howell was considered the “old man” of the group. He remembers getting to the novitiate and hearing about this fellow that he just had to meet nicknamed “Borg.” It wasn’t long before the future SU rector would make the acquaintance of the man who would become the university’s 21st president.  

Twenty five years later, Anderson took a somewhat different route to that farm in Sheridan. After attending the 1986 World’s Fair in Vancouver, B.C., he and his parents drove down I-5 to the novitiate. “I remember wanting to take every exit possible,” he says, chuckling. “There was a lot of reluctance on my part, but once I arrived, there was a connection with the six of us in our class and the three in the class ahead of us. There was a lot of laughter and a lot of joy, and I felt that I was really at home.” 

So, where would these four men have wound up had they not entered the Jesuits? 

“I think I would’ve liked to have been an editor in New York at some major publication,” says Howell. “I’ve gotten into some of that, writing and editing. There’s kind of a perverse joy in editing, working with someone else’s writing and trying to elicit the best in it and also to get it right.” He adds that as a 14-year-old, he wanted to be a page in the U.S. Congress. His parents tried to make it happen, but it didn’t work out. 

“I would have been an ambassador,” says Sundborg. “I was attracted to foreign service and getting into the diplomatic corps and learning languages. That’s the only other thing that I’ve ever in my life imagined doing.” 

Perhaps not surprisingly given his role as chaplain of the SU men’s basketball team, Anderson imagines he might have been high school basketball coach had he not entered the Jesuits. He could see himself “doing something along the lines of mentoring youth, which is what athletics is about.” 

As for O’Leary, he says he very briefly considered becoming an artist, but it didn’t pan out and he’s never really spent much time thinking about what line of work he might have pursued if he hadn’t become a priest. And yet, he says, “What I was going to do (as a Jesuit) took me years to figure out.” He studied and taught systematic theology before he was, in his words, “missioned to guide the formation of young men entering the Jesuits. This oriented my focus toward a ministry centered in Ignatian spirituality. It’s just exactly what I enjoy doing and feel called to do.” 

To a person, the four jubilarians are as committed as ever to the priestly life they chose those many decades ago. There are sacrifices, to be sure. They speak about not being able to get married and have families of their own, and the challenge of taking on ever more responsibilities as fewer and fewer Jesuits enter the order, for instance. And yet, it is clear they wouldn’t have it any other way. 

For Sundborg, one of the most enriching things about the Jesuit life “is the companionship. It’s the other guys. You’re not alone in this. You’re doing it together. It’s that dimension of a group of men having a connection about a common thing that, for me, is most rewarding.” 

Reflecting on his life as a priest, Howell says this: “I look back now, 50 years after entering the Jesuits and think ‘Wow, what a great decision to have made at 21. I’ve never had any doubts about my vocation.”