Paulist Fr. James Haley: Fifty Years a Priest
by Jennifer Szweda Jordan
April 26, 2018

Paulist Fr. Jim Haley is a family man. It may seem an oxymoron for a priest. Yet he has scrapbooks full of memories that parish families gave him as he moved from one community to another over 50 years as a priest.

“Jim never just spent time with families,” says one note from a parishioner. “He ate, celebrated, mourned and rooted himself in families. For him, family was an integral part of his community. No matter where Jim has been stationed, I know that this connection with people has been a part of the fabric of his life and his ministry.”

Fr. Jim has served parishes in Athens, TN, Minneapolis, MN, Morgantown, WV, Tucson, AZ, Layton, UT, and Toronto.

He also served at the Catholic Information Center run by the Paulists in Grand Rapids, MI. Fr. Jim was pastor, at two separate times, at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Knoxville, TN.

“You meet so many people and you interact with so many people that you really have an extended family,” says Fr. Jim, “That’s my biggest joy.”

Not that there weren’t challenges – a couple times Fr. Jim felt the pull to start a family himself. But, he says, something always pulled him back and he feels he came out stronger for having been tested.

“There’s a force that’s with me, you can call the Spirit if you will, you know, that’s guiding me,” he says. “Looking back, I wouldn’t change it for anything. I mean, how can a shy young man from Northern Nova Scotia ever end up the way I’ve ended up and been where I’ve been, you know, and experience what I’ve experienced and met the people that I’ve met and lived in areas of the countries that I would never have experienced if not for being a Paulist and a priest?”

James Haley, C.S.P., during his early years as a Paulist

When Fr. Jim first inquired about being a Paulist Father, he was impressed that the community sent a priest from Boston up to meet him in Nova Scotia. Fr. Jim described that priest as “down-to-earth,” a quality that he liked.

The Paulist Fathers community also appealed to Fr. Jim because he was a shy young man. He thought that through the Paulists, he might be touched with the boldness of the community’s namesake: St. Paul.

“St. Paul went out, and went into different areas, and met different people, and preached in different ways, and he had a sort of persona that was outgoing and that he was – seemed not to be – afraid of anything,” Fr. Jim says. “I thought, ‘Well, gee, maybe if I could have this guy on my side, that maybe I would be more outgoing and perhaps … less afraid of things,’ you know, and be able to preach and to be a good witness to the presence of Jesus.”

A few generations before, being a Catholic priest was unheard of in Fr. Jim’s family. His maternal grandfather, Fr. Jim says, “pretty high up in the Masonic order.” Fr. Jim was raised Catholic because his mother had converted and his father was Catholic as well.

Fr. Jim entered the novitiate in 1961. When he told his maternal grandfather he wanted to become a priest, he says, “He was very upset. I was ruining my life and all this kind of stuff, you know, so it was a real downer.”

Things changed, though on the spring morning when Fr. Jim was ordained on April 27, 1968.

“He came to the ordination and he knelt down for my blessing and everything,” Fr. Jim says of his grandfather. “And then from then on, he says, ‘This is Jim, my grandson, he’s a priest,’ you know, to his neighbors and stuff – so just a complete shift.”

Fr. Jim says he started feeling called to the priesthood early on.

“I was always considered to be kind of religious. I was always rather prayerful. But in a good sense, you know, I was never pious,” he says. “In the back of my mind was to be a doctor or a priest for some reason. And then I wanted to be a scientist. I wanted to to go to the moon.”

As he learned more, and read Jesuit Fr. Teilhard de Chardin’s work on the idea of the Cosmic Christ, Fr. Jim’s understanding of God meant that his work and thinking somewhat encompassed those childhood career dreams.

“I’m fascinated with the universe,” Fr. Jim says. “The universe is so big, so expansive and so beautiful … Everything is connected – one thing to another and and in one sense, nothing dies, you know, because it just changes. Like we say in the preface to the Mass for the dead, ‘Lord, life is not ended, life has changed,’ you know. I think we’re all going to change … I think that’s what eternity is … being connected with God in a special way, which is connected with the universe, which is connected with everything.”

In that way, while Fr. Jim lives near the Paulist community in Knoxville, TN, he’s still connected to his parish families, and their impact on him remains.

“I’m grateful for God for calling me to be a priest because I feel it’s a calling,” Fr. Jim says. “It has been a great life. You know, in many ways, how blessed I am because of the people I’ve touched. But perhaps more importantly the people have touched me in so many ways and that helped me to be who I am.”


Paulist Fr. James Haley preaching at St. Peter's Church in Toronto, Canada
Paulist Fr. James Haley preaching at St. Peter’s Church in Toronto, Canada

Jennifer Szweda Jordan is a writer and radio producer based in Pittsburgh.  Listen to her full interview with Fr. Haley:

See photos from Fr. Haley’s life and ministry at Pinterest.

All are invited to an anniversary Mass for Fr. Haley on Thursday, May 3, 2018, at 5:30 p.m. at Immaculate Conception Church in Knoxville, TN.