BY NANCY SCHWERIN
JOHNS ISLAND — Father James Parker took a road less traveled to the priesthood.
After 23 years of ministering to Catholics, he celebrated his final Mass as pastor of Holy Spirit Church Oct. 30. Father Parker’s ministry extends for more than 23 years, however. He was ordained on July 25, 1957, as a priest of the Episcopal Church.
Father Parker was born in Charleston in 1930 and baptized at St. Paul’s Church downtown (now St. Luke and St. Paul Cathedral). He felt the call to the priesthood while at the University of South Carolina, where he majored in Greek and philosophy. He married Mary Alma Cole, and then went on to Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Va. His first assignment was in Andrews at St. Luke, whose building is now used by the Catholic Church.
He served in parishes in Indiana and the Chicago area, where he earned a master’s in library science from Rosary College.
In 1967, while he was living in Chicago, Father Parker was knighted by King Peter II of Yugoslavia for his charitable work. He was given the Order of St. Salva by the king, who was living in exile in America at that time.
When Father Parker left Chicago he became a librarian for Maryknoll Seminary in Glen Ellyn, Ill., and later for the Christian Brothers University in Memphis, Tenn. He was in parish ministry in Albany, Ga., when the couple and their two daughters, who were in college at the time, decided to convert to Catholicism. It was 1976.
The conversion had been a long time in the making, however. In the 1960s the Episcopal Church had begun to make changes.
“Before this time we were able to teach forthrightly the Cath-olic religion; then the Episcopal church on the local and national level began to vote on issues considered revealed faith,” said Father Parker. The issues included approval of the remarriage of divorced people and the ordination of women.
The Parkers were Anglo-Catholics, who as members of the Episcopal Church faithfully held to the teachings of Catholicism and believed that they were working toward corporate reunion with Rome.
“When these things happened we realized that Rome could not accept us,” Father Parker said. “Episcopal priests who were married were now asking for reunion individually.”
While in Albany, Father Parker was provincial of the Society of the Holy Cross. The men there elected him to represent their cause for conversion, so he contacted the apostolic nuncio to the United States. After a three-hour interview, the nuncio brought the Episcopal priests’ cause to the Vatican, where it was handled by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Four years later, Rome decided that Episcopal priests — married and celibate — could convert. An American bishop was appointed to oversee the process, and Father Parker was named as his assistant, a position that he holds today.
In 1981, the Parker family became Catholic. On June 29, 1982, Father Parker was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest for the Diocese of Charleston — the first married, former Episcopal priest to do so.
“I found that they [other Catholic priests] were very open to me. The more conservative, the more open they were to the process,” Father Parker said. “We did not see ourselves as a red flag against celibacy.”
He has been married for 52 years. He said that the wife of a priest must understand that the priesthood is not just a job, but a 24-hour-a-day vocation, in which he strives to serve the Lord and his people.
Helen Dodds, a parishioner at Holy Spirit, said that Father Parker is “down to earth and someone you feel like you can talk to. He makes you realize that God has a sense of humor.”
The priest is known for his quick jokes at the close of Mass.
David Johnson, pastoral associate at Holy Spirit, said, “It’s a way to loosen up and bring out the humanity in him and all of us.”
Father Parker’s greatest challenge in his priesthood was building the $7 million church where he has been pastor for 15 years.
Both Dodds and Johnson worked with Father Parker on the building committee.
“He had a lot of help, and there were lots of people on the committee,” Dodds said. “Trying to focus all the efforts was a big challenge, and I think he did a very good job.”
Father Parker’s busy schedule includes community activities. He is involved with the Charles-ton Library Society and is a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. In 2004, S.C. Sen. Glenn McConnell asked Father Parker to officiate at the burial of the crew of the H.L. Hunley submarine.
The priest is state chaplain for the Knights of Columbus and diocesan representative for the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre. He will remain in these positions upon retirement.
Father Parker will also remain in his position as vicar for retired priests for the diocese.
Aside from staying active in church life, Father Parker and his wife plan to travel to Atlanta to visit their children and 3-year-old granddaughter.
Wherever life takes him, the priest will be equipped with an unwavering love of the Catholic faith —and a good joke.