Seattle cathedral parish a model for 'field hospital' ministries

This story appears in the The Field Hospital feature series. View the full series.
Fr. Michael Ryan, pastor of Seattle's St. James Cathedral, shares candies with children taking part in the Jan. 3 liturgy of the Epiphany of the Lord. (Courtesy of St. James Cathedral)

Fr. Michael Ryan, pastor of Seattle's St. James Cathedral, shares candies with children taking part in the Jan. 3 liturgy of the Epiphany of the Lord. (Courtesy of St. James Cathedral)

by Dan Morris-Young

View Author Profile

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts to Letters to the Editor. Learn more

"The embrace of any cathedral should be wide," says Fr. Michael Ryan, pastor of Seattle's St. James Cathedral. He clearly means it.

Spiritual home to nearly 2,400 households (more than 5,000 individuals), the Seattle cathedral serves as ground zero for archdiocesan events from ordinations and high school graduation Masses to civic, cultural, inter-religious and artistic gatherings.

It also enlists upwards of 1,000 volunteers who bring to life a jaw-dropping array of outreach ministries:

  1. Each weekday the parish feeds up to 180 persons an early and elegant dinner as part of its Cathedral Kitchen ministry;
  2. Augmenting the Cathedral Kitchen, Cathedral Kitchen Garden was launched two years ago; a weedy lot owned by the parish was transformed into an abundant vegetable garden;
  3. A Mental Health and Wellness Ministry employs a full-time mental health nurse, and through volunteers provides a broad ministry of "accompaniment, presence, encouragement, safety, hospitality, acceptance and support";
  4. St. James' Immigrant Assistance reaches out to new U.S. arrivals -- from 37 countries so far -- with welcome, citizenship classes, English tutoring, and social services links;
  5. From October through April, the St. James Cathedral Winter Shelter provides overnight lodging and breakfast for 10-14 homeless men, age 50 and older, four days per week, and parish volunteers work directly with the homeless via NightWatch, an interfaith street ministry;
  6. For the Sandwich Ministry, parishioners prepare sandwiches, boiled eggs and cookies at home and then bring them to the parish to help feed men at St. Martin de Porres Shelter, a Catholic Community Services (CCS) facility;
  7. The parish sends forth specially trained volunteer Care Teams that "provide practical and emotional support to people with HIV/AIDS and other life challenges";
  8. An active St. Vincent de Paul Society unit provides spiritual support, social services referrals and financial aid to those in need, much of it achieved through home visitations;
  9. Similarly, parishioners of all ages backbone Volunteer Chore Services, a program that "helps elders and adults with disabilities remain independent in their own homes" by doing myriad tasks such as minor home repair, yard work, respite, light housekeeping, shopping, cooking, and transportation;
  10. A Pregnancy Support Ministry supports pregnant women or those who have recently given birth and works in conjunction with CCS by adding "extra services and help that are beyond the scope of CCS";
  11. Also dovetailing efforts with CCS, the parish's Solanus Casey Center works with the homeless with a particular focus on men and women recently released from incarceration; it provides particular assistance with obtaining identification cards, essential for accessing a variety of social services;
  12. Youth Ministry encourages its young charges to "be the hands and feet of Christ" through "several justice-oriented activities, events and programs," recently sending a contingent of 16 teens and their chaperones on mission to Nicaragua;
  13. Youth are also tapped in the parish's embrace of the developmentally disabled, notably a recently established Special Needs Mentor program where teens twin with a special needs child in the parish in a unique Sunday school;
  14. Parishioners are likewise recruited for the CCS Youth Tutoring Program; volunteers work with one student, one hour per week, over the course of the year, at one of six locations at various Seattle housing complexes;
  15. A pastoral care office includes Eucharistic ministry to the home-bound and hospitalized and coordinates day trips for seniors;
  16. A young adult group mixes works of mercy, cultural events, and spiritual enrichment.

"We really try to combine these direct service efforts with education and advocacy for systemic change," said Patty Bowman, St. James' director of social outreach and a member of the staff since 2000. "In this regard, we also have groups of volunteers who do regular advocacy on homelessness, the environment, respect life and immigration reform."

Outreach and advocacy "are really central to the life of St. James Cathedral parish, and are woven into liturgy, religious education, and all aspects of parish life," she said.

Asked about leadership and management for such a labyrinthine undertaking, Ryan said, "The only way I'm able to manage something on this scale is by surrounding myself by very bright and committed people, trusting them, and encouraging them to use their gifts in service of the church." He has been pastor for 28 years, more than half his priesthood.* 

"Given the complexity of the parish," he added, "I would have to say it's really not a 'one-priest parish,' but in point of fact, that's what it is, and the only way it works is because an army of people claim their baptismal birthright. Our staff and volunteers make these things happen day after day."

The St. James Mental Health and Wellness Ministry stands out as emblematic of the parish commitment to the homeless, marginalized and ill in an intense inner city setting.

"The concept of field hospital is actually a fair description of a major role of St. James' Mental Health and Wellness Ministry," said Nancy Granger, a Psychiatric Clinical Nurse Specialist with extensive experience serving those with mental health needs. She has directed the program since 2013.

"The main focus of our work is in the 'field hospital' realm, being with those whose most significant need is to have another human being validate their existence in a world where they feel invisible," Granger wrote in a note to NCR.

"Our field is the basement of St. James Rectory, where the emotionally wounded come to be recognized and listened to," she added. "Pope Francis' beckoning us to 'open our doors' in this Jubilee Year of Mercy has a special meaning for our ministry. Our weekly open house literally opens its doors to those in the margins. Here is where a ministry of companionship is realized."

She said a group of about a dozen volunteers "are dedicated to providing this 'ministry of presence.'"

"Our guests are not necessarily ready for advice or referrals," she explained. "It is the companionship and the listening that is the medicine, harboring the harborless as it were. Many guests have become regulars. Some bring friends and acquaintances from the streets."

Another group of volunteers she works with, the Emmaus Companions, "are present at liturgies where a compassionate intervention is sometimes necessary to assist an individual experiencing mental distress."

"We strive to promote a community of inclusion for all, including the mentally ill and marginalized, and often a gentle approach and invitation to hear the person's concern is all that is needed to calm an agitated or fearful individual. On occasion, a volunteer may offer to accompany an individual to a local emergency room, if that need is indicated," wrote Granger.

Her volunteers are also present during the well-known weekday Cathedral Kitchen dinners, "often offering that same approach."

It takes more than 100 volunteers per week to stage the Cathedral Kitchen meal -- often prepared by volunteer professional chefs who incorporate foodstuffs gleaned by parishioners from a variety of outlets and contributors. The four- and five-course meals include entree, salad, dessert, side dishes and beverage. 

The line starts early for the 180 or so seats available. Doors open around 3:30 p.m., dinner is served at 4:15.

The kitchen volunteer staff -- neighbors, business professionals, and students from Seattle University and area high schools -- try their best to put together sack lunches for those who did not get to sit and eat.

Teddi Callahan, Cathedral Kitchen director, says Pope Francis' "exhortations have influenced and inspired people to volunteer and these volunteers are the heart of our ministry to serve warm meals to anyone in need."

Observed Ryan, "With regard to the 'Francis effect,' I can't say I've seen a notable rise in church attendance, but I think it may be too early to look for that. What I have found is Catholic people thinking that maybe there is a place for them in the church after all. So, perhaps if we do things right, and build bridges instead of walls, they will find their way into the pews and into the ministries."

Other parish staff echo Callahan and Ryan, including Tom Frasene who oversees a number of outreach efforts including Volunteer Chore Services, Youth Tutoring, Sandwich Ministry, young adults and Care Teams.

"I have only worked here in the Francis era," Frasene told NCR, "but there is definitely a renewed gusto, enthusiasm and interest in working with people marginalized by our society. Importantly, there is a sense here that we have much to learn from people on the margins, something Pope Francis has repeatedly stated."

"Our volunteers," Frasene continued, "view their ministry less with a top-down, I-am-helping-you lens and more with a mindset of humble service. ... I think his papacy's emphasis on this mentality has been yeast for zeal in our parishioners."

The challenge presented by "very intense urban issues in our parish" can be daunting, he said. "This type of ministry requires pairing a volunteer's spiritual need to serve with the very real needs of a suffering world. When it works, both parties come away changed for the better, and it's beautiful. But sometimes these needs don't match up with each other as beautifully as we like to imagine."

"Preparing good-willed volunteers for work with people undergoing trauma is difficult," Frasene explained. "We are not a social service agency, and our focus is not purely the quantitative end result of getting people housed, for instance. Balancing this need to live out the social dimension of the Gospel while ministering to the spiritual needs of volunteers can sometimes create a tension."

Christopher Koehler experiences similar nitty-gritty situations as head of St. James Immigrant Assistance program.

"Personally, the thing I find most challenging is responding to those who see immigrants as a problem that should be eliminated by deporting them all or locking them up," Koehler explained. "Some people want to punish rather than help. What I find challenging about this is how to meet them where they are, or finding ways to build on common ground and move forward together."

Pope Francis has helped, he said. "Pope Francis has kept the issue of immigration and migrants at the forefront. ... He has used consistent language that humanizes dehumanized populations. This has helped to frame the conversations and our work in a consistent ethic and allowed us to better communicate that to parishioners and non-Catholics alike.

"It hasn't really changed what we do or how we do it, but it does give us a framework that is easily understandable by volunteers, parishioners, staff, the people we serve, and partner agencies both within and outside the Catholic community."

Koehler and his volunteers are creative. For example, they facilitated English tutoring classes for blind and visually impaired immigrants between shifts at their employment training sites.

"Just being able to have the opportunity was a big thing for them. Blind and visually impaired immigrants find it very hard to enroll in regular classes, so having a class just for them makes all the difference," he said.

How can the parish finance such a broad arsenal of ministries?

"It's a huge commitment," confirms Maria Laughlin, parish director of stewardship and development. "About 30 percent" of the parish's $4-plus million budget is invested in "outreach."

"However," Laughlin said, "it's also one of the things people love best about the cathedral. In a survey we did recently, we asked what the greatest strengths of the parish were, and the top three were Fr. Ryan's leadership, outreach, and liturgy/music."

"Our outreach programs are one of the main reasons people are drawn to come here," she said, noting that parishioners hail from more than 180 ZIP codes.

"The vast majority of funding" for pastoral programs "comes from our parish budget," Laughlin said.

Other sources include an annual golf tournament that raises $120,000 to $140,000 largely for the Cathedral Kitchen program; ministry-specific donor gifts; and some CCS funding. The Order of Malta helps underwrite both the Mental Health and Wellness Ministry and the Solanus Casey Center.

Bowman pointed out that "a notable feature of the architecture of the cathedral is the oculus above the altar. Inscribed in that oculus are the words of Jesus from Luke's Gospel, 'I am in your midst as one who serves.' That quote, in such a prominent place, has become something of a motto for our parish, helping us to integrate deeply the idea that we follow Jesus most closely by serving one another."

[Dan Morris-Young is NCR's West Coast correspondent. His email is]

*An earlier version of this story included an incorrect number of years that Ryan had served as pastor.

Editor's note: We can send you an email alert every time The Field Hospital is posted. Go to this page and follow directions: Email alert sign-up.

In This Series


1x per dayDaily Newsletters
1x per weekWeekly Newsletters
2x WeeklyBiweekly Newsletters