Fr. Ken Hume and social worker Angie Godfrey test the priest’s emergency medical alert system. Godfrey, hired by the Archdiocese of Portland, helps senior priests navigate the sometimes tricky waters of old age. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
Fr. Ken Hume and social worker Angie Godfrey test the priest’s emergency medical alert system. Godfrey, hired by the Archdiocese of Portland, helps senior priests navigate the sometimes tricky waters of old age. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
Father Ken Hume, 86, answers the door of his modest Oregon City house with a broad smile. “Well, good morning!” calls out the slim priest, a former long distance runner, scuba diver and military chaplain.

He’s welcoming Angie Godfrey, a professional social worker the Archdiocese of Portland has hired to assist senior priests. On this day, Godfrey helps Father Hume test the device he can use to call for emergency help if he falls.

“She’s my angel,” Father Hume says.

The two also discuss the priest’s beloved gym membership and the possibility of senior clergy getting regular visits from other priests for confession. As with many visitations, Godfrey spends time listening to stories. That’s her favorite part of the job.

Archbishop Alexander Sample made care for senior clergy a priority, and the archdiocese established the Senior Priest Navigator program more than a year ago after consultation with health care professionals and senior priests themselves.

“It was designed to be a resource for our priests for whatever practical assistance they need, whether it was connecting them with legal counsel for wills and estates, making sure they have someone to take them to their doctor’s appointments or to go grocery shopping, or to provide other practical assistance,” said Father Todd Molinari, vicar for clergy. “The Navigator program is also a way for someone to check in on the senior priests to make sure they stay connected with the archdiocese and to ensure that they do not feel neglected by the church.”

Father Hume is one of 65 senior priests in the archdiocese. A handful reside at the St. John Vianney priest retirement community in Beaverton, and a few are in nursing care. Some have moved in with family. But most live alone in apartments and houses all over western Oregon.

The name “navigator” is just right for Godfrey’s role. She is not in charge but helps the men find their way through the complexities of old age. “I help navigate systems and resources so that our senior priests can get their needs met,” she explains. “I’ve never had a job I loved so much.”

Godfrey, a 44-year-old member of St. Rose of Lima Parish in Northeast Portland, previously was a welfare worker for the state of Oregon. She first felt a call to the helping profession as a high school student in Clackamas County. She received a social work bachelor’s degree at the University of Portland and went on for a master’s degree in the field from Portland State University. Godfrey made the move from state agencies because she wanted a job in which she could express her religious beliefs.

She and husband have two daughters, ages 14 and 11, who attend St. Rose School. She keeps her car’s sound system tuned to Mater Dei Radio.

Calling senior priests “retired” is inaccurate. About 16% of Archdiocese of Portland priests age 70 and older are still in full-time ministry. Even more serve part time, covering parishes when a fellow priest is ill or on vacation.

“I am not sure they get the credit they deserve,” Godfrey says.

Father Hume explains that older priests eventually tend to get left alone, not even asked to help at parishes. He is a fan of the new program.

“It’s important and I think it’s long overdue,” he says.

Father Hume is delighted by visits from his pastor, Father Maxy D’Costa of St. John the Apostle Parish in Oregon City. Father Dale Waddill also drops by regularly.

Godfrey thinks that everyone would benefit if more parishioners were to reach out to senior priests nearby.

“Our communities can help support them by offering friendship and conversation as well as sometimes more concrete assistance in their daily lives,” Godfrey says. “Many priests love to tell their own vocation stories, meaningful ministry and mission stories, or stories from their experiences serving in the military. Our priests are concerned for our church, for the poor, for our world.”

Senior priests are generally intelligent and enjoy stimulating conversation. Some golf while others hunt, fish, paint, sculpt, compose poetry or write plays.

“As with other aging people, many priests find this season of life difficult,” says Godfrey. “As we age, there is much to be grumpy about: physical pain and discomfort, loss of independence, loss of relationships, loss of abilities.”

Still, Godfrey does not hear as many complaints from priests as she expected. “There is a great joy and peace in many of them,” she says. “That’s been an honor to witness.”

Aging Catholic clergy face unique challenges.

“Priests lack some of the natural familial supports often provided by children and grandchildren, and have to develop other supports and caregivers,” Godfrey says. “They struggle with feeling forgotten.”

On the other side, she explains, priests usually have spent most of their lives cultivating a strong faith life, which is helpful when one becomes a senior.

Godfrey has been reaching out to all senior priests. Many greet her graciously but say they don’t need her at the moment. She respects their wishes.

“I want to establish a relationship at the start so when they need me they know me,” says Godfrey. “If you need help, it’s hard to reach out to just a name and phone number.”