LAKEWOOD - Seventy-seven years ago, a baby boy was born on his aunt's kitchen table in Buffalo.
That boy grew up to be Monsignor Joseph Dowdell, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Lakewood. Father Joe, as he is known, will be retiring at the end of June, after serving as a Catholic priest for 50 years.
Dowdell is the middle child of three children. He has both an older and younger sister.
"I was born on my aunt's kitchen table," Dowdell said with a laugh. "That was the custom in those days. It's not exactly the same as WCA. I think my aunt had hot water, and the doctor was there. That was it."
Dowdell and his sisters were raised in a Catholic family, attending Catholic schools for grade school, high school and college. Although he had strong Catholic ties, becoming a priest was not No. 1 on Dowdell's priority list.
"I was approached in all those places to be a priest, and I really thought I should be, but I didn't want to be," Dowdell said. "I thought it was too much of a commitment to make."
In high school, Dowdell was given a test to help match him with his best possible career choice.
"I thought I was a smart kid, but I wasn't," he said. "There were a bunch of questions with five choices each. Right away, I noticed there were questions about volunteering, Boy Scouts and all that. I thought, 'Oh my God, if I put that down as my first choice, I'm out of here!' And, I thought, 'If I put it as the last choice, they'll think, "this guy is a weirdo!"' So, I used it as the middle choice. I said, 'First choice: Sell used cars; Last choice: Take care of chickens; and middle choice, be a priest.'"
With that mindset, Dowdell worked in banking before joining the army. However, he said by the time he was 23 or 24 years old, he knew he would join the seminary.
His father had passed away while Dowdell was in high school, however he said his mother was both surprised and excited about his decision to become a priest. And, after five additional years of schooling and having to work "10 times as hard" as his classmates to learn Latin, Dowdell became Father Joe.
THE EARLY YEARS
Dowdell's first assignment was working in Puerto Rico.
"I had a variety of experiences," Dowdell said. "I have been a pastor in seven churches; assisted in two; a hospital chaplain in three hospitals; a teacher, vice principal, coach and athletic director in a high school. I was even in a leper colony when I was in Puerto Rico."
The colony was a government colony, not a church colony, according to Dowdell. However, he assisted the people in the colony.
"I didn't know Spanish too well, and my first day I was supposed to go down and have Mass, benediction, at the leper colony," Dowdell said. "I come in, and I'm going up to the government chapel there. I was about, I don't know, 27 or something like that, and there was a woman there, a leper, and I didn't know what to expect. She gave me a hug. And I thought, 'Oh, God, I'm going to get leprosy my first day, my first week! What a way to start.' I didn't want to push her off, but I did pray, 'Please lord, don't give me leprosy my first week.'"
Moving on from the leper colony, Dowdell spent 36 of his 50 years as a priest in Chautauqua County. He spent three years working with Hispanic farm workers. He also spent 11 years in various teaching positions at Cardinal Mindszenty High School in Dunkirk. Dowdell also worked as a chaplain in Buffalo General, Roswell and Buffalo Mercy hospitals, as well as pastor of five churches outside of the county.
"But, four of them were in the Southern Tier," Dowdell said. "Allegany and Cattaraugus counties. So, it's been a diversified experience for me."
While he was a pastor at a parish in Cattaraugus County, Dowdell heard that Sacred Heart's previous pastor, Father John Horne, was retiring. He was told how nice the church and its members were.
"So I thought, 'Well, that might be a good place for me to go,'" Dowdell said. "So I applied and fortunately I got the appointment."
After serving as pastor of Sacred Heart Church for 24 1/2 years, and establishing the Our Lady of Snows parish in Panama in 1989, Dowdell has seen a lot. However, he is humble in the part he has played in the development of the two churches, instead acknowledging the hundreds of volunteers who help run things.
It was also volunteers and donations that helped to expand the church in 2001, when Sacred Heart realized there was not enough space for all of the children requiring religious education classes. Dowdell said volunteers solicited donations, raising enough money to pay for the expansion in full, minus a single payment.
Additionally, Dowdell reflected on all of the people who have volunteered in other ways, from teaching religious education classes, to a man who painted the entire church, to those who serve on the parish's various committees, including parish council.
And then there is a woman who has been a significant part of the church for longer than Dowdell has been the pastor. Marilyn Wozneak, director of religious education and pastoral associate, was hired by Horne.
"She has been tremendous, not only with the youth, but with adult education. This year we had a program on Catholicism, with the poor and needy," Dowdell said. "While she has been here a long time, she has more new ideas than anyone. She kept her newness, she kept her kindness, and she's open to everyone in the parish."
As a pastor, Dowdell is on-call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Aside from presiding over daily Masses, he also visits three nursing homes in Lakewood on a weekly basis. He has meetings with youth and adults for religious education, performs counseling, marriage preparation, bereavement; helps the needy; and tends to administrative affairs.
"No priest works 40 hours," Dowdell said. "Especially with the shortage of priests, we all have taken on additional responsibilities."
Although they no longer meet, Dowdell also spent an eight-year period having weekly prayer meetings with ministers from the Lakewood Methodist and Baptist churches, the Gloria Dei Church and Zion Covenant.
"I said to one of the Methodist ministers in Panama, 'You see my car? Do you see the passenger side, the rear-view mirror?' He said, 'Yes.' I said, 'What does that say?' He says, 'Objects are closer than what they appear,'" Dowdell said. "That's what it is between the Christian churches. We're not identical. We have our differences, I know that. But, they're closer than what they appear. We are all trying to preach Jesus Christ and his teachings."
On July 1, Father Piotr (Peter) Zaczynski will officially take over pastoral duties at Sacred Heart Church. Zaczynski is from Poland, but has been a diocesan priest in the Buffalo Diocese for many years.
Dowdell will continue presiding over mass through the majority of June, and already plans on returning to say Mass in August, when Zaczynski returns to Poland to attend a wedding.
According to Dowdell, he had the option to move to a priest retirement home in Buffalo, move to another church, or move in with his youngest sister. He chose to move to Lancaster to live with his sister.
"I've gone there on my free days and vacations," Dowdell said. "I feel at home there. I know the neighbors. I'm going to say Mass and help out around there also."
To celebrate the years Dowdell has spent at the church, Sacred Heart will be holding an open house Sunday, from 6-8 p.m. at the church. People from all faiths are encouraged to attend.
Additionally, the 10 a.m. Mass Sunday will be to celebrate "Life with Fr. Joe, my friend." Students from the church have planned a special surprise for Dowdell during the Mass.