Interfaith pioneer Father William Treacy celebrates his 100th birthday and 75 years of priesthood
Growing up in “a little country place” in Ireland, William Treacy noted how important the parish priest was to his parishioners.
“On Sunday, the people from all the surrounding countryside were there for Mass. It struck me — this is the highlight of their lives, so I’d like to provide this service for them, be a priest in this area.”
But not long after his ordination on June 18, 1944, Father Treacy volunteered for a temporary assignment in Seattle, a far-off place experiencing a clergy shortage while priests served as military chaplains during World War II.
After arriving in Seattle March 23, 1945, what was supposed to be a five-year assignment turned into a lifelong ministry to people of the Archdiocese of Seattle and beyond.
Father Treacy served as director of the Catholic Information Center in downtown Seattle from 1958 to 1966. During that time, he also stepped into the world of local television to help cultivate interfaith understanding, and co-founded an interfaith retreat center near Mount Vernon that drew people from around the world.
“He’s the icon of ecumenical, interfaith relationships in the Northwest,” said Father James Dalton, a senior priest of the archdiocese who helps at various parishes.
In November 1978, Father Treacy started a daily Mass in downtown Seattle at Plymouth Church that continues more than 40 years later. The 12:10 p.m. Mass draws 30 to 40 people a day and well over 100 on holy days, he said. Father Treacy still celebrates Mass there a few times a year, and finds it inspiring.
“You look at that row of people there — you may not know their names but you know they share your vision of life, coming to worship God together with you,” he said.
Beyond his more public ventures, Father Treacy served as pastor and parochial vicar at many parishes, and participated in Engaged Encounters for two decades, estimating he helped 2,000 couples prepare for marriage in the church.
Other assignments included vice chancellor for the archdiocese, chaplain at Holy Names Academy in Seattle for nearly 12 years and archdiocesan chaplain for the Legion of Mary for a decade. He also worked with the Knights of Columbus in the 1950s and ’60s to place weekly advertisements in newspapers across the state, explaining what Catholics believe and offering more information. “I can tell you that we had a lot of people find their way [to] the church,” Father Treacy said.
As he nears the 75th anniversary of his ordination in June and his 100th birthday on May 31, Father Treacy still has energy for ministry. He celebrates Mass every Monday at Immaculate Conception Parish in Arlington, and helps out when he can at St. John Vianney Mission in Darrington.
Although there isn’t definitive proof, “I think he’s probably the oldest active priest in the country,” Father Dalton said.
On St. Patrick’s Day weekend, Father Treacy preached at St. Patrick Parish in Seattle, where he served his first assignment as a pastor in the 1960s.
“The fact that he’s still preaching at 100 is phenomenal,” said Father Paul Magnano, a senior priest who serves as parish priest at five Skagit County parishes. (Like Father Dalton, Father Magnano was an altar server for Father Treacy at St. Anne Parish in Seattle.)
Father Treacy is “a visionary priest who always has new and brilliant ideas,” Father Magnano said. “He’s just a great man. He’s a marvelous voice and face for the church.”
Father William Treacy, left, and his good friend Rabbi Raphael Levine, right, were panelists on the Challenge TV show along with different Protestant ministers. Photo: Courtesy Father William Treacy
Accepting the Challenge
Among older Catholics, and even non-Catholics, in the archdiocese, Father Treacy may be best known for his weekly appearances on Challenge, the program that drew thousands of viewers when it aired Sunday evenings on KOMO-TV in Seattle.
It was 1960 and John F. Kennedy was running for president, but “22 percent of people wouldn’t vote for a Catholic for president,” Father Treacy said. KOMO-TV’s manager and Rabbi Raphael Levine of Temple De Hirsh “were both very upset over the division in America that it was leading to,” Father Treacy explained.
If Rabbi Levine could get a priest and a Protestant pastor to discuss that and similar issues with him, the station would give a half hour of free time. It was Archbishop Thomas Connolly who tapped Father Treacy to represent the archdiocese. “He called me one day and said, ‘Rabbi Levine has some idea for a TV program — you go down and work with him.’”
This was before Vatican II, and Rabbi Levine was the first Jewish person Father Treacy had ever met.
“God put it in my hands,” Father Treacy said, noting that when he was in the seminary there were no TVs, the word ecumenism wasn’t mentioned “and certainly no relationship with Jews. So it’s a whole new facet of ministry that came at that time.”
The nearly 60-year-old rabbi wasn’t so impressed when the 40-year-old Father Treacy showed up to represent the Catholic Church on the show. “‘I thought they would send a senior priest down here. Instead they sent me an altar boy,’” Father Treacy recalls him saying, with a laugh.
The two men (who became very close friends and collaborated on several books) were fixtures on the show for its 14-year run, with different Protestant ministers joining them for constructive interfaith dialogue on topics of the day. Over the years, Father Treacy worked with four Protestant pastors and got along with all of them. “We had that respect for each other,” he said.
And the men were able to share lighter moments. “When you can laugh together, you’re one,” Father Treacy said. “There should be more of that in the world.”
A camp for human harmony
In 1966, Rabbi Levine asked Father Treacy to join him in purchasing a 300-acre farm between Arlington and Mount Vernon for use as an interfaith center dedicated to creating peace and unity in the human family. They named it Camp Brotherhood.
Camp Brotherhood was dedicated in 1968 by Gov. Dan Evans. Students from the University of Washington had helped build the first lodge; other buildings were erected as money was donated.
The center’s programs drew more than 4,000 people a year from all over the Northwest and around the globe, from places like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Israel, Palestine and Belfast. When Rabbi Levine died in 1985 after an auto accident, Father Treacy, who also had regular parish assignments until 2002, carried on the vision with the organization’s board.
“The great legacy of Camp Brotherhood and his relationship with Rabbi Levine is a tremendous gift,” said Father Dalton, who once served on the board. Father Treacy, “of any priest I ever knew, was the one who challenged us to relate to our Protestant brothers and sisters, but especially the Jews and not only that but the Muslims. He just taught me so much about Judaism that I never knew,” Father Dalton added.
Father Treacy moved to a small house on the Camp Brotherhood property about 10 years ago. In 2014, the camp was renamed the Treacy Levine Center; in 2016, the organization’s board decided to continue its mission through media, lectures and meetings, but sell the land to Camp Korey, an organization serving children and families living with serious and life-altering medical conditions.
Last summer, the Treacy Levine Center launched Challenge 2.0, which airs Sunday mornings (see box for details). “That’s our [continuing] contribution in promoting unity and peace between people,” Father Treacy said.
And the center is producing a documentary, Blessed are the Peacemakers, about Father Treacy’s life and contributions to peacemaking through his and Rabbi Levine’s interfaith work.
Father William Treacy still lives on the land that he and the late Rabbi Raphael Levine founded as Camp Brotherhood. He enjoys the natural beauty and fresh air on his frequent walks. Photo: Stephen Brashear
‘Grasp life as well as you can’
Aging, Father Treacy acknowledged, hasn’t been as difficult for him as it can be for others.
“I think I had a heart valve replaced one time,” he said, “but basically my health is good.” He did give up driving about six years ago (“I didn’t want to be a danger to any others,” he said), but neighbors — including Father Dalton — are happy to give him a ride. “Now my claim to fame is I’m his Uber driver,” Father Dalton said, laughing.
When the Camp Brotherhood property was sold, “the new camp allowed me to live on here in my residence, for which I’m grateful,” Father Treacy said. He appreciates the land’s beauty and fresh air, and that he can go for walks without worrying about traffic.
Father Treacy remains an avid reader; recent reads include The Forgotten: Catholics of the Soviet Empire from Lenin through Stalin by Father Christopher Zugger and Leadership in Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin, a favorite author.
Although Father Treacy enjoys history, he is not stuck in the past.
“He never stops learning and teaching,” Father Magnano said. “He’s up-to-date with both the church and the world. He’s a post-Vatican II priest, looking always to the future.”
Of the lessons he’s learned from Father Treacy, Father Dalton said, a big one is, “What’s the loving thing to do? That’s his moral compass I guess, just the way he lives his life.”
The oldest of four siblings, Father Treacy has outlived them all, and he’s amazed that he’s turning 100. “I never dreamt of being 100. It’s suddenly here. Reaching 100 is unusual, but after that, you’re thrown aside,” he said, laughing.
Father Treacy shares some wisdom for aging well: “Find something that makes you happy. Read books, visit people, go and see a movie from time to time,” he said. “Grasp life as well as you can.”
Asked if he is worried about the future of the church, Father Treacy retrieves a copy of his homily from his recent visit to St. Patrick’s in Seattle.
In it, he talks about groiseac, an Irish word for the ashes placed over the embers of a dying fire to preserve them as “seed” for the morning fire.
“The church needs groiseac. It’s not as blazing as it was in the past,” Father Treacy said. But he has faith that someone — another St. Francis, another Mother Teresa — will come along. “The Holy Spirit will fan the embers, and there are undoubtedly embers,” he said.
Reflecting on his life’s ministry, Father Treacy simply said, “I tried to do the best. I leave the rest to God.”
In a preview clip for Blessed are the Peacemakers, Father Treacy said he prays “for all those whose lives have touched mine, that somehow they’ve been better.”
“Not that I’ve done it, but that God in his love will complete what I did.”
Send birthday greetings
Cards to celebrate Father William Treacy’s 100th birthday can be mailed to:
Father William Treacy
24880 Brotherhood Road
Mount Vernon, WA 98274
Challenge 2.0, the reboot of the original KOMO-TV Challenge program that ran 1960–74, airs at 7:30 a.m. Sundays on MeTV (check channel listings).
Current and past programs can be viewed on YouTube (search Treacy-Levine Center).
For more information, visit treacylevine.org.
Northwest Catholic - May 2019