By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published March 31, 2016
DUNWOODY—As they sang the “Salve Regina,” scores of Atlanta’s priests and its three bishops one by one blessed the casket of Father Joseph M. Peek in the sunshine outside All Saints Church at the March 18 funeral Mass.
Confronted with leukemia just prior to his priestly ordination in 2002, Father Peek turned his physical illnesses into a prayer for his brother priests. He died March 14 at the age of 50 at All Saints.
One of 11 children, Father Peek received a bone marrow transplant from his sister, Kathleen, in 2003. The transplant addressed his leukemia, but he suffered from severe complications for the remainder of his life, including graft-versus-host disease and squamous cell carcinoma. He continued to minister as much as possible, including to the sick, in special ministries and at parishes.
Parishioners from All Saints and other parishes where he had served, and those familiar with his work in various ministries packed the pews and stood along the back wall of the church and in the narthex for the Mass.
The night before, the church was kept open so people could pray at the wake and speak to his parents, Joseph and Mary Peek, his siblings and large family.
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory was celebrant of the funeral Mass, concelebrated by Bishop Luis R. Zarama, Bishop David P. Talley and more than 85 priests. Father Peek’s younger brother, Father Kevin Peek, was the homilist, thanking the community for unfailing support of his brother in his struggles.
“His life, his mission, his work, and even his death were all about Jesus of Nazareth,” said Father Peek. “For it was Jesus of Nazareth who came to a world fallen in sin, broken in spirit and ravaged by sickness and death in order that he should offer the perfect sacrifice necessary to fulfill the covenant, and to restore the relationship of prodigal humanity with the just and merciful Father.”
“And so what is a priest?” asked Father Peek. “He’s a man. But called to participate in God’s grace, and by God’s mercy to become what the early church termed an ‘alter Christus’—another Christ.”
Priests are called, said Father Peek, to be obedient to the will of God completely, even if dying. While Joe Peek’s journey to the priesthood was circuitous, at each step it brought him face to face with the cross and taught him virtues that would help him to persevere.
“Father Joe was no stranger to suffering, but was willing to patiently endure it and often defeat it, thus it was as if he was born and ordained to suffer,” said Father Peek.
The oldest son, he grew up in metro Atlanta where the family belonged to Immaculate Heart of Mary Church. He went into the U.S. Navy, serving as a helicopter crewman and rescue swimmer. He was co-sponsored in the seminary by the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services and the Archdiocese of Atlanta and hoped to be a naval chaplain.
But as ordination approached, he could not physically complete his daily running regimen and was diagnosed with leukemia. At the same time, the sex abuse scandal involving priests of the Boston Archdiocese was breaking.
“Immediately, at the very onset, with that backdrop of the scandals, he offered his sufferings as a prayer for the priests of Atlanta,” said his brother.
He committed himself to being a “priest’s priest.”
“From that day forward, the suffering began,” he added.
Following the bone marrow transplant, the priest’s immune system assaulted his eyes, lungs and intestines. “In 2005, his skin began to thin out and bubble up, eventually splitting open,” his brother said.
The wounds never responded to treatment for any length of time, but he didn’t complain or rescind the commitment to pray and offer sufferings for his brother priests. The sufferings provided a power unknown to those who run from the cross, said Father Peek.
“Father Joe’s sufferings and wounds and patient endurance spoke to us all and challenged us to reflect on our own understanding of the power of suffering and our own weakness and inability to endure it in our own lives or the lives of others,” he said.
In the face of scandal, God sent a remarkable priest to respond to the attack on the priesthood by showing love while in unrelenting pain.
“In the end, he was everything a priest should be, a stand-in for Christ, a sacramental continuation of his sacrificial presence here on earth,” said Father Peek. “I’m proud to call him my brother, but I’m even more honored and humbled to call him my fellow priest.”
Playing games with nieces and nephews
Msgr. Hugh Marren, pastor of All Saints, offered a eulogy at the Mass. He shared Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem, “Break, Break, Break,” written after the death of the poet’s friend, of the lost voice at the edge of the sea.
“I believe that those words capture in some way the thoughts and the feelings that you, the family, have at this time,” said Msgr. Marren.
Yet, he also shared lighter memories of his fellow priest, whom he’d known for 40 years since Msgr. Marren served at IHM Church and then Joe Peek was an altar server. “But it is not as an altar server I remember him,” he said.
“In all my three and a half years at IHM, I never had to separate a school spat that Joe Peek wasn’t in the middle of it,” he said. “And he always proclaimed to be the peacemaker. I believe he thought IHM was a prep school for the Navy.”
“And if you are to understand Joe Peek, you have to understand his family. But trying to understand the Peek family is like trying to understand the Trinity,” Msgr. Marren said. “Nevertheless, the fact that the Trinity is a mystery does not prevent us from probing into it, and at this time I can say without any doubt, that this family is superb.”
The family’s strength was evident in the care they provided to the priest, particularly in the last year of his life when they knitted together daily and nightly support. Father Kevin Peek moved into the All Saints rectory while parents and other siblings gave respite and medical care. Assisting the family were many All Saints parishioners who helped dress wounds, provide food, prayer, and transportation to medical appointments.
“What I have seen over the last 12 months or more, I give thanks to God for calling me to the priesthood because I have seen in action before my eyes every day not just the corporal, but the spiritual works of mercy, and it has been heartening to me to see that,” said Msgr. Marren.
Father Peek didn’t allow pity and his 37 nephews and nieces were fabulous in relating to him, he said.
“He was Uncle Joe to them. That’s who he was and he got up and ignored his wounds and there he would talk to the children,” he said. “He would play games with the children. It was such a wholesome experience that it was really exhilarating to see how Joe himself did not want any pity parties around him. And the nephews and the nieces complied perfectly with it.”
Joseph Peek, the priest’s father, shared one tale involving a mishap after his altar server son was asked to fill a censer with charcoal. His enthusiasm for swinging the censer full circle ended with striking a granite counter, and cinders landing on the new carpet of the vesting area of the church. “He began his service to our Lord with fire and smoke,” said Peek.
Archbishop Gregory thanked Msgr. Marren and all those who were dedicated to Father Peek’s care.
“May our farewell express our affection for him,” said the archbishop. “One day we shall joyfully meet Joe again.”
The burial took place at the Georgia National Cemetery in Canton.
After the Mass, Kari Beckman, founder and executive director of Regina Caeli Academy, said she met Father Peek when he was a deacon. He took part in the annual benefit for the classical hybrid school program, the “Fabulous Fathers’ Talent Show.”
One memorable contribution was a dramatic rendition of a Gen. George S. Patton speech modified to apply to his idea of Catholicism.
“It was so powerful,” said Beckman. “He had been acting since he was a child. People were in tears. They gave him a standing ovation.”
Beckman said the priest believed that any talent should be used for the greater glory of God. In his final days, Father Peek showed concern for her. Beckman said she has lupus and her own pain is just “a hundredth of a decibel” of his.
During a recent visit, as he could barely speak, Father Peek asked her, “How’s your health, kid?”
She was moved by the reading of the Tennyson poem at the Mass because of Father Peek’s love of the arts and literature.
“He had a real heart for classical education,” she said. “He gave himself a classical education.”
In one of Regina Caeli Academy’s early plays, Father Peek portrayed Macbeth, putting hours and hours into rehearsal. “It was an incredible performance,” she said.
He also took time during practice to explain things to the students. “They learned so much,” said Beckman. “Every moment is a teaching moment with Father Joe.”
As his health failed, he still enjoyed cameo parts in productions. Beckman said Father Peek personally purchased and commissioned a statue of Our Lady and always held a May crowning devotion. Beckman remembers his fatherly nature and his spirituality.
“He always addressed you as ‘kid,’” she recalled. “He loved to end the Mass with the ‘Salve Regina.’”
Making a rescue
Father Peek was also active in PATH, the Post Abortion Treatment and Healing ministry. He served as chaplain for its Rachel’s Vineyard retreats that help men and women find forgiveness following abortions.
Sister Pat Thompson, who now leads the retreats for the Diocese of Savannah, said Father Peek understood the heavy burdens that retreat facilitators took on and likened them to rescue swimmers from the movie, “The Guardian.”
Sister Pat said he was deeply aware of the consequences men and women experience after an abortion and was passionate about promoting PATH Bible studies and retreats.
“My hope is that he will continue to reach out to all of us in this ministry from heaven, to give us the strength to continue the mission,” she said. “I picture all the babies he fought to save greeting him with joy when he enters heaven.”
PATH founder Mary Ann McNeil said Father Peek had a silly side that balanced his spirituality.
McNeil said that she will remember him as PATH’s guardian.
“He worked many retreats with PATH, and for years ended our struggle to find available priests to help us on our weekends. It is wonderful to know we still have holy priests.”
St. Brigid parishioner Ursula Wolf met Father Peek at a Rachel Vineyard’s retreat in 2004.
“He was definitely there for a reason,” she said.
Wolf had completed a PATH Bible study, and “begun the long haul to healing.”
After sharing her own emotional story, she felt incredibly bad. “I was still struggling quite a bit,” she said.
Wolf realized she was the only retreat participant who had undergone more than one abortion. “I had had three,” she said.
After excusing herself from the room, she returned later. Father Peek leaned forward to tell Wolf something.
In her left ear, he said, “Ursula, Peter denied our Lord three times, and through him, he built his Church.”
Father Peek later offered the sacrament of reconciliation.
“It absolutely was the first step,” explained Wolf. “Father was very pivotal.”
The next morning, he continued to observe her struggle. He marched up to a tiny grassy hill in front of the retreat center and stuck out his hand.
“As an ordained priest, I represent Christ. I have given you absolution and I need you to take my hand and accept it.”
Wolf said she walked the few steps forward, the longest of her life.
“He knew exactly what to do,” she said.
For 10 years, Wolf volunteered with PATH and is now a respect life co-chair at her parish. She hopes to speak with priests about the importance of this type of work and “the power that has been handed down” to them.
A year ago she attended a healing Mass for Father Peek and was able to say thank you.
Donations in his memory may be made to Post Abortion Treatment and Healing (PATH) at www.healingafterabortion.org or to the Carmelite Monastery of the Holy Family, 510 East Gore Road, Erie, PA 16509, where Father Joseph Peek’s sister is a religious.