John Morris believes “it’s never too late to pursue your dreams.” The former submarine officer was ordained as a priest earlier this month at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church at the age of 72.
For Morris, the idea of becoming a priest came later in life. “I think what we are called to do in our 20s is not necessarily what we are called to do in our 70s,” he said.
Born and raised in Denver, Morris’ education and early goals were far from theological studies, yet serving his country and community was always part of his life.
“I think we are called to make the world a better place,” he said.
Morris attended the University of Colorado School of Engineering for a year before being appointed to the Naval Academy, graduating in 1961.
Seven days after his graduation, he married Patricia, his high school honey. “Pat and I knew each other since I was 5 and she was 4. We got engaged while I was in the academy,” he said.
After marrying Pat, Morris began a 20-year Navy career. The young family was stationed in various bases in the U.S. and Europe, with Morris serving as an officer on missile and patrol submarines.
The long patrols under the sea were difficult for the young father. “One time I came home on Christmas Day, after being gone for over three months, and my daughter didn’t recognize me,” he recalled.
Morris decided to become an engineering officer and continued his education at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he pursued a master’s degree in ocean engineering and naval architecture.
In 1978, after moving numerous times, the family settled in Napa, while Morris served at Mare Island Naval Shipyard. He retired from the Navy in 1981 as a lieutenant commander.
In 1982, while working as a consulting engineer for Earl & Wright, Morris began his theological studies. He also began volunteering at Napa Valley Hospice as a bereavement counselor. He became a deacon in 1992.
“In the beginning, I started theological studies because I wanted to know more,” he said. “By the time I finished school, I had a better idea of what being a deacon was.”
While serving as a deacon at St. Mary’s, he also worked for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and served on the Napa County grand jury for three years, an unusually long tenure.
Community service is an important part of life, he said. “I think one of the real goals is to find where our passions intersect with the needs of the world,” he said.
As a deacon at St. Mary’s on Third Street, “I did classes for newcomers, helped with vacation Bible school and did a lot of hospital and nursing home visits. For the first 10 years, I felt I was fulfilling my calling,” he said.
Over time, Morris felt there were more things he would like to do for church members. “Ten years into it, I began to wonder if I was doing the right things. I wanted to serve parish families with more than outreach. Finally, three years ago I decided I should become a priest.”
The decision was well received at the church. “Both my congregation and the rector were very supportive of my decision to become a priest,” he said.
There was one problem: Tuition for theological studies at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific cost over $20,000. The problem was solved when a congregation member volunteered anonymously to pay his tuition.
Morris will be volunteering to perform priestly functions as needed at St. Mary’s.
Going from deacon to priest, “the biggest change is the understanding of the mystery of the Eucharist,” he said. “As a priest, I am hoping to support the congregation in their life in Christ.”
For his ordination at St. Mary’s, his wife Pat, their four children, many grandchildren and two remaining sisters were all there to show their support.
“I am unbelievably proud of him,” said his daughter, Carol. “Growing up, I always thought of him as a perfect example of a Christian. He is always honest, caring, loving and generous with everyone.”
Carol is not only proud of her father, but also feels inspired by his decisions. “My dad going back to school and becoming a priest at the age of 72 has inspired me and made me realize it’s not too late to get more education, better myself and pursue my dreams.”