Ill priest answers the call to heal

The Rev. Joseph Peek, dressed in slip-on shoes and soft pajama pants, walked three miles last month to raise money for cancer, finishing the 5K “Win the Fight” for The Winship Cancer Institute in just over an hour.

For Peek, whose mantra is to keep moving forward, and to “take the next step,” this was a big one.

Not long ago, deep, painful, open wounds scarred more than 70 percent of his body, including the soles of his feet.

In 2002, just months shy of his ordination, Peek was diagnosed with leukemia. He received a bone marrow transplant from his sister Kathleen, and while doctors believe the transplant effectively cured Peek of the cancer, the procedure created a new series of health woes. Suffering from what is known as “graft-versus-host-disease,” the new immune system attacked Peek’s body.

The illness ravaged his flesh — from his face and neck to his feet — and derailed his life-long ambition of serving as a priest. Eventually, the 46-year-old Atlanta native had to go on medical leave and move in with his parents.

But Peek never stopped ministering to the sick. Well-known at Emory University’s Winship Cancer Institute and within Atlanta’s Catholic community, Peek is a go-to spiritual adviser for the sickest of the sick. He lifts the spirits of newly diagnosed. He regularly visits patients in hospitals even though such visits threaten his own health; his body, covered with open cuts, is susceptible to infections. Sometimes, when he’s too weak to drive to the hospital, his mother gives him a ride.

But Peek believes his experience as a patient puts him in a special category of priests, and he feels responsible to others in need.

“You want to reach out for moments like this, they are moments worth expending energy for,” he said. “In my early days of seminary, I didn’t like going to hospitals because I had nothing to say . . . except for some things about faith, and prayer. I was uncomfortable because I had no experience and no crossover. Now, I am very comfortable in hospitals, and I have a lot to say.”

Crucial quote

After Mary Taylor was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004, she turned to Peek. He listened. He prayed. He checked on her after chemotherapy. And when Taylor was too sick to go to church, the priest gave her Communion in her home.

“I was pretty upset [about the cancer diagnosis] and he provided me this quote that has really been instrumental for me: ‘You are either on the cross or you are at the foot of the cross.’ It means you are either suffering or you are with someone else who is possibly going through it. It was a reminder we are not going to get out of this world pain-free,” said Taylor, who was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer but has now been cancer-free for several years.

Peek’s candidness moved Taylor, who is now 52 and lives in the Norcross area. Peek was devout, but also down-to-earth.

He told her that struggling and feeling melancholy are normal.

Dr. Amy Langston, a bone marrow transplant physician at Emory’s Winship Cancer Institute, directs Peek to patients who need help putting their own lives in perspective. Many patients who have had successful bone marrow transplants are stunned by the time it takes — in some cases, years — before they feel normal again. It can wear on people psychologically, she said.

Much like the patients he sees, Peek, who has served as a priest briefly at St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Church in Kennesaw and Mary Our Queen Catholic Church in Norcross, was forced to adjust to continuing health problems.

“It’s sort of become his new normal,” Langston said. “And he’s been able to show people and inspire people who may think they are in a rough spot. ... To see someone like him so visibly ill still trying to do things for other people and watch over people and remain active as a priest, I think it’s a real inspiration to patients from all walks of life.”

Anita Kaas, hospitalized for a brain hemorrhage, said she counts on her time with Peek for a mix of prayer, conversation — and good laughs.

“He was here today for an hour and we just laughed and laughed,” said Kaas, who lives in Dunwoody, in a recent phone interview from her hospital room at Glancy Rehabilitation Hospital in Duluth. “He was wearing a jacket that was filthy and I asked him, ‘How did your jacket get so filthy?’ and he looked at me and said, ‘Well, I do work for a living.’”

Big-family lessons

Peek and 10 siblings grew up in a bustling Irish Catholic family in the Northlake area of Atlanta.

Being part of such a big family taught him “things will not go your way,” he said. When he was diagnosed with leukemia just as he was finishing seminary, he thought, “Things like this happen to people all day. Why not me?”

He learned another big life lesson from his mother, Mary Peek. Whether helping a neighbor in need or volunteering at a soup kitchen, she emphasized serving others.

As a child, Peek looked out for the outcasts, long before bullying became such a widespread topic of concern. He was the one who noticed the kids sitting alone at the cafeteria table and joined them.

At home, he was surrounded by daily reminders of his family’s Catholic faith. A 5-foot tall crucifix hung in the living room. Peek served as an altar boy at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Atlanta.

Peek’s brother, Kevin Peek, chaplain at the Catholic Center at Georgia Institute of Technology, believes his brother’s faith has given him great comfort and assurance.

“He knows that God is present and knowing that you have God when everything else is stripped away, your health, even your strength is stripped away, God is there, and that has been a central piece of his sanity. It gives him motivation and assurance,” said Kevin Peek.

Kevin Peek said his brother’s dedication to helping others is in line with his brother’s commitment to the priesthood.

“Part of priesthood is the Catholic understanding that part of our role is to be a visible presence of Christ as much as we can be. He’s been in the cancer ward, and he’s continued that presence in a powerful way,” said Kevin Peek.

Joseph Peek’s journey to priesthood was not a direct one. He joined the Navy in the late 1980s and served about three years. He also worked as a substitute teacher and a waiter at Outback Steakhouse. But he kept feeling a pull toward priesthood. He decided to go to seminary with the hopes of becoming a Navy chaplain.

And then, one day in 2001, Peek, who was once a Navy rescue swimmer and known for his physical endurance and strength, couldn’t reach the top of a hill at seminary, where he regularly “tagged” Jesus on the cross.

That was the beginning of years and years of severe pain, and ever-so-slow improvements, mixed with setbacks.

He still must change his wounds three times a week. He tires easily and needs plenty of rest. Sores on his body make a good night’s sleep elusive. Lying in one spot for a couple of hours hurts so much it wakes him up.

One of the biggest risks for Peek involves wounds getting infected with methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, a superbug that he has already battled multiple times.

Over time, Dr. Langston said the hope is Peek’s new immune system will “re-educate itself” and become tolerant of Peek’s body. She sees some signs of improvement. Some wounds are slowly healing. He no longer has open wounds on the soles of his feet. His energy is increasing.

“Having faith going into this was a great blessing,” said Peek. “On the other hand, it’s still a marathon. No matter how prepared you are, you grow weary. I’ve realized it’s OK to be a little depressed and realize your body has gone through a lot and accept that. You need to be patient with yourself and keep walking.”

And then he pauses and says, “One of my sayings is take the next step.”

Spiritual significance

Completing the 5K was also a step toward returning to being a full-time priest, the dream cancer forced him to put on hold for the past few years. Beyond the physical challenge, the event was imbued with spiritual significance.

“We acknowledge Jesus falling three times in the Stations of the Cross, and yet he rose each time to press on so he might achieve Calvary,” said Peek. “The ‘Win the Fight 5K’ for me is much more than a mere physical accomplishment; it is another rising step towards where God desires my last measure of devotion for love of him and his children. ... It will not be pretty, but by his grace I will finish as I did in the 5K.”

Peek officially rejoined the priesthood on a full-time basis this month. He was assigned assistant pastor to All Saints Church in Dunwoody.

Rev. Msgr. Hugh Marren of All Saints in Dunwoody said Peek’s commitment to serve through pain and suffering speaks volumes.

“Everybody can be good when the sun is shining,” said Marren. “But we recognize heroism and courage in those people who don’t turn back when the tragedies and storms of life strike them. ... There’s a lot of things in life we don’t understand. We do things not because we understand, but because we know it’s right.”