By Mary Margaret Halford
JACKSON – When Father Joe Dyer was a child growing up in New Orleans, Louisiana, the idea of becoming a priest was something that always seemed to stay in the back of his mind.
“It was an on and off again thing since I was a kid,” Dyer said. “My senior year of high school I realized that I really needed to do something. That idea wouldn’t go away; I needed to see if it was for real.”
So fresh out of high school in the early 1960s, Dyer made his way to Saint Joseph’s Seminary in Washington, D.C. This January, he retired after 43 years.
“It’s definitely not what I imagined,” Dyer said. “God has thrown me so many surprises.”
From the time he entered the seminary through his retirement, Dyer has seen the Church and its people weather many changes.
“Vatican II hadn’t really gone into full implementation when I entered the seminary, everything was still in Latin,” Dyer said. “Things changed for everyone, even priests who were already ordained.”
And Dyer didn’t just encounter changes within the Catholic Church, he also witnessed a revolution in social landscape of America.
“There were disappointing times, there was racism within and out of the Church,” Dyer said, noting that he was in seminary in Washington for Vietnam protests as well as Civil Rights riots. “I remember watching the riots at Ole Miss, and at that time I was in a religious order. I thought to myself ‘Thank goodness I’ll never be there.’”
But 36 years later, as yet another of God’s many surprises, Dyer would find himself being the pastor of St. John in Oxford and the Newman Chaplain at the University of Mississippi.
But Dyer wanted to come back South, and he decided Mississippi or Texas would be close enough to New Orleans.
Dyer began his career in Mississippi at Jackson Christ the King, before going to Jackson Holy Family, Canton Sacred Heart and Holy Child Jesus, Forest St. Michael, Paulding St. Michael, Newton St. Anne, St. Martin de Porres, and finally back to Christ the King, where he’s celebrating Mass most Sundays even now.
By the time Dyer made it to Christ the King, the war in Vietnam was over and migration had begun.
“I think Christ the King was one of the first parishes to sponsor a Vietnamese family,” Dyer said.
At the same time, Hispanic immigrants were making their way to central Mississippi.
“I never thought I’d be learning Spanish at such a late age when I was at Saint Michael in Forest,” Dyer said. “Again – God’s surprises.”
“At two of my assignments, there were lower grade elementary schools. Praying with kids is a really wonderful experience,” Dyer said. “I’m self-conscious when it comes to prayer and expressing that, and they brought me a lot of delight. And celebrating the sacraments was one of the big things that attracted me and is still a big part of why I think the priesthood is a good idea.”
While he was a seminarian in Washington, D.C., Dyer was assigned to a youth detention center, and when he got to Jackson, he spent the first 18 years of his priesthood actively involved in prison ministry.
“I think that’s very important because these people are going to come back into society. They need to have some kind of continuing contact with the rest of the world, living in that self-contained environment,” Dyer said. “And I think it’s good for the administration to know there’s people on the outside that have interest on what’s going on on the inside.”
Just after he retired, Dyer took a long train trip to Southern California, where he spent some time with his first cousins. His retirement plans include more trips like that during the week – visiting family, a cruise with some old high school buddies. He also joined a Jackson choral society and enjoys singing with that group when he can.
Thinking back to when he first settled in Mississippi, Dyer didn’t imagine he’d wind up as a parish priest in Jackson – and he certainly didn’t count on retiring there.
“My intention was that I’d be sent to the Gulf Coast, at that time it was all one diocese,” he said. “Most of the black parishes were on the Gulf Coast, so I thought that’s where I’d be. I had no intention of being in Jackson. But again, God is always surprising people.”
(Mary Margaret Halford is a member of Vicksburg St. Paul Parish.)