Eleven years ago a new priest came to St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Aberdeen, his enthusiasm permeating the community — inspiring, through his example, a new energy and call to action.
This Sunday will be the soon-to-be-retired Rev. Dale McQueen’s last Mass, but his work has made many impacts members of the church would like to last.
“There are big shoes to fill,” said Bette Worth, who has been a member of the church since 1980 and was part of the church’s committee that selected Father McQueen. Her first impressions included that he was “down to earth, very sincere” and had “lots of energy.”
She said he had his own ideas of what he wanted to do in the community and that the congregation, who had been without a full-time priest for over a year at the time, was eager to join him in enacting them.
“And he’s surpassed our expectations,” she said.
McQueen, who became a priest for the first time at the age of 56, immediately became as involved as he could in the community of Grays Harbor, joining the boards of Coastal Harvest and Habitat for Humanity — and spurring greater involvement with the Grays Harbor Relay for Life.
“He’s one of the reasons we have been as successful as we have been,” said Worth, of their participation with Relay — for which their team most recently raised $77,000.
“We’re really serious about fighting cancer,” said McQueen, adding that he believes people on the Harbor to be some of the most giving people he has encountered. “That amount, for this little tiny church in this tiny city, it’s really an amazing thing.”
Another big change Worth said McQueen inspired was the complete utilization of the church’s building located at 400 E. First Street.
“He said this church is the community’s church.” Today, more than 31 different local non-profit organizations use the building almost every day of the week.
“He doesn’t turn down anyone,” she said.
McQueen’s energy may be due in part that he truly loves his job and says he has no desire to be anything else.
“I’m pretty pumped about being a priest,” he said, of the job title that he took on in 1999.
Not always religious, though he was baptized at the age of 1 in the Presbyterian church, McQueen said he was drawn into the religion through his wife, Carol.
“I married an Episcopalian,” he said.
Up until the time his wife introduced him to a priest in Gig Harbor, who seemed like she was “speaking to (his) problems,” McQueen worked as a bakery technician for Tacoma French Bakery (now closed) from the time he was 15 years old.
“I’m just working with a different bread now, the bread of life,” he said, adding he has not baked a single thing since he quit that job, though he said he still enjoys good bread.
As a child, he said he never imagined that this would be his future life.
“I still find it amazing when I look in the mirror and there stands a priest,” said McQueen, adding he was not exactly a pious child. “I had a good time, we enjoyed life.”
Spurred by his encounter with the enthusiastic priest in Gig Harbor, he began taking adult religious education classes where he had one of the most spiritual moments of his life, one that convinced him he was headed down the right path.
“An old priest was talking at the end (of class) and said, ‘Do you know that Christ died for you and wants you to walk with him?’ And it was like someone had knocked me upside my head and I realized Christ had died for me,” he said. “… It was a ride from there.”
The Seattle-native attended the Seabury-Western Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill., and took his first job in Torrington, Wyo., where he found he truly was on the right track.
“Big wide open spaces with no water, but the people we served, some would come in with their straw sticking out of their hat from feeding cattle, they would give you the shirt off their back,” he said.
A brand new priest straight out of seminary, the congregation helped him along. He spent three years there before deciding to head back to Washington state to be closer to his family in Olympia.
A new deacon and Harbor native, the Rev. Sarah Monroe, joined St. Andrew’s four months ago and joined forces with McQueen. She said he has been a great mentor in many ways, including helping her to bring food and other necessities to the community’s homeless population living outdoors — like those who live under the Chehalis bridge.
“He doesn’t usually come down with me but he has been really supportive,” said Monroe. “It’s been a huge blessing for me to get to know people there, and I’ve appreciated how spontaneous he is.”
On a particularly cold recent night, McQueen surprised everyone by announcing during Mass that they would open the church to the area’s homeless that night.
“He just said, ‘Oh and we’re going to open the doors,’ ” said Monroe. “He just kind of jumped in to help round up people to stay and helped bring breakfast and brought dinner, and got the coffee going.”
McQueen said the church’s helping of those in need, like the homeless, is an easy decision.
“They’re all our brothers and sisters in Christ and everyone should have a decent meal,” he said.
Sometimes, he does what is one of his favorite parts of being a priest, and baptizes the homeless that they help and brings them communion as well.
Since he has been in Aberdeen, McQueen said he has kept record of how many he has baptized: a whopping 188 people.
“I just love to baptize people at any age,” he said, adding he has done the process with newborns through people in their 90s. “It’s the welcoming into the body of Christ where you become part of the church. You are washed clean and have part of the body of Christ.”
Annette Pinckney, another member of St. Andrews for the past 25 years, said McQueen’s enthusiasm inspired her to become more active in the church.
“I didn’t really go until Father Dale was there, (my) attendance was rather sporadic,” she said, adding it was a friend of hers that told her to go and listen to him because of the enthusiasm he exuded — his sermons causing some to laugh and cry in the same session.
“He saw a lot of good in everyday life, saw a lot of good in the Harbor that I think a lot of us didn’t see or took for granted.”
She said he has shown his determination in a number of ways, but in one that is particularly exemplary.
“He stands out on the church corner, rain or shine,” she said of McQueen before Mass, adding he waves at and talks with any who go by.
He does it so often that one day she said he came in and said , “The Catholics have offered me a job as their parking attendant.”
McQueen, 69, said he is retiring because he “grew old,” and thinks it is time for a new chapter in his life.
“We’re gonna move out of the community,” he said, adding he and his wife have already put their home up for sale and plan to split their time between Gig Harbor, near their children and great-grandchildren in Olympia, and warmer weather in Arizona.
“We’re trying to find the best of both worlds,” he said.
He plans to use his new free time to help other priests by giving them vacations and days off. He also hopes to volunteer as a hospice chaplain, which he has done before.
“It’s a service of great dignity and a blessing to be there for people as they die,” he said.
He wants to tell the community, “they’re fabulous,” and to continue developing their unique love of humanity. “There’s great natural beauty here … If only we could figure out the economics.”
McQueen said the lessons he has learned on the Harbor will stay with him including: “that we all have dignity and we’re all loved by God.”
And, he will miss the place he has called home for more than a decade.
“We bought a home here 11 years ago and have loved every day of it.”
His last Mass will be this Sunday at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church at 10 a.m. with a reception to follow at 11:30 a.m.