Longtime Priest Remembered As ‘Friend’ To Community
LAKEWOOD — “Not enough good can be said.”
These are the words of parishioner Don Pangborn in response to the death of former Sacred Heart Parish priest Monsignor Joseph Dowdell. Dowdell, who died July 26 at the St. Joseph Campus of Sisters of Charity Hospital in Cheektowaga, had served as a Catholic Priest for 50 years.
Dowdell was honored in state at Sacred Heart in Lakewood on July 29 with viewing hours and a memorial mass. On July 30, he was buried at Mount Calvary Cemetery in Cheektowaga, following a funeral at Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in Williamsville with Bishop Richard J. Malone of Buffalo presiding.
Much of his time in the priesthood was spent at Sacred Heart. Until his retirement in 2013, he had served as pastor since 1989.
Born in Buffalo on Aug. 14, 1935, he was the son of the late Michael J. and Rose (Burkhardt) Dowdell. He was the middle child of what would become three in the family.
Prior to joining the priesthood, he had graduated high school from St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute in Kenmore, earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Canisius College and had also attended the State University of New York at Fredonia, St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., and the Catholic University of Puerto Rico.
However, Dowdell had not always considered the priesthood as his calling.
At the time of his retirement, Dowdell told The Post-Journal that he had a calling to the priesthood in high school.
He related this through the story of a test he took in high school to match his best possible career choice.
“I thought I was a smart kid, but I wasn’t. There were a bunch of questions with five choices each.” Dowdell said. “I thought ‘If I put that (being a priest) down as my first choice, I’m out of here.’ And, I thought, ‘If I put it as the last choice, they’ll think ‘this guy is a wierdo.’ So, I used it (the priesthood) as a middle choice.”
He did not consider it again until his 20s when he had a career in banking.
In January 1989, Dowdell was assigned to Sacred Heart to take over for its previous pastor Father John Horne.
What was originally meant to last for six years turned into 24 years and in that time Dowdell became known to Sacred Heart parishioners simply as Father Joe.
Many parishioners, present and past church staff members said that they will remember him for his approach to everyone he came in touch with.
Former Sacred Heart pastoral associate and director of religious education Marilyn Wozneak had previously worked with Horne and recalled the first time she met Dowdell.
“The first time I met him he was walking through (the church) with Father Horne. And he greeted me with his great big smile and said ‘Oh my friend I am glad to meet you,” Wozneak said. “I remember he came on the feast of the three kings. He always remembered that.”
Dowdell and words “my friend” would become synonymous with each other.
“Whether he knew you for 50 years or three days it was ‘Oh my friend how can I help you,'” Pangborn said.
Wozneak also described his ecumenical nature.
“He would have a meeting with all the area pastors (not just Catholic) once a month. He was helping anyone and everyone he met,” Wozneak said. “Because he prayed so much and so hard for people, it’s his prayer life that stood out.”
Other parishioners cited Dowdell’s connection to them or their families. Many also cited Dowdell as having taken part in their marriages, baptisms of their children, first communion and other Catholic sacraments.
Pangborn cited his son’s marriage and the funerals of his wife’s parents as examples.
“He either was a friend or wanted to be a friend of everybody he met,” Pangborn said. “His warm personality was so inviting that it stimulated the growth of the parish.”
Pangborn also said that during the time Dowdell was at Sacred Heart, the religious education program was the largest program for Catholics in Chautauqua County. In addition, Pangborn cited the building of a learning center that was completed in 2001 to increase space for the program. The building was named the Rev. Monsignor Joseph Dowdell Parish Center in 2012.
Samantha Calimeri was one of the students in the religious education program and also had a special connection to Dowdell. In addition to presiding over her wedding in 2015, Dowell was also her godfather.
“Having Fr. Joe as my godfather was such a blessing. He was always there as a friend to talk to when I needed it the most,” Calimeri said. “I was so fortunate to have him in my life and now as a guardian angel. He was a role model we all looked up to during his time at Sacred Heart and even after he retired.”
Calimeri also described him as active with the children in religious education.
“The thing I will remember most about Fr. Joe’s time at Sacred Heart was his involvement with the kids,” Calimeri said. “He loved interacting with children during mass on the altar or in the religious education classroom. He even gave up his living room (in the church rectory) for the children to learn about their religion.”
Other parishioners described Dowdell’s energy to make anyone feel comfortable even if they were not members of Sacred Heart. Among them was his humor and his efforts to make time for members of the community.
When asked what she would remember the most from Dowdell, current Sacred Heart Faith Formation Director Dee Muniz was quick to mention his sense of laughter.
“He was always telling a joke or laughing or trying to make someone smile,” Muniz said. “He was a one of a kind.”
Sacred Heart Deacon Dan Tyler said that despite not being at Lakewood until after Dowdell’s retirement, he was impacted through knowing Dowdell.
“He was always there when anybody needed him day or night. If he needed to come to the hospital he would come at the drop of a bucket,” Tyler said.
Tyler exemplified this through his former role as administrator at UPMC Chautauqua (then WCA Hospital) that Dowdell was available whenever he needed a priest for a patient’s last rites. Tyler also described a strong friendship.
Dowdell had with his father. In addition, he described that Dowdell gave him his studying material in preparation to become a deacon.
Parishioner Beth Green started coming to Sacred Heart every Sunday in 1999. But even before then she said Dowdell was quick to reach out to her and her family.
“We used to come to Sacred Heart for holy days (of Catholic obligation to attend) because the time for the mass was more convenient. The very first time Fr. Joe met us (the Green family) he said ‘I don’t believe I know who you are,” Green said. “We told our names and he called us by name every time. That certainly made a very warm impression because he loved people so much and it was important (for him) to know your names. It was a blessing to have known him.”
Dowdell is survived by a sister Jane and many nieces and nephews according to a press release from the Diocese of Buffalo.