He may love ice, but warmth is considered one of his abiding virtues.
Monsignor John Ecker is known throughout the Catholic Diocese of Yakima for his devotion to the flock, for connecting one-on-one with others and for his humor.
He’s also known for his staying power.
The longtime pastor of St. Paul Cathedral, Ecker arrived in Yakima in 1958 from Boston, his hometown, on a three-year loan from the Archdiocese of Boston.
He’s still here.
“He’s been such a steady beacon for generations at the Cathedral,” notes Bishop Joseph Tyson.
On Sunday he will be feted by parishioners, friends and admirers at a celebration marking three milestones this season: he turned 80 in March, celebrated 55 years of priesthood in February and will commemorate his 25th anniversary as pastor of the Cathedral on Friday.
“Everyone is welcome,” says Shary Hanses, one of the parishioners helping plan the event. “He’s revered by people of all ages.”
Ecker, himself, may seem ageless. In January, at a ministry conference in Salt Lake City, Ecker was saluted as the oldest acting pastor of a cathedral in the United States, as well as the longest serving.
Or put another way, the couples he married in 1958 have great-grandchildren who attend his Masses. His tenure has included serving under seven popes and seven bishops.
Tyson recently was given the task of introducing Ecker during an event and jokingly referred to him as “old as dirt.”
“I’m older,” Ecker shot back from the crowd.
When he first arrived in Yakima more than 50 years ago, Ecker assisted at the cathedral and taught in parochial schools. Then the Vietnam War intervened, so he signed on as a chaplain in the Navy. He spent a year with the Marines near Khe Sanh, Vietnam, a hot zone — both tropically and danger-wise — which left him with a lifelong yearning for ice cubes and other coolants.
“It was so hot there that I made three promises to myself if I ever got home: all the drinks I would ever have would be filled with ice, any house I lived in would be air conditioned and my car would always have air conditioning.”
And it came to pass. In fact, various servers in restaurants around town recognize him as the diner who always orders a glass of ice to go with his glass of white wine.
Ecker returned to Central Washington in 1975, serving in several parishes before landing back at St. Paul’s in 1988.
When Tyson was growing up, he often visited his grandparents in Yakima, who happened to be parishioners at St. Paul’s. So Tyson has fond memories of Ecker dating back to childhood.
And when Tyson grew up, Ecker became a model for him — quite literally.
“When I was ordained in 1989, my grandmother was very excited and insisted on making all my vestments.” Tyson recalls. “Because he and I were the same build, she borrowed his vestments so she could sew them to the right size.”
In the mid-1980s, when HIV/AIDS had erupted on the local, as well as national, scene, Ecker took on the role of giving comfort to young people suffering from the disease.
“I knew kids who died from it. Coming from the military, people probably thought I was against anyone with AIDS,” he explains. “But seeing the caring and devotion these kids gave each other broadened my understanding.”
Acknowledging that some language issued about gays from church leaders has been strident, Ecker advocates taking a more gentle approach. “I’m privileged to know many people who are gay. Sometimes the institution of the church is harsh, but individuals aren’t.”
He took great encouragement from the changes enacted during the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s. He especially appreciated vernacular being introduced into liturgy and the sanctioning of ecumenical work between Catholics and Protestants.
“Vatican II threw open the doors and let in fresh air,” he remembers. “I very much became ecumenically involved. Many more things unite us than divide us.”
That effort shows, points out Hanses, who was baptized at St. Paul’s 78 years ago. “He is highly thought of throughout the community, not only by the Catholics. He’s recognized for reaching out to others.”
Ecker predicts more changes will evolve in the Catholic church. “It’s up to the Holy Spirit, but it wouldn’t surprise me if there were married clergy someday.”
The sex-abuse scandal that has rocked the Catholic church since 2002 left its mark on Ecker, he says.
“The first victims were the children. But the second were the other clergy. It put a pall over the reputation of all of us.”
Known as an indefatigable worker, he reads five or six religious publications every week, then mulls them over on his daily 2 1/2-mile run (an activity even his asthma, contracted during childhood, hasn’t been able to thwart). That’s when he comes up with his homilies.
Although Ecker has at least one detractor (a woman threatened to shoot him years ago in the Tri-Cities after he discovered some hanky-panky with the bookkeeping accounts she oversaw), he has legions of fans, according to Hanses. “He’s a people person, and people love him.”
Tyson agrees. “He’s very present to the people and so faithful to service and the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Ecker says he has no plans to retire. “I’m still the vicar general. I still enjoy life, I still enjoy who I am.”
But he looks forward to more travel. Last summer he visited Russia and the Baltic states.
Hanses says whenever Ecker travels to his birthplace, he returns with an even thicker Boston accent.
And that’s just fine, she notes.
“We’re a better community because he’s here and sharing his life with us.”
• Jane Gargas can be reached at 509-577-7690 or firstname.lastname@example.org.