Philadelphia-area Jesuit priest links beauty of creation, faith for Yellowstone visitors

By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T

YELLOWSTONE, Wyo. – Jesuit Father Rick Malloy died and went to heaven this past June, at least figuratively. He managed to snag one of the greatest summer gigs a priest can have: Catholic chaplain for Yellowstone National Park.

Each weekend he celebrates three Masses: on Saturday evening at the Canyon Outdoor Amphitheater, on Sunday at 9 a.m. at Old Faithful Lodge and at 11:30 a.m. at Lake Lodge.

“It’s fascinating, you are preaching to everybody from all over our United States and literally from all over the world,” Father Malloy said after a July Canyon Mass. “It’s a chance to preach and share the faith with some people who are in a different space. I always felt we should put our best preachers from the Philadelphia and Camden Dioceses down the shore in the summer because when you are on vacation things are a slower pace and you have more time to think.”

Father Malloy knows all about Philadelphia and Camden. He’s originally from the Havertown area and Our Mother of Good Counsel Parish in Chestnut Hill. He’s a graduate of St. Joseph’s Prep and Lafayette College.

“I deliberately didn’t want to go to a Catholic college,” he said. “I was the least likely to be a Jesuit out of the St. Joseph’s graduating class of 1973.”

But he did become a Jesuit to his own surprise, and over his career he spent a couple of years in South America, 15 years in ministry at Camden’s Holy Name Parish, followed by teaching and campus ministry work at St. Joseph’s University and Chestnut Hill College. In the fall he will be moving on to the University of Scranton as vice president for ministry.

A few summers ago he was volunteering at the Jesuit mission on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. Because there is a huge shortage of priests in Wyoming he was asked if he would do weekend ministry, filling in for pastors who were out of town. He did so, and one of his weekends was at St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Cody. The parish has about 500 families, but it covers an incredible 6,000 square miles, easily the most territory for any parish in the lower 48 states.

It’s so huge because it includes all of Yellowstone, as well as several national forests. Yellowstone, which spills into neighboring Montana and Idaho, is mostly closed to automobiles from November through April when the roads are inaccessible because of snow and ice – even in July night temperatures usually drop to the low 40s.

St. Anthony Parish hires a priest to cover the Mass sites in the park, and when he visited the parish he said if the Yellowstone chaplaincy was ever open to let him know. It opened up this year, and with his superior’s permission, he accepted the position.

Most years there are four Mass sites, but this year because of road construction it would have been impossible to travel from the lower three sites to Mammoth Chapel, in the north end of the park, over a weekend.

Father Malloy estimates his total congregation at the three Masses is about 300, which is just about the number of miles he travels making the circuit.

Mileage is deceiving. Traffic is slow and unpredictable. First of all, these are mountain roads. Secondly the wildlife has the right of way and there is a lot of it, especially bison and elk, with a few bears and wolves thrown in. You can’t make an extensive drive without the probability of a bison or elk blocking the road, not to mention the tourists who stop to take their picture.

The elk are so plentiful, according to the park rangers, they were in danger of destroying the habitat for other animals. For this reason wolves were reintroduced to thin the herd. Bears can’t catch elk, but they often show up and confiscate the prize after the wolves do the work, according to the rangers. That’s a good thing too; well-fed bears are less likely to try snacking on humans.

More so than wildlife, the great attraction to Yellowstone is the sheer beauty of its mountains, lakes, forests of lodge pole pines, canyons and geysers, including the world-famous Old Faithful.

“It’s great, it’s beautiful,” said Bill McGarvey, a former Philadelphian who attended the Canyon Amphitheater Mass. He now lives in the New York area and runs the online magazine “Busted Halo” for the Paulist Fathers.

“You go to Mass in a church or cathedral made by human hands,” he said. “We are out here in the grandeur of God’s creation. I can’t think of a more beautiful place to thank God.”

Because Yellowstone doesn’t have bulletin boards or radio stations, finding the Mass sites can be difficult if one hasn’t checked the Internet in advance.

Nancy Binette, a teacher at Sacred Heart School in Glyndon, Md., arrived late with her family for the Mass but was thrilled to find it.

“It’s very important, no matter where you are, to celebrate the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass,” she said.

Charlie and Kay Tubbs, an elderly couple who have been clearing back-country trails in the park for the past 22 years, are regulars at Mass. “It’s important,” Kay Tubbs said. “One year we could only have Communion services.”

The amphitheater is open-air; what happens if it rains?

“We all crowd in the stage like sardines,” Charlie Tubbs said.

Providing weekend liturgies takes up two days of Father Malloy’s time; he’s also currently working on a book. He holds a licentiate in sacred theology, and his special field is cultural anthropology.

Other than that, well, he fly fishes – something else Yellowstone is renowned for.

“The last time Jesus was here He was with some guys on a fishing trip. John: 21, you can look it up,” he said. “At least that’s what I tell my superior.”

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.