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Gladstone minister walks in footsteps of St. Patrick

by: SUBMITTED PHOTO - The vista of Clew Bay rewards visitors who hike to the top of Crough Patrick in Ireland.When Scott Dunfee, the pastor of Gladstone’s St. Stephen Lutheran Church, traveled to Scotland and Ireland last May, he was setting out on a spiritual journey.

He had developed an interest in the life of St. Patrick and the history of the Celtic Christian movement in both Ireland and Scotland, and that led him to follow in the footsteps of St. Patrick and St. Columba, an Irish missionary monk who brought Christianity to Scotland in the sixth century.

“I go through cycles; the spirit lays something on my heart and an area of study and focus stirs a passion in me, so I live with that and walk with that,” Dunfee said.

by: PHOTO BY SCOTT DUNFEE - This enormous statue of St. Patrick is the gateway to a pilgrimage undertaken by thousands of people on Crough Patrick in Ireland.Because the focus becomes part of his spiritual growth, and then part of his ministry, he also gave his parishioners the chance to write specific prayer requests, and he promised he would take those with him, and pray for them on his journey.

As part of his month in Scotland and Ireland, Dunfee, whose ethnic heritage is Scotch-Irish, decided to explore the “thin places,” and in two of those places, he experienced spiritual epiphanies.

There is a Celt tradition, he said, that “thin places are specific places where the veil that separates heaven and earth is thin. In those places, the awareness of God is heavy and intense.”

With that in mind, Dunfee spent a week on the island of Iona, in the Hebrides.

“Iona is the site of the first Christian community in Scotland; that’s where St. Columba landed, on his journey from Ireland,” Dunfee said.

St. Columba founded an abbey there in the year 563, and there is still an abbey on the island, which is now run by the Church of Scotland.

“As the boat approached the island, I found myself in tears. I felt like I was coming home, even though I’ve never been there; it is truly a place of refuge,” Dunfee said.

The Iona Community is an international ecumenical Christian community, “with a big focus on prayer, social justice and the environment. The community gathers for prayer there twice a day,” he noted.

Dunfee spent four hours in the abbey in prayer, and then he lit a candle for each of his prayer requests.

There are many thin places in Ireland, Dunfee said, but since his goal was to follow the routes of the pilgrimage and ministry of St. Patrick, he went to Crough Patrick, on the southern coast of Ireland, near Clew Bay, in County Mayo.

“Crough literally means ‘stack,’ so the mountain is Patrick’s stack; to the locals it looks like a haystack,” he noted.

“According to tradition and history, Patrick spent 40 days and 40 nights on the mountain, praying for the people of Ireland, before he began his public ministry in Ireland,” Dunfee said.

Hundreds of thousands of people make the trek up the mountain in the summer, eager to follow Patrick’s footsteps. As they approach the base of the mountain, they are greeted by a statue of St. Patrick, and then they must go through a gate to enter the trail that marks the beginning of the pilgrimage.

“As I passed through the gate, I had a literal physical sense of moving into this spiritual realm. The air became heavy and thick, like I was passing through a curtain; I had to stop and feel the sense of presence around me,” Dunfee said.

Traditional services

Dunfee has been the pastor at St. Stephen since 1999; before that he was based in Northern California in the Bay Area.

He and his wife love Oregon, he said. “Gladstone is a marvelous place to do ministry. There are many third- and fourth-generation families in this church, and Gladstone is a stable community.”

The church also established the first kindergarten in Gladstone, before public schools had kindergartens, so he regularly encounters people who attended school in the building.

St. Stephen also has a “disproportionally large number of talented musicians,” in the congregation, and it is the home of the Chautauqua Community Chorus, in its 12th year, Dunfee said.

In addition, the church has a choir that welcomes anyone from the community, and the bell choir has been in existence there for 30 to 40 years.

“We have traditional services with a pipe organ, and contemporary services with a praise team and a band; there is something for everyone, musically,” Dunfee said.

He has also been a chaplain in the U.S. Naval reserves for the past 19 years, and is called to duty at least six times a year. In that capacity, he has worked “taking care of folks coming back from Afghanistan or taking care of the families of those who were in Afghanistan,” he said.

He was the chaplain of a Seabee battalion in Guam and Japan, and spent time on ships at sea and in Pearl Harbor.

His job with the reserves is unique, Dunfee said, “because basically the focus for the ministry is in people’s workplace.”

He added that since many servicemen and women are in their late teens or early 20s, his work involves youth ministry as well.

Dunfee said he would welcome the opportunity to share his experiences with others, and hopes that in the future he can accompany some of his parishioners on a similar spiritual journey to Scotland and Ireland.

“I will go back, one way or another; journeys like this expose you to the next thing,” he said. “And I have to go back to Iona, as I am going to be an associate member of the community there.”

Contact Pastor Scott Dunfee at St. Stephen Lutheran Church, 503-656-8194.