Celebrating the Life of Father Peter Ely S.J.

The Seattle University community lost Father Peter Ely S.J. on April 11. Starting as a professor in the Theology Department in 1997, he went on to create a lasting impression at the university and in the lives of many students, faculty and staff.

Serena Cosgrove remembered Father Ely’s welcoming temperament.

“Fr. Ely was a gentle and loving colleague. When I bumped into him in Casey or out on campus, he always had time to ask how I was doing and what I was teaching about or reading,” Cosgrove said. “He had an ability to be so present: you felt like he only saw you when he was talking with you.”

This sentiment was echoed by Seattle U President Fr. Stephen V. Sundborg, S.J.

“Several students have told me, ‘He always seemed to have time for us.’ He would always have a moment to stop and say hello and have a bit of a conversation, he never just walked by you,” Sundborg said.

This intellectually curious attitude extended to Ely’s tenure as the Vice President for Mission and Ministry, a position he held from 2009 to 2015. Philosophy Professor David Madsen spoke about Father Ely’s openness to all faith traditions.

“He was always interested in exploring with faculty and students their own faith experiences. So many people at SU will tell you that they are ‘spiritual but not religious.’ Peter set himself the task of finding out just what that meant. That means that he met people where they were. He didn’t proselytize, but rather he explored,” Madsen said.

Madsen pointed to how Ely’s background as a Jesuit equipped him with the tools to construct a welcoming faith discussion.

“He took what he learned from the Catholic and Jesuit traditions and from the students and faculty with whom he spoke in order to engage both groups in deeper reflection on the meaning of their lives and their place in an often seemingly unintelligible world,” Madsen said.

Ely’s Interreligious Dialogue Initiative allowed for an open and inclusive dialogue about how each person experiences faith at Seattle U.

“This helped us be more receptive and respectful of people of a variety of religious positions. Even if a person did not have a religious position or faith, Fr. Ely was extraordinarily curious about what stances people took in life, religious or not,” Sundborg said.

Lauren Lawson, Assistant Professor in the College of Nursing, spoke to Ely’s attitude of joyful co-existence and conversation.

“I am a member of the Baha’i Faith and when I attended the New Faculty Orientation in 2009, I spoke with Father Ely about the presence of other faiths within Seattle University. He always remembered me and that conversation, which resulted in my participation in the Interreligious Dialogue Initiative,” Lawson wrote in a memorial post online.

Due to the current Washington State stay-at-home order, community members cannot congregate to share their memories of Father Ely, but Seattle U’s website now hosts a page dedicated to posts about how he impacted the lives of those around him. The page has progressively grown since its initial creation.

The outpouring of love on the page signifies the profound ways in which the late Jesuit made the world a more hopeful, loving place. The stories are incredibly varied, from how he participated in the Delano Grape Boycott which fought for the rights of exploited farm workers to his snacking habits.

“His weakness was dark chocolate…NEVER milk chocolate—and he made frequent visits to my department. I tried to keep some chocolate in reserve, as I enjoyed his company and the always good conversation,” Biology professor Kimberly Gawlik wrote.

Sundborg spoke to how students can act in accordance with the tolerant and curious worldview Fr. Ely held, which often came out in conversation.

“The most important thing that we could all do is be far more willing to enter into dialogue with one another with an open, receptive and respectful mind,” Sundborg said. “What Father Ely was really a master of was being able to engage with people in dialogue even when he didn’t agree with them.”

Madsen expressed that as a professor, a Jesuit, and a friend, Fr. Ely left those that surrounded him feeling enriched intellectually and spiritually.

“Compassion was his signature virtue, but wisdom followed close behind. You never left a conversation with Peter without having learned something…and for that I will be forever grateful,” Madsen said.

While he will no longer be seen taking his daily walks around campus or in the classroom, it is clear his presence will be felt at Seattle U for years to come.

“He was a remarkable man—a Jesuit’s Jesuit,” Madsen said.