Bishop Joseph Estabrook was an auxiliary Bishop of the Military Diocese and I was proud to know him and call him a friend. He was a great colleague, serving as the Episcopal Moderator for NCYAMA the National Catholic Young Adult Ministry Association and was a rising star in the Church before cancer slowed him and eventually took his life at the much too young age of 67.
He was a great companion to our men and women in uniform. He once told me that he spent a great deal of time listening to “tough Marines cry” and that it was his ministry to be a companion to them in their time of need.
“I’ve seen so many Marines cry and it’s made me realize how tough they really are…especially after I hear what they are going through.”
He was always insightful and practical and a rabid supporter of my work at Busted Halo. He loved a video I produced, “Is Evolution Making a Monkey Out of the Catholic Church?” and spent a lot of time talking to me about what the marines on one of the bases he visited had to say about it.
“It opened a large conversation for us and it helped them see our church as an intellectually solid option.” I could think of nothing more honorable that anyone could say about our efforts.
Bishop Estabrook was also a very funny guy. He regaled us with stories over dinner and he would tell them with such a straight face that it would just become funnier and funnier.
For example: “I worked for the Bishop in Albany and he refused to wear the white vestments at funerals when the changes came down. One day a very public official died and we laid out the white vestments for him. He came in and was furious. ‘What are these?’ We then proceeded to tell him that he needed to wear them. He replied, “Give me five good reasons why I should put these on!’ We replied that this was what the universal church was doing and that the mass would be televised and that he needed to put these on as a show of unity. The church had decided on changing to focus on resurrection and he had move with the church and accept change–even if he was set in his ways.”
He continued with a wry smile:
“So he puts on the white vestments and then the time for the homily came. He starts out, ‘Well, Jim (the deceased) was a great public servant. And there’s one thing about him that always impressed me. Jim was never afraid of change! He always despite his fear, was able to accept change for the better. And so in Jim’s honor, I’d like to announce something. You see these white vestments, I’m instituting them in the diocese today. It’s a new change that we can’t be afraid of, that we need to move with the rest of the church into changing times.”
Bishop Estabrook reported that the Bishop them went on to enumerate all the reasons that they had given him just five minutes before the mass started.
“I looked at him and said, ‘I can’t believe you just did that!’ And he replied, ‘I’m just doing what you guys tell me I should be doing!’ He was a crazy guy, but was really a sweet man who we all loved down deep.”
I learned that he had cancer this past summer through some colleagues and some contract work I was doing for the military diocese. Mark Moitoza, the director of young adult ministry for the diocese said, “He’s a tough old marine. He’s on some kind of crazy chemotherapy that’s supposed to knock all the hair out of your head the next day. It’s nearly a month in and he hasn’t lost a hair. Amazing.
I think it must have been vanity, as the good Bishop was always well-coiffed. He was a good looking man. One colleague once said that she had “A Bishop crush.” Unbeknownist to the Bishop, he was a part of the greatest practical joke that I ever pulled off.
I called said colleague and disguised my voice and said:
“This is Bishop Estabrook, and I hear you have some kind of crush on me. We need to discuss that immediately.”
I went on and on…and finally revealed my identity. Much to the relief of the said colleague who had begun to dial the Bishop’s office on her cell phone. She then called me, half-laughing and half-furious.
As a funny guy, himself, I think the Bishop would have approved.
A priest of the Albany Diocese, he entered Military Chaplaincy in 1977 and served on several Naval bases before ending up in Hawaii at Pearl Harbor where he served as command chaplain in 1997. He later would serve in the same capacity at the Marine Corps base in Hawaii as well.
In 2004 he was named a Bishop and retired from the Navy. It was then that I met him in Cleveland at a conference and our friendship began.
I will miss you, Bishop. Thanks for helping us put young adults on the agenda of your fellow Bishops. Thanks for taking time for so many young adults throughout your career, on both land and sea, uniformed and civilian. But most of all, thanks for simply being my friend.
Rest in peace, Joe.
Eternal rest, grant unto him, O Lord and let perpetual light shine upon him. May Bishop Estabrook’s soul and all the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.