Experienced guide on woodland hikes, Edmonton’s newest priest sets sights on higher trails
Robert Lee is accustomed to guiding – whether it’s troops as a young Scout leader or hikers in the Yukon.
Now he’ll continue to lead others but on a much grander scale: as a spiritual guide, leading people to Christ. Lee was ordained to the priesthood on June 28 in the Archdiocese of Edmonton.
“What I wanted to do was to become a professional guide, backpacking,” Lee said.
“That’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to be either a doctor or a mountaineer, very much service but also leadership.”
Service and leadership are interwoven in Lee’s story, which goes back to growing up in Spruce Grove with brother and two sisters and time spent on the high school basketball and lacrosse teams.
“I played a lot of sports. I wore a lot of sweatpants and shorts,” Lee joked.
“I don’t think I owned a pair of jeans until I was in Grade 12.”
Sunday mornings were spent at Holy Trinity Parish. Lee’s father is Catholic, but his mother had not joined the faith until Bob was 10.
When she did, mother and son were in church together with Father Paul Terrio – then pastor, now Bishop of St. Paul – up front.
“A big part of me becoming more Catholic was seeing Mom discovering the faith and choosing to join the Church,” Lee said. “She received the sacraments at the same time I received my First Communion. I remember now, Bishop Paul Terrio having us in the sanctuary at the same time.”
The Lee children grew up attending Catholic camps, including Kids for Jesus (K4J) in Wabamun. Robert was a Scout leader from a very young age, and he took part in a 10-day backpacking hike in the Yukon with an outdoor leadership school the year he graduated high school. Both fuelled a passion.
“My family is a big outdoors family,” he said. “Dad is a refrigeration mechanic and he would have jobs across the Prairies. And we’d follow him. That would be our summer holidays, following him and staying the provincial park or national park. That’s the family’s idea of fun: A good hike and a campfire.”
Lee had attended retreats in high school and was struck by “the focus on service and living out that faith through love of others,” but the idea of the priesthood didn’t come until he was in Grade 12.
“The big thing in the priesthood is Father Paul Terrio asking me if I wanted to be a priest. Yeah, it wasn’t going to happen. I said, ‘No, not interested. Thanks Father; that’s a neat thought,’ ” Lee recalls.
“He laughed at me as far as I remember. He doesn’t take things like that personally. But he never stopped. Every time I saw him I couldn’t help but think about it.”
Lee had a girlfriend and even prayed and talked about it with her. But when he graduated high school in June 2010, he planned to study biochemistry at the University of Alberta.
That summer Lee continued to work labour jobs as he did throughout high school. On Thursdays, he got off work early so he could make it to Adoration at Holy Trinity – even at the end of long weeks.
“Yeah, I slept through Adoration. ‘Devotion to Our Lady of the Pillows’ we sometimes call it. ‘Resting in the Lord’ is another way of putting it,” Lee jokes. “But making that little effort kept me close to Christ throughout the busyness of summer.
“When I really, truly believed that Christ was risen, that I wanted to follow him with my whole life, it became a pursuit of studying Him and wanting to know Him best and to live his Word. Flawed as (my) pursuit was of that, I think Father Paul saw that, and saw my desire to serve Him … and maybe that was kind of the door that he was looking for.”
By December, Lee had ended his relationship and he was at St. Joseph Seminary. He and his then-girlfriend came to terms with that. She even attended his ordination, accompanied by her new fiancé.
Lee’s parents were supportive, but learning he wanted to become a priest was a bit of a surprise.
Lee was personally at peace when he made the decision. That’s not to say that seminary was easy.
“There were a couple of days where I started packing my things. The toughest part was being away from home, and thinking of what I was giving up. I couldn’t see what I was going to receive. I wasn’t quite willing to accept on faith that it would be as fruitful as all my plans were,” Lee said.
“Looking back, I can say I’ve gained everything and lost nothing, mostly because of the prayer life we have here at the seminary. If there’s one thing that grounds us, it’s the peace we receive through prayer.”
Lee’s paternal grandmother, who turns 92 this year, said it’s a joy to have a grandson who is a priest.
Now it’s up to Lee himself to figure out what that means.
“The biggest challenge, as I see it so far, is ‘What does it mean to be a priest in every part of my life?’ ” Lee said.
“How do I bring being a priest to the lake or the river when I go fishing? How do I be a priest when I’m hunting? How do I assume that priestly identity in all parts?”
Lee said a healthy community was vital to his own vocation. He wants to pass that on to others, whether that means working with camps or building young men and women in leadership roles.
“If there’s a broad, overarching goal, it’s to develop a community built up around Christ and the Eucharist and charity.”
Father Robert Lee’s first posting, effective August 16, will be as an associate pastor at St. Joseph’s Basilica, the cathedral parish of the Archdiocese.
Lee had been ordained to the diaconate just over a year ago, on June 16, 2017: