The Life of Father James Plough

It was just a few weeks ago Bishop Berg and members of his leadership team had the opportunity to visit Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church. One of the greatest highlights for me was when I walked out of the church and looked down the hallway to see Bishop Berg kneeling next to Father Plough who was sitting in his wheelchair. It appeared to be a great moment of humility of a younger priest/bishop before an aged and experienced priest who in these days is rejoicing in the gift of life that God has blessed him with as he prepares to enter into eternal life.

In light of these days of celebration for Father Plough, we wanted to learn more about him and hear his story to share with the people of the Diocese of Pueblo. Here is the life story of a priest who has served faithfully and has brought many souls to God. We will be forever grateful. 

Early Years – “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you” (Jeremiah 1:5).

James Plough was born in Puyallup, Washington on January 2, 1933, of a mother whose ancestry was Irish and whose father was Scandinavian. At the age of three months, the family moved to Northern Minnesota where he grew up. When he was four years old his parents experienced discord that caused a separation in the family that lasted through numerous unsuccessful attempts of reconciliation. Yet Father Plough never doubted their love for him nor did resentment exist between the children and their parents.

Father Plough had a brother, Robert, who was six years older than him. However, the age difference made it impossible for a childhood relationship between the two. When Robert was 16 years old and Father Plough was 10 years old, the school superintendent suggested that Robert might enter the Navy which he did and served in the South Pacific. He married once out of the service and settled in Seattle where he worked at First Bank, retiring as Vice-President after 43 years of service. It was here – Seattle – that Fr. Plough visited over the years when he would go on vacation. Thus, in these years, the two brothers forged a relationship that was new to them and very rewarding. This also provided the opportunity for Fr. Plough’s niece and nephew to get to know him. The children grew to treasure him as an uncle – especially Robert's son, Kevin.

Education - "Jesus asked his disciples: "What are you looking for?" (John 1:38)

At the age of 13, the Plough family’s parish priest, aware of Fr. Plough’s desire to be a priest and the priest being a graduate of the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio arranged a scholarship for Fr. Plough to attend the seminary. Here he lived and studied for the next 12 years, returning home for summer vacations. During his high school years, he learned to play the French Horn and participated in the glee club and other choral groups. In 1946 at the age of 25, he and 15 companions were ordained priests of the Roman Catholic Church. Over the years the ordination class has kept in contact with one another while their numbers have slowly diminished to two.

As the Josephinum was in the throes of growth during this decade, several of the newly ordained were asked if they would consider teaching at the seminary. This meant a number of years in graduate study at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, where Fr. Plough eventually obtained a doctorate in American Religious History. His dissertation addressed Catholic Colleges and the National Catholic Education Association (NCEA), an organization that was just being founded and thus afforded him access to the founder, the founder's original papers, and materials pertinent to the organization's development. It was during these years that infighting among Catholic Colleges gradually evolved into a spirit of togetherness and cooperation. The days Fr. Plough spent at the University Notre Dame often return in joyful memories and Fr. Plough’s face lights up as he recalls that experience.

Ministry – "Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things" (1 Corinthians 13:7). 

For twenty-five years Fr. Plough taught history and later Scripture at the Josephinum. These were turbulent years and the turmoil in the country affected students' desire to learn. Society was reflected in the student body at the seminary. Teaching was difficult and not always a rewarding ministry.

In 1974 beginning to feel the effects of burnout he was rescued by an invitation from a seminary classmate who was ministering in the Diocese of Pueblo. His friend, Fr. Ery Schmitt, invited him to take a sabbatical and come to Colorado. He did and served at a parish in Durango and as chaplain at Fort Lewis College.

After his sabbatical year, Fr. Plough returned to teaching at the Josephinum for two more years. Realizing after his sabbatical that he no longer enjoyed institutional living, he sought solace by serving on weekends in parish settings in Columbus, Ohio where the seminary is still located to this day. This allowed him to live in a parish rectory.

1978 came and with it a change of location for ministry. Fr. Plough sought incardination in the Diocese of Pueblo where he was accepted by Bishop Buswell. For the next six years, he served as an assistant in various parishes. But a call came from Josephinum asking him to return to the faculty. Times had changed again and the student population was once more devoted to learning. By now Bishop Buswell had retired and was succeeded by Bishop Tafoya. Fr. Plough asked the bishop's permission to return to the Josephinum and was given five years after which he was to return to the diocese. The three seminaries in that vicinity and Ohio State University were sharing students making the teaching experience once more exhilarating and as well as pleasant.

When returning to the Diocese of Pueblo in 1989 Fr. Plough was immediately made pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church, Grand Junction and in that ministry he served for the next fourteen years, helping construct a new church and moving the congregation to a site a mile north of their present one. When asked how he learned to give such good sermons he smiled and said not at the seminary. He realized that speaking theology would go over the heads of the faithful and knew that stories can be remembered but not theology. His sermons emanate the practice of parables that Jesus used in disseminating the Word of God. During these final years of parish ministry Fr. Plough reached the retirement age of 65 but sought permission to continue as pastor until he reached 70 years old. 

Retirement – "You have brought abundant joy, and great rejoicing” (Isaiah 9:2).

Once retired Fr. Plough looked at a new ministry. For two years the local hospital had been without a chaplain since the retirement of Fr. Bertrand, so Fr. Plough became their chaplain, serving for the next sixteen years. Retirement gave him time to attend more forcefully to his "addiction" of buying books. Over the years he has purchased two to three library worth of books. Many of his purchases can be found in the library at Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church.

As Fr. Plough looks back on his life he considers how blessed he has been, asking how many have had the opportunities or experiences that he has had. After years of ministering to the dying and helping them have hope and focus on what is to come –eternity– he finds that intellectually and spiritually he looks forward to eternity but in his heart it is hard to leave. Now he must minister to himself as he prepares for his future.

"By the grace of God I am what I am, and God's grace toward me was not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:10).

Contributor: Amanda Zurface resides in Pueblo, Colorado, where she serves as the Vice-Chancellor for the Diocese of Pueblo. She also serves as the Catholic Content Specialist for Covenant Eyes. Amanda holds a License and MA in Canon Law and a BA in Catholic Theology and Social Justice. She is the co-author of Equipped: Smart Catholic Parenting in a Sexualized CultureConfident: Helping Parents Navigate Online Exposure and Transformed by Beauty.