After years of formation, southeast Michigan native Fr. Joshua Peters, SJ, ordained June 20: ‘The more I surrendered, the sweeter it got’

DETROIT  Fr. Joshua M. Peters, SJ, describes his vocation as a slow burn. 

But the slowest fires often burn the hottest. 

After a decade of prayer, study and discernment, Fr. Peters’ vocation became white hot June 20 when he was ordained to the priesthood for the Midwest province of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) at SS. Peter and Paul (Jesuit) Church in downtown Detroit, one of 15 men ordained for the Jesuits this year in the United States, Canada and Haiti.

Before a handful of friends, family and fellow clergy, Detroit Auxiliary Bishop Donald Hanchon laid hands on Fr. Peters, making him a “priest forever” — as the text of the ordination rite says — something he didn’t always envision for himself.

“I didn’t really feel the call (to the priesthood) that strongly earlier in my life,” Fr. Peters, 41, told Detroit Catholic. “It probably wasn’t until my mid-20s that I started thinking about it at all. It’s not the way I saw my life going; I never saw myself as a priest. I didn’t know anyone doing that, and I didn’t seem like the type.”

Having attended University of Detroit Jesuit High School, Fr. Peters had long been surrounded by Jesuits, but his perception of the priesthood didn’t change until after college at the Marianist-run University of Dayton, when he worked in youth ministry at a retreat center.

Fr. Joshua Peters, SJ, lies protstrate before the altar as the litany of saints is chanted during his ordination Mass on June 20 at SS. Peter and Paul (Jesuit) Church in downtown Detroit. (Courtesy of the Midwest Jesuits)

During the time, Fr. Peters was living in Cincinnati and attending St. Joseph, a historically African-American Catholic church. After a church elder heard him sing, he was invited to join the parish’s gospel choir, but initially resisted.

“I was the only white person in the choir, so I stuck out, but everyone helped me feel at home,” Fr. Peters said. “Even though I was a fish out of water in so many ways, I felt right at home.”

It was much the same with his vocation, Fr. Peters said. Through the encouragement of his church community, he began to seriously consider a vocation to the priesthood.

“I think that in any other community, I would have brushed them off,” Fr. Peters said. “But this was such a nurturing and loving community and so inclusive, prayerful and live-giving, it was undeniable.”

It wasn’t until he returned to Detroit as campus minister at his alma mater, University of Detroit Jesuit, that Fr. Peters rediscovered the missionary spirit of the Society of Jesus and enter the novitiate at Loyola House in Berkley in 2009. 

Looking back, Fr. Peters laughs when he thinks about his initial stubborn resistance to God’s plan. 

Fr. Peters is pictured during his ordination to the diaconate in October 2019. 

“All of a sudden, I thought, ‘Oh no, God is calling me to be a priest,’” he said. “That’s how I started. I was fighting it. And honestly, for the next three to four years, I kept saying, ‘I’ve got to do my discernment,’ but it was really just me digging in my heels trying to fight God, but eventually, God always wins.”

The middle son of two Catholic high school teachers — his father at St. Hugo of the Hills and his mother at the Academy of the Sacred Heart, both in Bloomfield Hills — Fr. Peters said his father’s ancestors were part of the Arcadian diaspora, a group deported from modern-day Nova Scotia in the mid-18th century. While most of the diaspora settled in Louisiana (becoming the Cajuns), the Peters family landed on the Detroit River, where they became farmers. 

Between his family’s deeply rooted history and his high school education in the city, Fr. Peters has a “big love” for Detroit. 

While he was initially slow to come to his vocation, Fr. Peters said through time and prayer, God sweetened the idea of the priesthood until it became “undeniable.” 

In addition to his time spent serving the needs of the Black Catholic communities in Cincinnati and Chicago, Fr. Peters is completing studies at the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans — an education he hopes will serve him well in his new role.

“(Detroit) is a beautifully Black city,” Fr. Peters said. “It is strong, prayerful, talented. I have been really formed by the Black Catholic community, and I am ready to serve whatever the needs are. I hope I can partake in the good work that has already been underway for generations.”

Fr. Peters has completed three of five summers toward a master’s in theology from Xavier, in addition to his bachelor’s in American studies from the University of Dayton, a master’s in social philosophy from Loyola University in Chicago and a master’s in divinity from the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University in Berkley, California. 

As a novice, Fr. Peters served on the Pine Ridge Reservation in Manderson, South Dakota, and was later missioned to teach at Christ the King Jesuit College Preparatory School on Chicago’s west side. 

Last spring, while studying at the Jesuit School of Theology, he spent a few months in Nairobi, Kenya, as an exchange student with Hekima University College, an experience he calls the “fulfillment of a dream.” 

Fr. Peters is pictured with members of the Jesuits’ Christ the King Catholic Parish Eucharistic Youth Movement (EYM) in the Kangemi neighborhood in Nairobi, Kenya, on Good Friday 2019. 

Fr. Peters said one of the “greatest moments” in his long discernment was when he finally told his parents of his desire to be a priest. He equated it to an arm-wrestling match with God; it was clear to him that God was going to win, but he was struggling and fighting back. 

His mother quipped that he’d better think long and hard about that fight, and his father said the same: “If God wants you to be a priest then everything is going to work out and you will find that things will be easy for you.”

While he’s embarrassed by his slow surrender, Fr. Peters said he’s heartened by God’s patience and goodness toward him. 

“Through the Holy Spirit surrounding me and protecting me ... it just kept getting sweeter and sweeter,” Fr. Peters said. “I can’t say there was ever a time when I was struck by lightning; it was a slow process, but the more I surrendered, the sweeter it got. I said, ‘God, there has to be something to this.’”