A conversation with Alaska’s exorcist

an exorcist
Father Joseph McGilloway, the Catholic Church in Alaska’s designated exorcist. (Meredith Redick/KCAW)

Sitka’s new Catholic priest has an unusual skill set – he’s also the official exorcist for the Catholic Church in Alaska. KCAW’s Meredith Redick sat down with Father Joseph McGilloway, a former Benedictine monk who moved to Sitka in September, to talk about his work in a ministry sensationalized by pop culture.

Meredith Redick: You have been the exorcist for the Catholic Church of Alaska for four years. How did you get into that? What motivated you to do this work?

Joseph McGilloway: Okay, so, nothing. So what happened was the then-Archbishop of Anchorage had brought a friend of his, a priest who has been an exorcist for almost 20 years to talk to us. And really, it was kind of the first time I suppose I took the ministry seriously, in the sense of, you know, the talk made sense. And so then a few weeks later, I was trying to get the book. And the book was blocked. You could only buy it with a bishop’s permission. So I asked the bishop, “Hey, would you give me a letter of permission? Or could you order it for me and I’ll pay for it or whatever?” And he said, “Leave that until I see you.” So a few weeks later, I met him at a mutual friend’s house for dinner. And as we were leaving the house, I said, “Oh, by the way, did you think about whether or not I could have that book?” He said, “Yeah, you’re gonna be the exorcist. Bye!” And he jumped in his car and drove off. I’m like, “What?”  and he’s got a big smile on his face. And he waved at me and drove off. So that’s how I became the exorcist. Yeah.

MR: What do you see as the role of this particular ministry? 

JM: Most of the work that’s done is gentle ministry to people who are under some kind of spiritual stress. You know, it’s not the big scary stuff that you see in the movies, but it’s something in their lives that’s causing them some stress or grief. And basically, most people, all they need is a reassurance that they’re not crazy for wondering if it’s a spiritual affliction. You know, what you really don’t want is, you know, everybody running around thinking it’s always the devil, and it’s always, you know, evil. Sometimes someone could be physically ill. I mean, the reasons why people can be – they could have a brain tumor, or something that creates real problems in there. And they don’t understand. We’ve got to go and see. They could have mental illness. And thank God we’re becoming much more aware of mental illness as a real part of human experience, so that we’re able to deal with that more rationally as well, and without the stigma of approaching it.

MR: You mentioned mental illness. How do you figure out if someone needs an exorcism? 

JM: Before we can do anything there, we need to have the person’s permission to go and get medical and mental health checks, because the worst thing possible is to perform – especially if it is a mental illness that someone’s suffering from – the worst thing is to feed into that mental illness by then suggesting to them that there’s some demon involved as well. 

MR: So you spoke about a couple of really extreme cases. What do those look like when you do end up in that kind of situation?

JM: I mean, my very first exorcism was assisting Vince Lampert. He’d given me, before that, a whole load of books to read and so on. All the books start the same way, you know: 99.9 percent of exorcism ministry is gentle, and it’s prayerful, and it’s quiet, and it’s whatever. And then the whole book talks about the 0.1 percent, because I guess that’s what people are interested in a lot of the time. So I went along to this expecting it to be, you know, the 99.9, but it was actually the 0.1.  Father Vince had told me all this a long time before – he said, if any of these things happen, the intention is to distract us from prayer. Because we get fascinated by the strength, the voice change, the visual change, all those things, the sort of knowledge the person has that’s not natural knowledge. It’s really exhausting. So,  Father Vince, knowing I had a sweet tooth, had bought me a big family pack of M&Ms. So after all that work, we sat around a table eating M&Ms and a divided-up brownie, and that’s all we had for dinner that night. Father Vincent says he often goes to Dairy Queen wherever he is for some ice cream after, that’s his treat.

MR: Can you tell me a little bit about the conference in Rome?

JM: Amazingly, for a conference, you know, that is dealing with evil, the atmosphere was really happy. People would say “So, where are you from?” And I would say, “Alaska” and (they’d say) “Alaska. Wow. So you know, is the devil at work in Alaska?” And I said, “Well, you know the expression ’till hell freezes over.'” There’s not a huge amount of demonic going on in Alaska, thank God – but there is some. 

MR: What do you think people get wrong about exorcism?

JM: First of all, an exorcist isn’t a magician, you know. It’s not like a kind of a holy wizard or something who comes in and does a few spells and everything is fine. The really important thing for them to know is that even if a priest comes to do that, if you are either not a faithful person or have no interest in becoming one, what an exorcist can do for you is very limited.

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