The legacy of faith of the Korean Catholic saints and martyrs, and the deep faith of everyday Catholics with roots in that nation, have shaped the life and ministry of Father Joseph Lee, a priest of the Archdiocese of Seoul, South Korea who since 2017 has served as the pastor of St. Andrew Kim Parish in Olney, Maryland, which serves Korean Catholics in the Washington area. In 2020, he is marking the 25th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood.

A special highlight of Father Lee’s priesthood came in 2014, when Pope Francis visited Korea, and the priest greeted him and welcomed him to the Seosomun Martrys’ Shrine in Seoul. At the time, Father Lee was pastor at Yakhyeon Catholic Church in that city and was in charge of caring for the martyrs’ shrine. Then three years later, Father Lee was assigned to serve in the United States as the pastor of St. Andrew Kim Parish in Olney, which is named for St. Andrew Kim Dae-Geon, the first Korean priest and martyr. St. Andrew Kim was among 103 Korean martyrs canonized by Pope St. John Paul II when he visited South Korea in 1984. The faith and sacrifice of those martyrs has inspired generations of Catholics in that country.

In an email interview, Father Lee said, “I inherited my family’s faith.”

When he was young, the priest, who grew up in Seoul, was encouraged by his parish priest to think about becoming a priest when he grew up. Father Lee’s mother, Jung Rye (Lucia) Kang, worked as a rectory housekeeper after his father, Jun Hyung (Stephen) Lee, who worked for a company, died in 1972 when the future priest was 5. He has a sister and a brother.

Father Lee was ordained as a priest for the Archdiocese of Seoul on July 5, 1995 at Myeong-dong Cathedral. The priest attended the Catholic University of Korea and earned a graduate degree in theology. 

He served as a parochial vicar at Seoul’s cathedral from 2002-03. Later, the priest served as pastor of a parish in the Doksan-dong neighborhood of Seoul, where he worked with parishioners in completing the construction of a new building for the parish. From 2006-11, Father Lee served as general secretary of the sub-committee of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Korea. Then from 2012-17, he served as pastor at Yakhyeon Catholic Church in Seoul, where he was in charge of the care of the Seosomun Martyrs’ Shrine and greeted Pope Francis during the pope’s visit there in 2014.

Father Joseph Lee

Since 2017, Father Lee has served as the pastor of St. Andrew Kim Parish in Olney, which has about 2,500 parishioners. Praising the faith of the parish, he noted how “the parishioners who have deep faith in God and share fellowships (with) each other always remind me of the fellowship of the early church community.” He said he is especially inspired by seeing so many families attend Mass together there.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the priest said he has followed the safety guidelines of the Archdiocese of Washington.

“I have been trying to make strong efforts to communicate with parishioners for their religious life through internet and social media,” he said.

Father Lee noted that in recent months, the church bulletins and homilies have been uploaded onto the parish website, along with video recordings of the homilies, and he has used Zoom and Google Meet to communicate with parishioners and parish council members. St. Andrew Kim Parish has also been streaming its Masses on YouTube so people who are not able to attend the church in person can view the liturgies online, and it has been hosting Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament on Saturday evenings on the church parking lot.

During these challenging months, the priest said he has been inspired by how the parish’s initiative to raise funds for parishioners who had been impacted by the economic downturn during the coronavirus pandemic drew a generous response.

“I am very happy that so many parishioners, many of them suffering due to the COVID-19 pandemic, were so willing to sacrifice and help others who are less fortunate,” he said.

Reflecting on his 25th anniversary, Father Lee said, “Most of all, I thank God who has led me to live my life as a Catholic priest. I also thank the parishioners (in Korea and in the U.S. at St. Andrew Kim) who followed and supported me. I always feel that I live my life not by my will but by the love of God and the love of our parishioners. I can’t believe it is already my 25th year as a priest with my beloved Korean parishioners.”

He expressed gratitude for the responsibilities entrusted to him by the Archdiocese of Seoul and for the acceptance he has received in the Archdiocese of Washington, and he is thankful that he has had the opportunity to deepen the faith of the parishioners whom he has served.

“I feel extremely blessed by God that I have been able to pass God’s warm hands to so many religious Catholics in the past 25 years,” he said.

When asked about his future goals as a priest, Father Lee said, “Wherever I am, I would like to be seen by my parishioners as a person with God.”