The Rev. Liam Cary returned to Eugene last June thinking his unconventional journey to the priesthood had reached its resting point.
To lead the congregation at St. Mary Catholic Church in downtown Eugene - where during the 1980s he went from working as the parish janitor to serving as a deacon - seemed like the right calling for the 64-year-old.
"It seemed very fitting to me to come back here," Cary said. "I said my first Mass here at this church.
"When I came back this summer, many people said I was coming home."
Then in March, a lunchtime phone call bore a surprising message - from the Vatican.
Cary, who was ordained as a priest in 1992 and has led churches in Salem and Medford, learned he had been selected by Pope Benedict XVI to be bishop for the diocese of Baker, which is based in Bend and covers all of Central and Eastern Oregon. The diocese says more than 34,000 residents of that area - or nearly 7 percent of the population - identify as Roman Catholic.
The pope "was in effect asking me through the archbishop, 'Will you do this?' " Cary said. "I never expected to have that question put to me, but I couldn't say no."
The appointment means Cary once again will leave Eugene, this time after a brief 10-month stay, and fly today to Rome for "ad limina," a series of meetings held once every five years between the pope and bishops from across the world.
But for Cary, today's trip, and his appointment to bishop status, is just another turn on his unique path to serving God.
"It's hard to leave here because I just started to put down roots," Cary said of the St. Mary parish. "But I've found thus far I've been sent places I didn't expect, and I'm glad that I was."
Cary said he was raised as a Catholic in Prineville, where he attended middle school, before moving to the Mount Angel Seminary in 1961. Cary spent several years at the seminary, first earning a high school diploma and later a bachelor's degree in philosophy.
He then moved on to studying theology at St. Patrick's Seminary in Menlo Park, Calif. - at the time, an early start in the Catholic clergy appeared imminent for him.
But after one year, Cary left the seminary; he did not resume his studies for nearly 18 years. He joined Volunteers in Service to America at 23 and signed up for three years in Chicago at a legal aid office for the poor. He then studied Spanish in Mexico, and worked for some time in a health clinic for farmworkers in California. At one point, he even worked as a house painter in Eugene and Portland.
Cary resumed his track toward priesthood while a member at St. Mary's in the 1980s. He took on a few custodial duties as a parish member, doing cleaning and gardening, and within a few years became a deacon.
"I gradually came to love the people here, and one thing led to another. Finally, it led to the question of being a priest," Cary said.
"I had wanted to be a priest all my life. So it wasn't any big surprise in that regard."
Cary left for Rome in 1988 and returned to Oregon four years later with a degree from the Pontifical Gregorian University; he was ordained a priest weeks later. Before rejoining St. Mary's in June, he had served 12 years in Medford.
During his short time at St. Mary's, Cary left a lasting impression, parishioners said, including his fluency in Spanish at a second Mass held every Sunday for the Spanish-speaking community.
Tom Altenhofen, a deacon at St. Mary's, also recalled the Easter Sunday celebration earlier this month, when Cary welcomed 21 new members into the church during a nearly three-hour-long Mass.
"He made them feel very special," Altenhofen said.
"He really listened and was very concerned about what our needs were. He's going to truly be missed."
Following his upcoming weeklong trip to Rome, Cary will be ordained bishop on May 18 at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Bend. Working as Cary's right-hand man will be Vicar General Rick Fischer, an old friend of Cary who attended Mount Angel Seminary with him during the 1960s.
As a freshman, Fischer remembers looking up to Cary, who was a senior and the student body president.
"I was pretty starstruck that the student body president would even talk to me, a lowly freshman," Fischer said. "Even back then he was well-liked. He's a very kind person, very down to Earth."
Cary said he is excited to work with Fischer in Central and Eastern Oregon. While saddened to be leaving his parish in Eugene, Cary said he looks forward to serving the same area he grew up in.
"I'm going home more than I thought I was going home," Cary said with a laugh.