Dog is ‘visible guardian angel’ for blind priest

Father Mike Joly, pastor of St. Joan of Arc, Yorktown, plays with Duffy, his first guide dog in 30 years. The priest adopted the dog this summer from “The Seeing Eye” in Morristown, New Jersey, where he trained with Duffy for three weeks. (Photo/Mary Ann Vogelbein)

Duffy provides Father Joly with protection, guidance


Father Mike Joly, pastor of St. Joan of Arc, Yorktown, is having “a blast” with his new guide dog Duffy.

The German shepherd gives Father Joly, who has been blind since childhood, the capability, independence and confidence to explore familiar and new places. Prior to Duffy, he used a cane or held onto someone’s arm for guidance, both slow-going.

Duffy, on the other hand, “zips” through airports with him, maneuvers around tables and people in restaurants, leads him in hospitals and guides him in banks, malls and other venues.

“He’s like a visible guardian angel,” parishioner Chris Ladnier said, explaining that Duffy guides Father Joly safely and protects him.

Father Joly, who was ordained in 1994, had a guide dog, Zeke, a “fun-loving big dopey lab,” from his junior year in college to mid-seminary, a span of six years.

“Now, 30 years later, I’m having a blast with this dog,” he said. “He does some really cool things.”

One “really cool thing,” he said, is that the dog “keeps an eye” on Father Joly or tilts his head and points an ear up “no matter” where the two go, and Duffy communicates his need to relieve himself by nudging the priest’s hand with his snout and does the same when he is ready to come back in.

In addition to steering the priest away from obstacles at dog-height, Duffy helps him avoid obstacles at a human’s shoulder or head height. He can train Duffy to do other things more specific to him. For example, he can train Duffy within 15 minutes to always enter through a particular door in a mall.

Two work as one

Father Joly adopted Duffy this summer from “The Seeing Eye” in Morristown, New Jersey, where he trained with Duffy for three weeks. The school’s philosophy is to lavish praise on the guide dogs, Father Joly said, so when Duffy is working, he offers simple words of encouragement like “that’s a good boy” every 30 seconds or so and frequently at other times. He said giving positive re-enforcement to his dog lifts his mood as well.

“It ends up being a bit of leaven in the day,” he said.

The two work as a team. When walking outside, Father Joly uses a GPS app on his phone, which tells him the names of the street he is on, nearby roads and businesses they pass.

“It gives me an environment,” he said. “I have to know generally where I’m going. His job is to get me there safely.”

Parishioner Cathy Mueller, who drives Father Joly to many of his appointments, said it’s “amazing” to watch the two work together.

“It’s almost like one,” she said.

When Duffy is in his harness, he’s “working and on guard,” Father Joly said. People must not pet him, feed him, call his name or make eye contact. Doing so can distract Duffy, which can be dangerous for the priest – which he experienced during a visit to his sister’s over the summer.

Duffy is trained to stop at the foot and head of steps and on curbs at street crossings until Father Joly gives the “forward” command. However, when the priest’s sister saw them at the top of stairs, she greeted Duffy by name, and in excitement, the dog lunged forward, causing Father Joly to fall down six steps.

‘Speaks to everybody’

An exception to the no-touch policy is when Father Joly visits parishioners in the hospital. He will let the patients pet Duffy, which often elicits a giggle or brings a smile to the individual’s face. The patients, even those in dementia wards, are “overjoyed” to see the dog, he said.

“A dog is like a song. He speaks to everybody,” he explained. “If there’s someone who is sick, and if there’s any way that grace or hope can come to them just by petting a beautiful dog, then I’m going to let them do it.”

Duffy doesn’t go to Masses because Father Joly wants the congregation’s attention on the liturgy, not on the dog. However, his canine companion is with him nearly everywhere else.

Father Joly said he gives Duffy time to just be a dog. Off harness, they play catch, and Duffy plays with other dogs. He sniffs poles or other places where other canines have been. People can pet and talk to him.

Jennifer Strash, coordinator of faith formation, said when Father Joly takes the dog to Sunday school, Duffy adds “a spark.” Sometimes he can be comical, such as when he was at a summer concert at SJA, he howled when people clapped.

“Duffy has created a lot of excitement in the parish,” Strash said, adding that Father Joly is more “approachable and relatable” to some pet owners now.

Father Joly said Duffy “is a lot of work.” He feeds him twice day, takes him out four to five times a day and grooms him every other day. Because the priest likes “a very clean and meticulous house,” he washes Duffy’s paws whenever he comes inside, making sure he doesn’t track things in.

But the effort is worth it.

Father Joly said he “enjoys” the “increased sense of independence, the greater flexibility and speed of movement” that Duffy brings him.

“He’s turning out to be an excellent guide,” Father Joly said. “While he’s not first a pet, he is first and foremost a highly trained seeing-eye dog; nonetheless, having a beautiful animal to receive some joy from and also to bring joy to other people – that’s my satisfaction.”

Braille, audio resources available


For Father Mike Joly, the Xavier Society for the Blind (XSB) has been “a wonderful” and “an invaluable resource” since his days in the seminary. The blind pastor of St. Joan of Arc Parish, Yorktown, said XSB’s materials have fostered his own spirituality and provided “continuing education” for himself.

XSB provides spiritual and inspirational reading materials, most of which are in the Catholic tradition, in braille and audio format to blind and visually-impaired individuals of all faiths worldwide at no cost to them.

Originally called Catholic Free Publication Society for the Blind, XSB was founded in 1900 by Jesuit Father Joseph Stadelman and by Margaret Coffey, a blind teacher of blind children. Today, the non-profit organization has a library with more than 1,900 titles and is adding more each month, said Aisling Redican, XSB fundraising and communications coordinator. XSB transcribes, embosses and sends out nearly all of its braille materials in house.

Some of their braille books can “cost well over $500” and can take up to six months to produce, according to the website. Nevertheless, Redican said the organization welcomes suggestions for braille and audio reading materials and tries its best to accommodate the requests.

So far this year, XSB has fulfilled more than 1,700 requests for audio and braille to patrons of all ages, lay and religious, to help them “learn about, develop and practice their faith,” Redican said.

Upon request, XSB will provide “The New American Bible” and Bible stories for children. Other materials include biographies of saints, theological dissertations and contemporary titles by popular authors including Matthew Kelly, Teresa Tomeo and Jesuit Father James Martin.

The audio books are compatible with the Talking Book machines provided free of charge by the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled.

Because it receives no government or Church funding, Redican said XSB relies on donations.

For more information about the organization, visit or call 800-637-9193.

– Jennifer Neville

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