“It was like ‘The Brady Bunch,’” the Rev. Joel Faulk says of his childhood. “There were three boys, three girls. I was the youngest of six.”
Faulk, 42, speaks fondly of his Abbeville upbringing, in a community he calls “just the right size.”
He grew up in a very religious family, attending Vermilion Catholic High School before heading to the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
Faulk, who was big into health and nutrition, majored in dietetics and planned to take his career in that direction.
But, like many college students, he changed his mind.
“I wanted to open up a gym,” he says. “But I began to realize it was more of a personal interest than a career interest. And I wasn’t a very good student at the time.”
Faulk got involved with the Catholic Student Center, saying he “majored” in that more than anything else.
In fall 1997, he decided to attend seminary, heading off to St. Joseph’s in Covington.
“It was a great experience,” Faulk says. “I was out in the woods with a bunch of like-minded guys, who were there for the same reason as me. I really wanted to grow my faith.”
After graduated in spring 1999, he went to Rome, Italy, to begin theology studies. The move, he says, was incredible.
“I was actually living a few minutes from the Vatican,” Faulk recalls. “All the history, living in a city with thousands of years of history, it was like ‘wow’ … you slowly soak in the atmosphere.”
He said he felt blessed to embark on a path that seemed perfect — until the next year, when life took a very unexpected turn for the worse.
'Something was wrong'
After a baseball game, Faulk noticed some small bruises. It wasn’t a cause for alarm until he looked at the outside of his right leg.
“From my calf to my knee, it was completely purple,” he says. “The bruise wasn’t healing, and obviously, something was wrong.”
Bloodwork suggested leukemia, a diagnosis confirmed with a bone marrow biopsy. Faulk was shocked.
“I had no family history,” he says. “It was out of the blue, no pun intended.”
Faulk began an aggressive chemotherapy regimen in Rome, as he was not stable enough to return to Louisiana. One month later, doctors cleared him to come home, where he resumed treatments for the next year.
Thankfully, Faulk’s heath improved, and his leukemia went into remission.
In January 2001, he returned to Rome.
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Everything was proceeding fine — but, once again, things quickly took a turn.
He recalled a night in April 2002.
“I was setting up for evening holy hours,” Faulk said. “I noticed I was getting tired, really dragging. So I went to go rest afterward. When I went to change, I noticed, behind my knee, a big bruise. And I knew what it was. That’s a relapse.”
The leukemia had returned.
“I called the doctor that evening,” he said. “I went to the hospital by ambulance. It was on my mom’s birthday. We did the same thing as the first time — one month in Rome for treatments, then back to the U.S. for another year before finally getting back on my feet.”
At this point, Faulk decided to step out of seminary for a while and took a job running religious education for Our Lady of Fatima Parish.
His life was thrown completely off track with two bouts with cancer, so it took some time to determine the next step.
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“I ended up going back to school,” Faulk says. “I enrolled in the master’s program for theology at Holy Cross College in New Orleans.”
Upon graduation, he spent four years teaching religion at Archbishop Rummel High School.
But then, Faulk decided it was time to return to seminary. He was sent to Notre Dame, right in New Orleans.
Shortly thereafter, he noticed — again — that something just wasn’t right.
Matter of the heart
“I noticed some breathing difficulties,” Faulk recalls. “One night in November, I couldn’t sleep all night because of it, and I went to the emergency room.”
He was diagnosed with congestive heart failure, a result of all the chemotherapy used to treat his leukemia.
“The toxicity of the chemo damaged my heart,” he says. “It’s almost like a rotting tree — things look OK from the outside, but once you open it up, it’s deteriorating.”
Doctors first tried medication to clear up a blood clot, then discussed the possibility of a heart transplant in the future.
On Dec. 23, 2013, Faulk went in for a biopsy, and the results were devastating.
An immediate heart transplant was critical for his survival, and he was admitted to the hospital right away.
“My heart wasn’t pumping,” Faulk explains. “So fluid was building up all over my organs. I was listed on the National Transplant List by New Year’s Eve.”
Doctors set a one-week time frame to find a matching donor. If, at that point, nothing was available, they would have to insert a pump into his chest.
At the last hour, a match was located, and on Jan. 6 —the Feast of the Epiphany — Faulk received a heart transplant.
Nine days later, he was discharged from the hospital and returned to seminary.
And, despite a recent setback from which Faulk is now recovering, things have been going smoothly ever since.
Back to Cajun Country
“It took a lot out of me,” he says. “It definitely aged me and took its toll, but all things considered, I am in good shape.”
In the midst of everything, Faulk lost both his parents back in 2011. His father died from testicular cancer, and his mother passed away from a heart attack.
“But it’s a testimony to how much the spirit holds on,” he says of his parents’ near-simultaneous deaths. “People become so spiritually attached to one another, and it’s almost as if they’re saying, ‘My task is complete.’ It’s not a sad thing; they’re going home to Heaven. I find something very beautiful about it.”
So, where has Faulk’s journey taken him now?
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Back to Cajun Country — and he couldn't be happier to find himself home.
Faulk can be found at St. Pius Church in Lafayette, where he lives at the rectory and celebrates Mass. He was ordained May 11 and began his work at the church June 27.
“It’s good to get back to Cajun Country … to be back as a priest among my people,” Faulk says. “Once things are in place, I can function, get adjusted. It’s like a good marinade — it needs time to soak in."
Throughout this incredible journey, his roots were never lost.
“I like food analogies,” Faulk says with a laugh. “Like a good Cajun.”
For more about Faulk and St. Pius, visit www.stpiuschurch.net.