By Tina Korbe Dzurisin
To Father Jim Chamberlain, engineering and priestly ministry are not merely compatible; they’re complementary.
Father Jim, Ph.D., P.E., is the pastor of Our Lady of Victory in Purcell, and the pastoral administrator of Saint Catherine of Siena in Pauls Valley.
He also is a staff research engineer for the University of Oklahoma WaTER Center, which aims to provide safe water and sanitation for emerging regions through education, research and service.
Both his interest in the priesthood and his aptitude for engineering began as he was growing up in Longview, Texas. When he was 13, his older brother, Tom, became a priest for the Diocese of Austin.
“I would kind of shadow him at his parish and was really intrigued with his work,” Father Jim said.
As a senior in high school, Father Jim notched the title of “Outstanding Math and Science Graduate,” and he subsequently earned a B.S. in agricultural engineering from Texas A&M University.
Then, in 1981, shortly after he’d begun work as an environmental engineer for a Texas county, his mother was diagnosed with cancer. The four months from his mother’s diagnosis until her death were “a time of emotional and spiritual crisis” for Father Jim. Ultimately, they led him to apply to seminary. He was able to tell his mother before she died that he’d been accepted.
In 1986, he was ordained for the Diocese of Austin – and he has spent the subsequent years harnessing his engineering background to advance the Kingdom of God.
“I’d read Populorum Progesso by Pope Paul VI and the Vatican II documents and the work of Pope Saint John Paul II, and they all talk about how wealthier nations should share their resources with poorer nations,” Father Jim said. “I figured I could do that with my knowledge, expertise and desire.”
In 1996, in Austin, he founded a professional chapter of the nonprofit Engineers without Borders, which fosters opportunities for engineers to use their skills to complete service projects in developing countries.
Through his affiliation with Engineers without Borders, he began to travel regularly to El Salvador to design water distribution systems for local communities.
From 2007 to 2011, with permission from his bishop, Father Jim obtained a doctorate degree in environmental engineering from Clemson University in South Carolina. While there, he led undergraduate and graduate students on additional service trips.
Then, at the end of his time at Clemson, an adviser forwarded him information about the position of staff research engineer at the OU WaTER Center. Father Jim, who combined the requisite academic credentials with pastoral experience, was a logical fit.
Again with permission from his bishop, Father Jim applied and earned the job. He has been in the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City since August of 2011, pastoring local parishes, working and traveling with the WaTER Center, teaching as an adjunct professor at OU and leading students on service trips to emerging regions – including El Salvador, Ethiopia and Cambodia – as the faculty sponsor of a group called Sooners without Borders.
“Most of the students who go on these trips are driven by their faith – not all of them, but many of them,” he said. “They’re active in their church and many of them are Catholic. When we were in El Salvador, we visited the place where Archbishop Oscar Romero was killed and they had a lot of questions about the Catholic faith in that context.”
Father Jim most recently returned from a month-long trip to Ethiopia, where he and others affiliated with the WaTER Center have been researching filtration systems to remove excess fluoride – which is harmful in high concentrations – from the community water supply.
Father Jim has seen these efforts to improve living conditions in emerging regions bear great fruit.
“Even if we don’t do anything but play soccer with the kids and help with the water system, then we still have a relationship with the local community, and that’s very critical not only in terms of what we bring to them, but also in terms of what they bring to us,” he said. “(Both in El Salvador and in Ethiopia,) they have so much joy, optimism and hope, and that changes my students. They have a really strong faith that there is a God who is going to provide for them.”
Still, much work remains to be done, he said.
“Water is going to become an even more critical issue in the next decade,” Father Jim said. “The work that I do on campus between 8 and 5 is just as holy and just as sanctifying as the work I do on the weekend with the parish because it’s giving people the basic necessities to live a holy and wholesome life.”
Tina Korbe Dzurisin is a freelance writer and communications consultant living in Edmond.