By Audrey Demmitt, R.N., and VisionAware peer advisor

Living an “Ordinary” Life

Father Warnke, standing near boat railing

Father James Warnke thinks he has lived an “ordinary” life and is grateful for it. He tells his story with a tone of rare authenticity which makes one want to listen and look for nuggets of truth and wisdom to apply to their own life. Far from ordinary, Father Jim has been a disciplined life-long learner, minister to the hurting, and accomplished professional. But life has not always been easy for him and he knows all too well the struggles of the human condition.

Starting Life with a Visual Impairment

Father Jim was born in upstate New York in 1947. He was born with retinopathy of prematurity and glaucoma, causing vision impairment. His young parents were unable to care for him and he was raised by his maternal grandmother until age 7. He then returned to his parents and shortly after, his mother died. His grieving father took him and his two sisters to live with their paternal grandparents. When Father Jim was a teenager, his father remarried and moved the family into their own home. During his childhood, the extent of his visual impairment was not known until age 10, when he was finally diagnosed as legally blind.

Early Education

His educational years were similarly chaotic and challenging. Before age 10, he attended parochial school in Elmsford, New York. He says, “School was a nightmare I walked into every morning. I felt stupid and incompetent and was not learning much.” He had few friends and in fact was bullied. He was drawn to church in early elementary as a place to hide from the bullies. “I could go make a visit to the Blessed Sacrament and feel protected. I prayed the bullies would not find me on my way home. I was talking to ‘my savior’ and could not help being changed by spending time in that place,” he recalls. These early days of seeking refuge in mass planted the seeds of a calling to the religious life.

After his vision diagnosis was made, he was moved to special education for the visually impaired in a public school in Yonkers, the only program in the county. Then in 7th grade, Father Jim was placed in a special education homeroom for support and attended regular classes in Yonkers. He remembers receiving a hand-magnifier, large print books, and help with homework at that time. In 8th grade, he returned to his home district, changing schools again, and was mainstreamed with the help of a personal tutor who was provided by the New York Commission for the Blind. His tutor had a brother who was visually impaired and they met. “We understood each other and had many shared interests. We huddled together and became lifelong friends,” Father Jim says. He worked with this same tutor until high school graduation, when she became his step-mother. During this time, he recalls being very stressed by school but he learned to be a “good listener” and liked social studies, laying the ground work for his future career.

Post-Secondary Education and Marriage

Upon graduation, he entered Fordham University. The New York Commission for the Blind provided him a mini reel-to-reel tape recorder and paid readers. He struggled and felt he was a dismal student. Considering taking religious vows, he left Fordham to enter Catholic Seminary. He remembers it as a joyous time and loved the religious life. “After one year, I was asked to leave because of my disability and poor academic performance,” Father Jim reports. The Catholic Church did not ordain disabled priests without special permission from Rome at that time. So in the end, he realized the Catholic priesthood was not for him. He returned to Fordham to complete his degree in History and Theology, with the support of a nun who intervened on his behalf. He met and married his wife Marie. For 47 years now, she has provided support, inspiration, and motivation for Father Jim to achieve his goals. “She has always been responsive to my needs without giving me an inch to abuse,” he muses.

Early Career and Graduate School

Father Jim took a job teaching at Aquinas High School for girls in the Bronx after college. In 1974, he decided to do a MA in Theology at Manhattan College, intending to teach in Catholic schools. But he was blacklisted from the Catholic Church because he was a supporter of the union for educators. This changed the trajectory of his career. He was encouraged to pursue a master’s in Social Work (MSW). He applied to Fordham Graduate School of Social Services and experienced discrimination again and had to fight for admission and was admitted. In graduate school, he used an electronic magnifier (CCTV), readers, and dictated papers to his wife or a recorder. Father Jim completed his MSW. and landed a job at the mental health clinic where he did his internship.

Work As A Licensed Mental Health Counselor

He was on staff at this clinic for several years and then it closed down. He reports that “discrimination was blatant at that time.” He was unable to find a job due to his visual impairment and he even filed a complaint of discrimination with the National Association of Social Work. He knew he would continue to battle this, so he decided to go into private practice. In one year’s time he successfully launched his counseling practice, eventually seeing patients in a home-based office in New Jersey. His credentials included Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. In addition, Father Jim was a member of the Academy of Certified Social Workers and a board Certified Diplomate in Clinical Social Work. Overcoming many obstacles, he set a course for himself and established a productive career.

During his tenure as a LCSW, Father Jim developed a sub-specialty in clinical hypnosis. Because of his own experience with chronic pain due to glaucoma and osteoarthritis, he began to explore hypnosis for pain control. He pursued a Post Graduate Certificate in Clinical Hypnosis from the New York Milton H. Erickson Society Training Program in Psychotherapy and Hypnosis and began to incorporate this therapy into his practice as an adjunct to medical treatments. He eventually became a trainer, teaching Master Clinician classes in hypnosis.

Working with Individuals with Vision Loss

Father Jim also became interested in working with clients with vision loss. He served as chair of the Psychology and Social Work Division of the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind (AER) and lectured at AER conferences in the US and Canada. As current chair of the State Rehabilitation Council for the New Jersey Commission for the Blind, he advises on policy and performance of agencies serving the blind. He studied Dr. Dean Tuttle’s work on adjustment to vision loss and spent a decade teaching and training mental health professionals and staff at state agencies for the New Jersey Adjustment to Vision Loss Project. His work with this project helped to establish self-help groups and foster awareness of mental health issues that create barriers for people with vision loss. These efforts led to improved outcomes for clients diagnosed with mental health conditions and allowed families and individuals to move forward with education and rehabilitation successfully.

Becoming an Episcopal Priest

Later in life and still a devoutly religious man, Father Jim began to attend the Episcopal Church and realized he “found a branch of the church that liked him better.” Soon he felt a renewed calling to become a priest. He was welcomed into the episcopal seminary and attended part-time, cutting back on clinical practice to give more time to ministry. He received a Diploma in Anglican Studies from the General Theological Seminary and in 1996 he was ordained as an Episcopalian priest. He still serves as Spiritual Director and Retreat Master for local parishes, thus fulfilling his calling to religious life.

Studies in Martial Arts

Another remarkable accomplishment that demonstrates Father Jim’s drive and determination is his 30 years of study in martial arts as a student and instructor. He has earned 4th degree and 6th degree black belts in two different disciplines, of which he is quite proud. He explained, “To advance in the martial arts was difficult; my instructors helped me learn with accommodations for my blindness, but the tests to earn the belts were never altered.” The belts were hard earned by his own will, discipline, and mastery. Father Jim enjoyed teaching self-defense seminars too. No longer able to practice these martial arts due to health issues, he now takes Tai Chi with his wife, Marie.

Phasing out of Private Practice

When Marie decided to retire, Father Jim began to phase out of private practice. He suffers from several health conditions that cause chronic pain which he says limits him more than his vision loss ever did. Today, he enjoys family time with his wife, son David-an artist in California, daughter Amy-a professional burlesque dancer, and a gaggle of grandchildren, one of whom lives with him and Marie. Though he felt “anxious” as a young father, he has fond memories of caring for his children and is proud of the adults they are today. His grandchildren call him “Pop” and he loves to tell them stories. “Grandchildren are as fun as everybody says,” he remarks.

Summing Up His Life

Father James Warnke describes himself as husband, father, teacher, shrink, sensei, and priest. He says his life has been “ordinary,” but it seems much more than that. As a priest and counselor, he learned that all people struggle with spiritual issues and had to reconcile the war between two opposing world views: that of psychotherapy and spirituality. He understands the inherent connection between mind, body, and spirit. Driven by his deep sense of vocation and calling, he carved out a well-balanced and integrated life for himself. And at the same time, he was dedicated to helping others find that same balance, using his gifts of counsel, teaching, mentoring and spiritual guidance. Father Warnke believes it was a combination of “dumb luck and divine providence” that afforded him the opportunities he has had. But to take advantage of these opportunities clearly involved hard work, planning, tenacity, and self-advocacy in the face of discrimination in a pre-ADA era.

When asked to consider his legacy, he stated: “I have been a competent, practicing psychotherapist for 36 years. I got to do a job I loved and to make a contribution in the world. I lived a normal life and I am proud of that. I raised a family and made a living as a blind person. I kept at it and didn’t fold. I was allowed to have an ordinary life and it has been a beautiful life. To have the privilege of living an ordinary life as a person with a disability is actually quite extraordinary. And I hope in my grandchildren’s generation it will no longer be that way.”

Father Jim’s Advice to Others

He gives this advice for others who are visually impaired and just launching into work and family life: “Get educated, get busy, be determined and be persistent-don’t quit. Then pray for good luck.”

VisionAware and this writer would like to thank Father Warnke for sharing his story.

Additional Resources

Self-Esteem and Adjusting With Blindness: The Process of Responding to Life’s Demands by Dean and Naomi Tuttle. 3rd ed. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas, 2004. 305p. Available through Amazon.

Family Connect: Education of Children Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired