The Rev. Douglas Hunt learned German and English as a child growing up near Denver, but never thought English made much sense. So he set out to learn other languages and is now familiar with about 20.
He speaks about eight fluently or semi-fluently and dabbles in others, such as various dialects of Aramaic.
“It was a rebellion against English. I was a stubborn little kid,” he said.
In addition to his interest in languages, the jovial priest at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Durango is exceptional in other ways.
Legally blind as a child and well into adulthood, Hunt learned to play the organ by ear after a music teacher refused to give him organ lessons because he couldn’t see the music well enough.
“I told her I’ll learn by myself, and I did,” he said.
At one time, he could play most of Johann Sebastian Bach’s major works for organ by memory, and while studying in Rome, played at basilicas, including St. Peter’s.
“They are powerful instruments, and yet they can be as soft as a whisper,” he said. “It’s amazing the sounds you can get out of a pipe organ.”
Hunt came to Durango from Pueblo a little over a year ago to take over for the Rev. Larry Gallegos, who led the church on and off for about 30 years.
It is the second church he has led in La Plata County. About 24 years ago, he was the priest at St. Ignatius Catholic Church in Ignacio for about 18 months.
When he first started with the church, he was still legally blind and unable to drive, and he had to have scriptures about 4 inches from his face to read them in church, said Annette Shonk, his friend and former Ignacio parishioner.
While serving at St. Ignatius, his vision improved significantly after a group of women with the church prayed over him, he said.
He still needed glasses after his sight was restored, but he was able to get a driver’s license, which increased his independence in the largely rural area, Shonk said.
It was a tough adjustment for Hunt, who didn’t like his improved sight at first, he said.
“I had trouble going up and down steps and depth perception and all kinds of things. ... I thought I got around better blind than I do with vision,” he said.
After Hunt left Ignacio, he remained good friends with Shonk and her family, who appreciate his accessible sermons and sense of humor.
“He is a big fan of Monty Python. ... He can just rattle off tons of Monty Python or old time ‘Saturday Night Live,’” Shonk said. Monty Python is a surreal British comedy group.
The Shonks also enjoy going out to eat with Hunt to Italian or Mexican restaurants, because he will chat with the staff in their own languages, she said.
His linguistic skills were fostered at home because his father spoke English, German and Russian. During his years attending high school seminary in Denver, he studied Spanish, Latin and Greek. Throughout his career, he delivered Spanish Mass at many churches.
He is also familiar with Hebrew and Aramaic and uses the older languages to delve into the original scriptures of the Bible. Whenever the English translations of a text seem strange, the original language is more clear, he said.
While studying in Europe, he learned Italian and Catalan, a language spoken in Spain and France. He became interested in Slavic languages after he moved to Ignacio and was asked to listen to a confession from a woman who spoke Polish. He found his background in Russian allowed him to communicate with her.
He can also get by in Ukrainian, Bulgarian, Croatian, Slovak, Czech, Romanian and French.
In Durango, he practices his language skills with tourists visiting to ride the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. He has practiced German, Dutch and Catalan with visitors, he said.
His knowledge of languages has allowed him to minister to many. For example, he baptized a child partially in Slovak for the child’s grandparents, who traveled from Slovakia to the U.S. for the service.
In addition to his early rebellion against English, he has embraced many languages because of his distaste for racism, he said.
“I hate racism because it doesn’t exist in reality. There is only one race,” he said.
Even at the doctor’s office, instead of filling in race on the medical form, he simply writes “human.”