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Churches: Parish celebrates priest’s 50 years as cleric

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Father Patrick Stenson says he chose the priesthood because he wanted to do something good with his life.

He has been a missionary, a military chaplain and the administrator of a growing parish at Pawleys Island since he was ordained in 1963 and said his first Mass in his home parish of Killasser, Ireland.

His parish, Precious Blood of Christ Catholic Church, will celebrate Stenson’s golden anniversary in the ministry Sunday beginning at the 10:30 a.m. service.

“I can’t believe it’s been 50 years,” Stenson said. “It’s like a month, a long month or something. Time does go fast.”

He remembers his family’s small farm in County Mayo, Ireland, with its cattle and chickens and crops of barley, wheat, oats and vegetables. “Ireland was not great at that time,” Stenson said, “not what you’d want to put your life into. Most people emigrated to England or America. It got better later on, but at that time it wasn’t a great place.”

Stenson said he accepted the call to the priesthood without reservation. “It was just the thought of doing good, primarily, to help people who needed help,” he said. “It was a powerful vocation, so I thought I’d give it a shot. Nothing is ever clear in life. You pray, you hope you are doing the right thing in life, what the good Lord wants you to do. We’ll never have perfect understanding in this life.”

As a missionary in New Guinea, Stenson spent five years on the island of New Britain building churches, schools and clinics and providing for the needs of the people, many of whom had leprosy or were very susceptible to contracting it. Because of skin problems caused by the tropical climate, Stenson was moved from New Guinea in 1970 and assigned to St. Anthony de Padua Catholic Church in San Antonio, Texas, first as assistant pastor and then pastor from 1976 to 1982.

Stenson became a United States citizen while he was in San Antonio and joined the U.S. Army as a chaplain. His first post was with the 101st Airborne Division in Fort Campbell, Ky., where he encountered grief on a large scale after a plane crash took the lives of 147 soldiers. “It took all our energy to help those families,” he said.

After serving in Texas, New Jersey, Germany, the Netherlands and Kansas, Stenson’s final military post was as a chaplain at the U.S. Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home in Washington, D.C., caring for retired, sick and dying servicemen. “At the soldiers’ home,” he said, “guys were broken from the guilt of being left alive when their friends were killed. Guilt is a most powerful thing. The dying would ask me to say a prayer over them whether pagan, Christian or Jew. I said, ‘Sure.’ I would walk with them, talk with them, spend time.”

By the time Stenson retired from the Army in 1999 he was ready for “a little parish by the sea” where he could preach and have a day or two off during the week. “The world had changed,” Stenson said. “I didn’t know. Be careful what you pray for. You might get it.”

Immediately Stenson saw the challenges he faced: the need for a new building and a rapidly growing parish. He said he was “appalled” that children were learning the catechism in old double-wide trailers. Workmen found water weighing down the ceiling above his office in an old, run-down stucco house. Church staff was stuffed into small, crowded spaces.

The Parish Life Center addressed all those needs and left the church with a surplus building, Founders Hall. Stenson thought about establishing a food pantry but changed his mind. “I’m starting a soup kitchen,” he told his parishioners.

They weren’t too sure about the idea, he said.

“We’re going,” Stenson said. “I got word from the Lord today.”

Five people showed up to eat on the first day, and there were more doubters. “You only fed five people,” they said. “That’s a great deal for me,” Stenson answered. “Five to 10 a week is great. There’s an old Chinese saying: ‘When the teacher is ready the students will come.’ So I said when you know you can feed 50 or 100 people, they will be there.

“Are you sure?

“I’m absolutely sure.

“We had 20 the following week, 50 the next and 100 within three or four weeks. We went to Thursday and Saturday mornings. Frank Holtzclaw [pastor at Pawleys Island Presbyterian] wanted to start one too, and other churches joined in. Between us, all the days of the week are covered.”

From the soup kitchen experience, Stenson learned to forge ahead.

“If you are going to do something, you’ve got to do it now,” he said. “There are some things in life where you think, ‘Yeah, I’ve got to give it a shot, but I’ve got to do it now.’ If you don’t, it’s not going to happen. You come up with all kinds of reasons why you shouldn’t go ahead, why you shouldn’t do it. Those who hesitate are lost.”

Helping the poor has remained Stenson’s mission. He sees people who cut grass at golf courses and wash dishes in restaurants struggling to survive. “What else is there?” he asks. “The job situation has no justice. They’d love a job if they could get it. There’s so little for them to do. For me, that’s sad. I wish some industry would come in.”

As for the well-to-do, Stenson sees technical advancements replacing personal interaction. “I pity young people growing up,” he said. “Kids do all their homework and social connections with electronic equipment. You don’t have to look at a person. You don’t have to rub shoulders with them. Kids can say things they couldn’t say face to face. They think they can get away with it. I think that’s a tragedy. You have to deal with others and their likes and dislikes. It will be very hard for those kids to deal with people who have real hurts and pains. They won’t be able to handle the ups and downs of life.”

Stenson says adults can be even worse. He had a call from someone who wanted him to hear a confession over the phone. “I can ask God to forgive you,” Stenson told the caller, “but I can’t give you absolution unless you are physically present. It has to be in person. Any good counseling has to be in person. You have to talk about it.”

With the Precious Blood of Christ campus fully developed, Stenson said he will concentrate on making good use of the facilities and working in the community in the time he has left here.

“There are some things I’d like to see happen,” he said. “I’d like to help people grow spiritually, be more involved ecumenically in the community. The needs are there. There are plenty of good pastors, and when we sit down we’re not so far apart. The problems are the same for every church. People need help.”

Stenson has no plans to retire, even if the Lord calls him elsewhere. “God keeps you going,” he said. “That’s OK. It means you’re alive and you’re healthy. It gives you energy and hope.”

For now, he’s hoping to get through Sunday’s ceremonies with as little fuss as possible. “They told me to keep quiet and stay out of it,” Stenson said. “Maybe I’m a control freak. I’m not sure. Let them have their day. It’s for other people too. It’s all going to be a surprise, and that’s OK.”

Army Chorus members join jubilee events

Precious Blood of Christ Catholic Church will celebrate the 50th anniversary of ordination for the Rev. Patrick J. Stenson Sunday beginning at 10:30 a.m. with a special Mass celebrated by Bishop of South Carolina Robert E. Guglielmoni. Music will be provided by members of the U.S. Army Chorus and the church children’s choir. The Knights of Columbus will provide an honor guard.

The parish will present Stenson with several surprise gifts.

At noon, parishioners and friends have been invited to a reception, catered by Austin’s Ocean One, in the Parish Life Center.

While the Army Chorus is not able to be in Pawleys Island this year for its usual concerts because of government sequestration and funding issues, members of the chorus who are special friends of Stenson are taking personal leave to help him celebrate. These men will be singing at each Mass during the jubilee weekend and will give an unofficial concert in the Precious Blood of Christ Church sanctuary at 7:15 p.m. Friday. The public is invited to attend without charge.

Members of the chorus honoring Senson this weekend are Bob McDonald, baritone; Colin Eaton, first tenor; Jesse Neace, baritone; Matt Nall, second tenor; Greg Lowery, bass; Curtis Kinzey, baritone/conductor. Kevin Gebo, who plays trumpet for the U.S. Army Band, will accompany the group.

In addition, two retired members of the Army Chorus will be present: Michael Bicoy, tenor; and Joe Holt, pianist.

For additional information, contact: Ellen Sullivan at 237-3428.

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