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Father Pat: Parish plans send-off for priest of 17 years

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

With a new priest scheduled to be named by the end of the month at Precious Blood of Christ Catholic Church, Father Pat Stenson is ready for the next chapter of his career.

He could work at a VA Hospital or a small parish, Stenson said, “something to keep me from twiddling my thumbs.” The church will celebrate Father Pat’s 78th birthday and 17 years of service Sunday in its Parish Life Center from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Scheduled before the bishop named a new priest for the Pawleys Island church, the birthday dinner will serve as an opportunity to send Stenson off in style with a memory scrapbook, a personal quilt signed by members of the parish and a monetary gift.

Stenson said he is proud of the congregation’s outreach to the community through programs that feed, transport and teach people in need. He said Pope Francis had it right when he called the church a field hospital. “The church is not here for ourselves,” Stenson said. “We are here to have our faith nourished through the word of God, and we are to share our time, talent and treasure the best we know how. We have a sense of mission about this parish. People get a sense of their purpose in life. Retirement is not just sitting at home drinking coffee all day and watching TV. Mature people are active, doing great work.”

Stenson arrived at Precious Blood of Christ Aug. 15, 1999, shortly after it had completed a new sanctuary. Stenson had just retired from the Army and 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.”

The new building needed a spark because the outgoing priest, the Rev. Charles Snopek, had been sick for a time, and substitutes had been delivering Mass. Stenson set out to make the Catholic church a place of refuge for all, what Pope Francis calls “a place of mercy freely given, where everyone can feel welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged to live the good life of the Gospel.” He met like-minded ministers in Frank Holtzclaw at Pawleys Island Presbyterian, Milton McGuirt at St. Paul’s Waccamaw United Methodist and Abraham Nelson at Mount Zion Baptist. Their churches became true missions in the community. “Retirees find a second chance with a church,” Stenson said. “They think more about the meaning of life. It’s a great way for people to come together.”

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.”

With the church’s potential in 1999 came challenges. Stenson 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 a run-down stucco house. Church staff worked in 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. We had 20 the following week, 50 the next and 100 within three or four weeks. We went to Thursday and Saturday mornings.”

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.”

That could be Stenson’s life story: He’s never hesitated since he was ordained in 1963 and said his first Mass in his home parish of Killasser, Ireland.

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.”

He never wants to lose that connection with people in need. “God keeps you going,” he said. “That’s OK. It means you’re alive and you’re healthy. It gives you energy and hope.”

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