Treasured items reflecting childhood influences and a life of faith grace the Nicolle Hall office of Very Rev. Stephen Hornat, SSE '72, elected in June to be superior general of The Society of Saint Edmund.
Among them are traditional religious paintings and Eastern rite icons that recall his formative years, while hand-carved wooden animals, brought to him by an Edmundite who visited Africa, remind him of his years of ministry to African-Americans. A statue of the Blessed Mother—the only item left standing after a World War II German church bombing—was a gift from Col. Bernie Rock, who survived the event. "I took that statue every place I went," Hornat says. "I kept it with me."
Silver-haired, easy-mannered and youthfully athletic at age 65, Hornat recently chatted about his journey to the priesthood, service to Saint Michael's College students, and ministries among poor and struggling populations in Alabama and Burlington, VT.
Born into Working Class Ukrainian Family
Raised in urban Connecticut by parents who came to the United States from Ukraine, his early influences included the Ukrainian-rite Catholic iconography he appreciates today and experiences that opened his heart to a life of service.
"As a little child, my mother took me to my first funeral, for the monsignor of the Irish parish in Hartford, where I attended school even though on Sundays we'd go to the Ukrainian church," he recalls. "She brought me because, when our family was struggling, he had helped my mother and father out. I remember kneeling at the coffin and praying with my mom. I believe that shaped my desire to give back and pay it forward.
"We were poor—my parents, two brothers, a sister and I, trying to make a go of it. Growing up poor, your heart goes out to those who are struggling, because you know the struggle," he says. His parents worked in factories, eventually buying a home and car and sending their children to Catholic school.
First Met Edmundites in High School
Hornat was a South Catholic High School student when he first heard of Edmundites, then attended a vocations weekend at Enders Island. "It was a couple of talks, lots of sports and fun activities," he says. "I was attracted by the friendliness, warmth and hospitality of the priests, the stories they told and the beauty of that place," he says. "I've always gone with my gut, and it felt like that was where I was supposed to be."
As a seminarian, he earned a Saint Michael's political science degree, then a master's of divinity from Toronto School of Theology in 1976.
Over the years since, he's served at the college, worked among minorities in Selma, AL, and was a pastor at Saint Joseph's Co-Cathedral in a low-income Burlington, VT, neighborhood.
Now, Hornat is leading the Edmundites, a contrast to the pastoral feel of his earlier work, which he confesses is his first love. Once elected, however, he enthusiastically answered the call.
Such was true of his first assignment in 1976, too, as Saint Michael's campus minister. "I said to myself, ‘Oh no!' I didn't want to go, although of course you don't say no," he says. "In the late ‘60s and '70s, colleges were wild places."
He knew that first-hand from his two years living in Saint Michael's dorms. For Edmundite novices, it was a struggle feeling so counter-cultural to the prevailing counter-culture.
All went well, with guidance from another Edmundite, Rev. Ray Doherty '51. Hornat next worked in Saint Michael's admissions, where he helped launch the now widely popular Vermont-NEA Scholars' Bowl for high school students, then returned to campus ministry.
He treasures many memories of Saint Michael's, both as a student and in service: manning the hose as a student firefighter in 1971 when the Playhouse burned down, and working with Lou DiMasi and his hockey teams as chaplain, rising at 5 a.m. for skating practice and riding the bus to games.
His next post was Alabama, where founded the Edmundite Mission Corps, a ministry that has attracted many Saint Michael's students. Then he became a rector for a decade in Burlington, VT, where he often hired Saint Michael's graduates to lead social ministries.
In 2008, Hornat jumped at the chance to return to Selma, AL. "It is a very historic parish, the first to integrate in Alabama. I loved it there. It was like a mini-U.N.," he says. Parishioners included a large group of African-Americans, as well as Caucasians, Asians and Latinos. "It was a nice environment to celebrate," he says.
"I felt a comfort level with the people and the work I was doing there, so I didn't particularly want to leave. It's one of those things—you can't say no to being pope, you can't say no to being a superior general," he says. "This is where God wants you to be, so you do the best you can."
New Role: Superior General
Today, his priorities are: to address declining Edmundite membership, increase vocations, evangelize to those who have been marginalized or fallen away from Catholicism, and further minister to the poor and African-American community in the South.
His challenge: Determining "how we can strengthen those ministries, given our diminishing numbers." He's also interested in expanding an addictions recovery ministry for young people at Enders Island.
Most of his priorities are areas where he logged productive years, giving him a useful perspective for what's ahead.
"Given my life experience," he says, "I think I have something to contribute."
Saint Michael's College: campus ministry, 4 years; admissions,
3 years; then campus ministry, 6 years
||Founder, director, Edmundite Mission Corps, Selma, AL
||Rector, Saint Joseph's Co-Cathedral, Burlington, VT
||Mission work, Selma, AL
||Pastor, Our Lady Queen of Peace Catholic Church, Selma, AL
||Superior General, The Society of Saint Edmund