St. Joseph priest responds to calling 30 years later

Photo: Paul Kuehnel/York Daily Record/ Sunday News

Photo: Paul Kuehnel/York Daily Record/ Sunday News

When he was 13, Stephen Fernandes would get this special feeling when he heard the friars chanting prayers. He wouldn’t have that feeling again until over 30 years later while reading Mother Teresa. The feeling was the call to priesthood.

Fernandes attended a boarding school run by the Capuchins in Goa, India, where his family is from. It was a very Catholic part of India, he said.

In those days, the friars would chant the combination of psalms and prayers.

“They were very haunting,” he said. The prayers were so inspiring that he thought, “I’d like to be with these guys.”

But after leaving boarding school when he was 16, he also left behind the tug he felt to join the priesthood. That tug though would later prove it’s never too late to follow your calling.

He went on to finish high school at another Catholic institution in India until he came to the U.S. in 1975, when he attended Youngstown State University in Ohio. He got married and transferred to Kent State University, where he received his master’s degree in political science. The plan was to either work at a newspaper, which he had done for a few years after high school, or pursue a diplomatic career.

The diplomatic career path ended up not working out and his wife became pregnant and he needed a job. So, he worked as a retail manager for J.C. Penny for 16 years. In that time, they had two kids, a son, Ryan, and a daughter, Boni.

“I wasn’t particularly religious or into my faith during those days at all,” Fernandes said.

But in 1999 he got a divorce and during that time of desperation, he said he was reaching out to God to help him through the transition.

He attended a church retreat in Ohio and it was during that weekend that he felt the powerful feeling again. He felt his “recall.”

That feeling was affirmed when he was reading about how Mother Teresa attributed her second calling to reading about St. Francis and suddenly a flood of memories came back about St. Francis.

“Then I knew that’s what I want to do,” Fernandes said.

Because he had children and his age, a friar put him in touch with a spiritual director who then told him about a mission in Papua New Guinea. Fernandes spent two years there and when he returned in 2001, he made the formal application with the friars.

He decided to move forward, and four years ago, he was ordained as a priest. He served as an associate pastor at a church in Cumberland, Md., before coming to St. Joseph parish in June. He replaced the beloved Rev. Louis Petruha, who will be celebrating 50 years in the priesthood in October. Petruha will be going to the same Cumberland church Fernandes left.

Coming to a new church, Fernandes had to decide what kind of priest he wanted to be and that moment was memorable for him, too.

Fernandes was getting a tour of the church and when he walked into the sanctuary, he saw the large wood carving above the altar. The carving depicts a scene following the Crucifixion when two of Jesus’ followers are leaving Jerusalem on the road to Emmaus.

They are distraught over what happened and a man meets them on the road and walks with them. Later, he reveals himself to be Jesus, and Fernandes points out that rather than leading His followers by walking ahead or behind, He walked with them.

This, Fernandes decided, is how he wanted to lead his new congregation.

And he’s not ditching his past experiences, he said. His unique perspective from becoming a priest later in life helps him to be the pastor he wants to be.

If you heard his message on Sunday, you would know he doesn’t shy away from political hot-button issues. He talked about immigration and Donald Trump’s stance on the issue.

His political science degree comes in handy when there are conflicts between the political world and the teachings of the church, he said.

His personal experiences come through too, especially with his divorce.

The issue of divorce has come up in the church recently, with the pope calling for increased acceptance. The pope’s stance resonates with him and he has experienced the stigma surrounding divorce in his own life. Though divorce is not something that is looked upon fondly in India, he was invited by a priest in Goa to celebrate Mass in a local church this past January.

“Any stigma about divorce went away,” Fernandes said.

In York, he is able to sit with parishioners that have gone through similar issues that he has gone through and is able to empathize, because unlike other priests, he’s been through it.

See this story on USA Today here.

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