PAWLEYS ISLAND—Fifty years of priesthood has taken Father Patrick Stenson from an island in New Guinea where residents exchanged pigs as wedding gifts to military bases overseas.
For 14 years, his role as administrator at Precious Blood of Christ Church on Pawleys Island has been a chance to share the faith and offer food and fellowship to the poor.
All of it, he says, has been a great blessing.
“I really ask myself where the time has gone,” Father Stenson said. “I’ve spent the time focused on what I’m doing and leave the future to the Lord. Over the years I’ve been really blessed in all my assignments, because I walked into situations where I really felt I could do some good.”
The parish has prepared a weekend of celebrations for the man they all affectionately call “Father Pat.” Members of the United States Army Air Corps chorus will hold a concert Nov. 1, and Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone will celebrate the 10:30 a.m. Mass Nov. 3 in his honor, followed by a celebration in the parish hall.
His golden jubilee is the culmination of a small dream the priest nurtured as a child growing up on a small farm in Ireland.
“I decided I wanted to be a priest when I was about 17 or 18 because I just wanted to do some good,” he said. “I felt that was the best way.”
He studied for priesthood in Cork and Galway, and joined the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart while still in seminary. Father Stenson was ordained Dec. 15, 1963, in Ireland, and shortly after that volunteered to be a missionary in New Guinea.
He spent five years on the island of New Britain, serving people spread out over miles of rough country. Many of the islanders, he said, still lived as their ancestors had for hundreds of years. He learned to make Catholic sacraments and teachings relevant to people who continued to observe tribal traditions, such as bringing pigs to “pay” for a bride at a wedding ceremony.
In New Guinea, Father Stenson helped build churches, schools and medical centers, and ministered to lepers. He was forced to leave the assignment in 1970 because he developed a skin condition, and was sent to St. Anthony of Padua Church in San Antonio, Texas, where he stayed for 12 years and became a U.S. citizen in 1974.
A Texas parishioner told him about the need for Catholic chaplains in the military, and Father Stenson decided to join the Army Reserves. He went on active duty as an Army chaplain after leaving San Antonio, beginning a 17-year military journey.
He was chaplain for the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Ky., from 1983-86, and then spent a year studying clinical pastoral education at the Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas.
Father Stenson was stationed overseas in the early ’90s in Nuremberg, Germany, and with NATO-AFLERT in the Netherlands, offering counseling and support for troops preparing to deploy to Saudi Arabia.
He spent a year at Fort Riley in Kansas before moving to the U.S. Soldier’s and Airmen’s Home in Washington. D.C., where he cared for retired, sick and dying servicemen for six years until he retired from the Army in 1999.
The military taught him the importance of offering the comfort of Christ’s message to people in all sorts of need, whether a young soldier far from home or a patient suffering from burns or terminal illness.
“A lot of it was really about a ministry of presence, letting people know you’re there for them,” he said.
After he left the military, Father Stenson decided he wanted to serve as a parish priest. In the spring of 1999, he spoke with Bishop David B. Thompson in Charleston and asked if it was possible to have what he called “a little parish by the sea.”
He was assigned to Precious Blood of Christ Church, a rapidly growing community with a large population of retirees looking for ways to be active in their faith.
From the time he arrived on the island, one of his biggest dreams was to start a soup kitchen.
“One thing we all share besides death and taxes is the need to eat,” Father Stenson said. “Few things level the playing field like sitting down and sharing a meal with someone. You really get to know them.”
Father Pat’s Kitchen opened in March 2007, run by parish volunteers. Within weeks it became a lifeline for the area’s needy people.
As of 2013, the kitchen has served more than 50,000 hot meals, offering lunch on Wednesdays and Thursdays and breakfast on Saturdays.
“Over all these years as a priest, you mature, you learn in spite of yourself and you learn how to do a lot of new things,” Father Stenson said. “At the end of the day, it’s all the Lord’s work.”
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