ST. PAUL, Minn. — For Father Stephen Hilgendorf, it has been a long journey from his role as a priest in the Anglican tradition.
It included a desire to be in full communion with the Catholic Church that was so strong he was willing to give up ministry altogether.
But God had other plans for him. He and his family were received into Catholic Church, then some years later he was accepted to become a Catholic priest.
After studying, working and ministering in the Twin Cities the past six years, he was ordained a priest for the Houston-based Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter June 29. His next assignment will be in Omaha, Nebraska.
The ordinariate is equivalent to a diocese for Roman Catholics who were nurtured in the Anglican tradition. Created by the Vatican Jan. 1, 2012, it serves Catholic parishes and communities across the United States and Canada.
“I had to come to grips with the thought, ‘I may never be a priest again,'” Hilgendorf, 33, said after his ordination. “After becoming Catholic, I found it very difficult going to Mass. I was not sure who I was anymore.”
When he left the Anglican tradition and was received into the Catholic Church in August 2017, along with his wife, Hannah, 30, he also left his role of two years as rector of St. Dunstan Anglican Church in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. He didn’t have a job.
His wife was taking care of their children, who are now ages 6, 4 and 2. The couple has a fourth child on the way.
Hilgendorf immediately applied to become a Catholic priest in the ordinariate, which is fully Catholic but retains elements of Anglican heritage in its celebration of the Mass and its ministries.
Former Anglican priests can apply to become Catholic priests, but the process takes time and special permission from the pope.
Years of study and service led him to the Catholic Church, said Hilgendorf, who grew up in Ohio in the Cleveland area. He and his wife believe in Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist, a doctrine that can shift among Anglican congregations, he said.
In addition, even as he ministered to people at St. Dunstan, he found himself turning to Catholic theology and morality found in the early church fathers, the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the magisterium.
“I came to realize I was more Catholic than I knew, particularly on moral questions,” Hilgendorf told The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. “Those were the touchstones as I navigated the tricky waters of morality and theology.”
For more than a year, Hilgendorf didn’t hear much beyond polite recognition of his application to the ordinariate to become a Catholic priest.
Members of St. Dunstan helped with a generous stipend to assist the family in their transition, and members of their Catholic parish, Holy Family in St. Louis Park, knew of their plight.
“Sometimes a parishioner would ask, ‘How are you doing?’ and place an envelope holding cash or a check in my hand,” Hilgendorf said. “One elderly gentleman said, ‘Here, for you and the kids at Christmas.'” It was about $100 in cash.
After several months without work, Hilgendorf learned through members of the Knights of Columbus about the possibility of painting for a small company led by a Catholic and his father.
Without any experience as a painter, he was hired in October, with his boss recognizing he could learn on the job and needed to take care of his wife and children.
“It was very stressful,” Hilgendorf said. “At the same time, I had been pondering becoming Catholic two or three years before doing it. When it was time, God provided the peace. He said, ‘Don’t worry about it, I will provide.'”
About nine months of painting and several months of part-time work as a sacristan at Good Shepherd Parish in Golden Valley, Minnesota, ended in August 2018, when Hilgendorf was hired full time as director of faith formation at the Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul.
He was accepted into priestly formation for the ordinariate in 2019, and he studied at St. Paul Seminary even as he worked at the cathedral.
Father John Ubel, cathedral rector, and others at the cathedral were generous in providing the flexibility he needed to study, Hilgendorf said. At times, he flew to Houston for weeklong stints of formation with the ordinariate. Other times, he was at the seminary in St. Paul.
After his ordination, Hilgendorf returned to the cathedral July 4 to celebrate noon Mass. His assignments in Omaha will be part-time as parochial administrator of the ordinariate’s St. Barnabas Parish and part-time in the Archdiocese of Omaha’s Christ the King Parish.
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Ruff is news editor of The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.