The Early Years
Father Tom Stehlik, CM was born to Jim and Virginia Stehlik in Chicago Illinois in 1959. The youngest of three siblings, his sisters Mary and Nancy are identical twins.
Father Tom’s parents were married when they were 28 years old and in just 14 months, they were surrounded by screaming babies. He believes that might be why their faith was so strong from the very beginning of their marriage. Father Tom’s dad moved the family to Central Texas in 1972, where his parents and sisters and their families currently live. He describes his family as ‘quite ordinary’ in the many ways that faith was the center of their life. His parents were active in their parish, the children attended Catholic school and everyone enjoyed and looked forward to Mass every Sunday, even when on vacation.
Moving from Chicago to Texas as a teenager was both a shock and an adventure for Father Tom. Despite their arrival as ‘dreaded Yankees,’ people with their southern hospitality soon won his family over. In fact, this was Father Tom’s first real experience with cultural diversity, as his neighborhood in suburban Chicago had been segregated. Father Tom found the differences in his surroundings and the people in Texas exciting, enjoyable and educational. It was a life-changing experience. A year after the family moved, they began to attend Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, where Mass was celebrated in English, but the service music was in Spanish and the style of the community reflected the Latino culture of Central Texas. There his pastor and family friend, Father John, inspired him to consider a vocation in the Church. As Father Tom looks back, this was a time that opened him to the richness and diversity of the Church. It was also during this time that Father Tom began to truly consider his calling.
Considering His Calling
Father Tom graduated from Texas State University in 1981 with a BBA in accounting, passed the CPA exam and worked in San Antonio for seven years in Public Accounting. In fact, he believes that accounting developed the left side of his brain and gave him some financial skills that have been very helpful in the work of pastor. When he was in his second year of college, he had made a promise to God that if what he felt from time to time — the calling to be a priest — was in fact from Him, then God had to figure out a way to let him know by the time he was 30. At the time it seemed practical to put a time limit on the request, though he now feels it was rather cavalier. Once Father Tom settled into the accounting profession, however, he soon became restless and knew in his heart that it was not his life-long vocation.
Two things helped him in the discernment process. First, he volunteered to do prison ministry at the SA County jail. There was an Irish sister there who loved the inmates and made big, strong, mean men cry by the way that she talked to them about their lives and God’s love for them. In a couple of weeks, those Friday night prayer services with the inmates were the highlight of Father Tom’s week. The second thing was when Father Tom went on a vocation retreat. During the retreat, he felt overwhelmed by the thoughts and feelings of the weekend, becoming aware that they had been there all along and that he had pushed them down and ignored them for so long. When he returned home after the retreat, he wondered if the experience would just pass, or whether God was really calling him. A couple of months later, Father Tom met the Vincentians and joined a discernment group of twelve young men who got together monthly and read the Scriptures and talked openly and honestly about their lives. The help and support of other priests and sisters and his peers helped Father Tom greatly to describe what was happening deep inside of his heart and ultimately follow the path of St. Vincent.
The Path of St. Vincent
Father Tom joined the Vincentians (CM=Congregation of the Mission founded by Vincent de Paul in 1625) after a weekend experience in the old novitiate, located in the Redemptorist building in the St. Thomas projects here in New Orleans, and a little over a year of visiting the confreres in their houses and ministries all over the South. That was in 1989. What attracted him to Vincentian life was that he found the men to be down to earth, humble, well-educated former seminary professors who were interested in serving the poor and abandoned. They had a missionary spirit and worked closely with the laity, following the example of St. Vincent who reminded all of the baptized the importance of their calling and mission.
Father Tom’s subsequent Vincentian ministry has been influenced largely by working for 20 years with the Latino immigrant community, principally in Arkansas. This experience has given him an appreciation for the deep faith of the people, and has helped him to learn from and together with the people, since he ministered largely outside of his culture in a language that he was less than proficient in during those early years. It has been a rich experience, enabling him to do language and cultural studies and missions in different parts of Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. That experience, as well as attending gatherings of Vincentians from all over the world in Paris and Rome, have helped him to see how rich and diverse the Church truly is and has left him extraordinarily excited by the many opportunities to speak to the Gospel of inclusion and diversity here in New Orleans.
St Joseph and New Orleans’ Rebirth
In short, Father Tom loves New Orleans. It seems to him that the rich, diverse culture and Catholic faith here — combined with the effects of Katrina — have been like a death and life experience for so many people and have transformed them and heightened their desire to be more deeply spiritual. He also feels like it’s a time when the City is coming back to life and that St. Joseph Church and the Rebuild Center have an incredible opportunity and responsibility to be a part of it all – particularly to enrich the lives of people who come to St. Joseph for their spiritual growth. Aside from the mission, the cultural diversity, the beautiful, warm, caring people, and finally God’s call, Father Tom asks how could anyone not enjoy New Orleans and the way everyone here celebrates life, faith and family with tradition, food, and music?
St. Vincent, St. Joseph and New Orleans. Father Tom is excited to be ‘home.’