Following in the footsteps of St. Vincent de Paul

Father Tom Stehlik, CM, visits with parishioners after a Sunday morning Mass in Spanish at St. Anne Church in North Little Rock June 21.
Father Tom Stehlik, CM, visits with parishioners after a Sunday morning Mass in Spanish at St. Anne Church in North Little Rock June 21.

Two very different paths have taken two men on journey that has brought them to Arkansas and presently includes working with the Hispanic population in the Diocese of Little Rock.
One was an accountant, the other a carpenter, before they joined the Congregation of the Mission, more popularly known as the Vincentians. The order was founded by St. Vincent de Paul.
The first three Vincentian priests came in 1985 to work in southwest and southeast Arkansas. Their primary ministry was evangelization. The arrival of many Spanish-speaking Catholics in the diocese in the 1990s resulted in the arrival of other Vincentians to minister to the people.
By 1993, the Vincentians worked out of the northwest corner of the state, where the largest number of Hispanic Catholics settled. They traveled to different parishes to celebrate Mass in the language of the immigrants, who came from other states, from Mexico, from Central and South America.
At the request of Bishop J. Peter Sartain in 2001, the Vincentians formed the Vincentian Evangelization Team, which is based at St. Anne Church in North Little Rock. Members travel throughout the state.
Many men and women enter religious life at various stages in their lives. For these two members of the Vincentian Evangelization Team, religious life was not their first choice, but it is one they embrace fully.
One is a priest, Father Tom Father Stehlik; the other a permanent deacon, Arnold Hernandez.
Father Stehlik was an accountant in Texas. Hernandez was a carpenter who worked in Arizona, Texas and New Mexico. He is the only permanent deacon in the Southern Province of the Vincentians, according to the provincial office.
Father Stehlik is as comfortable speaking Spanish as English. Hernandez can easily switch from one to the other in mid-conversation.
In addition to celebrating Mass at St. Anne, on most weekends, Father Stehlik can usually be found traveling to one of several parishes, including St. James in Searcy, Our Lady of Guadalupe in Glenwood, Sacred Heart in Morrilton, St. Mary in Arkadelphia and Our Lady of Fatima at Benton.
Hernandez can be found visiting with migrant workers and prisoners throughout the state.
Hernandez said it is important not only to provide for the spiritual needs of the newcomers, but for their other needs as well, as he assists people to keep their dignity by finding proper housing, food when the workers cannot work due to weather, or legal assistance when the migrant workers are being mistreated.
Father Stehlik did not know it yet what his life would be like, but he had his first multicultural experience at a young age.
“I was born in Chicago,” he said one recent afternoon. “My first intercultural experience was when I moved to central Texas when I was 13 years old.”
Now he helps others learn more about different cultures. He gave an example of St. Anne’s parish council, which has held portions of meetings to focus on different cultural aspects in the community.
Father Stehlik graduated from high school in Seguin, Texas. He then went on to college and earned a degree in accounting.
After college, Father Stehlik moved to San Antonio and worked in the business world for eight years.
“I especially grew to really enjoy the south and the Latino culture there,” he said. “Then I met the Vincentians right around the time I was 30. I had always kind of thought about the priesthood and was interested in it. After the newness of the profession (accounting) wore off, I started thinking, do I want to do this my whole life? I started visiting the prison and that was a powerful experience of faith. Then I met the Vincentians.”
After the Second Vatican Council, the religious order, which had been teaching in seminaries, decided to return to their roots of missionary work in service of the poor, Father Stehlik said.
“Our group had just recently come back from Guatemala training lay catechists for a bishop who was Vincentian, we came back and wondered how we could help here,” he said. “We are in the highest points of immigration in the history of the United States.”
After ordination, Father Stehlik thought he had a plan.
“I thought I would probably want to do something in Latin America, be a missionary down there, but it almost seems like there is no need,” he said. “Latin America has come here.
“Whoever would have thought that we would come to Arkansas to do this kind of ministry?” said Father Stehlik.
“Once you get involved in the communities, there is so much life there, and so much need,” he added. “When you work with an immigrant community, the needs are overwhelming. The communities are maturing, but there are still a lot of people in crisis.”
Hernandez was born in the arid and dusty border town of Del Rio, Texas, where rain is always considered a blessing. He became a carpenter and worked in many different places around the southwest. When the permanent diaconate program was started in the Diocese of Tucson, Hernandez said he was asked to consider and did. Because he moved so much it took him longer to complete his studies and become a permanent deacon. He decided later to devote his life to ministering and decided to join an order. He lived for three years with Franciscans before deciding to join the Vincentians, which he said attracted him because of their mission of working with the poor.
It took him longer to become ordained as a deacon, because his job as a carpenter required him to move a lot, he said.
Hernandez said he also had to drop out of the program while in the El Paso diocese when he got divorced. Eventually, he received an annulment and was able to start studying again for the Diocese of Gallup.
“I started in 1973 in the Diocese of Tucson, Ariz.,” he said. “From there I moved to El Paso and from El Paso to Gallup (N.M.) finally, after eight years of studying, I was ordained deacon for the Diocese of Gallup.”
The diaconate was something he was led to, he said.
“I did not have the slightest idea what a deacon was,” he said. “There was no permanent diaconate. On top of that, it was only after attending a Cursillo that I started becoming more involved in the Church. Then they asked me if I was interested in becoming a deacon.”
In hindsight, it is a mysterious calling, he said.
“Some are called as youth, others are invited, but some, as in my case, it was not something concrete, it was gradual, not anything spectacular to make you stop and say, yes, this is for me,” Hernandez said.
His vocation as a deacon gradually became affirmed by signs along the way. He decided to minister to farm workers and those in prison, people who fall through the cracks.
Before coming to Arkansas, Hernandez was working at a parish in California when he requested to work at a different ministry. He has been a deacon for 28 years.
Since coming to Arkansas in 2002, Hernandez has focused on working primarily with the farm workers and prisoners.
Members of the Vincentian Evangelization Team are kept busy.
One recent weekend, Father Stehlik had first Communion Masses at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. on a Saturday in addition to the 4 p.m. Mass at St. Anne, and a 7 p.m. Mass at St. James Church in Searcy. On Sunday he celebrated the 8 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. Masses at St. Anne before leaving on a weeklong retreat.
Hernandez can be found visiting with farm workers throughout the state during the farming season, in addition to visiting inmates at many of the state and federal prisons throughout the state.
The evangelization team has changed throughout the years, but the focus has remained the same.
Other Vincentians in the state based at St. Anne Church are Father Carlos Lozada, a native of Columbia who has had to adapt to both American and Mexican culture; and Father Dan Borlik, the outgoing provincial, who will return to Arkansas later this month.

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