Father Andrew St. Hilaire
Hometown: Manchester, N.H., and Mechanicsburg, PA
Education: St. John’s Seminary, Brighton, MA; Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, Emmitsburg, MD; and Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C.
Current Assignment: Parochial vicar at St. Francis Xavier Parish in Gettysburg and chaplain at Gettysburg College
We are here in historic Gettysburg; could you please tell us about your history, where you grew up and about your family?
I am originally from New Hampshire. Grew up in Manchester, New Hampshire, and moved to the Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, area when I was 13 in 2005. Went to the Cumberland Valley School District in junior high and senior high school and then did my undergraduate studies at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. After my undergraduate studies at Catholic University, I took the initiative to respond to this vocation to the priesthood. But the vocation to the priesthood had an impression on me beginning at a young age. Our parish community in Manchester was very active and I had a very good pastor growing up who left a great impression on me – in fact I still have a friendship with him today – Father Marc Montminy. It was that wonderful parish community environment that left an impression that stuck with me throughout my high school and my undergraduate studies.
What did you study at Catholic University?
With Catholic University, I majored in philosophy and I tried a double major in psychology but soon realized that I needed a life outside studying (laughing). I dropped the psychology major. I knew that I wanted to go to a college where I could grow in my faith because I knew in my senior year of high school that this was a possibility, though I was not yet ready to commit to that vocation, yet I was still very much discerning. So I looked at places that my faith would not be discouraged. I looked at places like Ave Maria University in Florida and St. Vincent’s in Latrobe, Pa., and decided upon Catholic University in April of my senior year. I just knew when I visited Catholic that this was where I was supposed to be.
Your home parish was St. Katharine Drexel when you moved to Central Pennsylvania, correct?
Well interestingly enough, we went to St. Theresa’s in New Cumberland because they had a Perpetual Adoration chapel which was very important to my mother. She started a Perpetual chapel in New Hampshire, so she found an immediate draw to St. Theresa’s. They had a school there and my younger brothers went there until the commute became a long one. So in 2007, we made the switch to St. Katharine’s and it was my home since then.
How many brothers and sisters do you have?
I have four younger brothers and one older sister, for six total. Big family. Never a dry moment and never boring, that is for sure.
While at Catholic University, you were discerning about becoming a priest.
Yes, very much. The interesting thing about Catholic University and what made that a very helpful experience is, in that part of Washington, you are surrounded by many religious communities. Also you have the Basilica, the USCCB (United States Council of Catholic Bishops) and the Dominican House of Studies. The joke is that it is Little Rome, Catholic Disneyland – said as a joke because there are a lot of Catholic communities and organizations.
It helped me discern whether I was called to religious life or Diocesan priesthood. Right after graduating from CUA, I concluded that I was called to Diocesan priesthood, but I did not quite know at that point that I was called to be in the Diocese of Harrisburg. I actually took the measure to become a seminarian in the Diocese of Manchester, because I thought that is where my spiritual roots are. My extended family still lives there, and there was this spiritual magnet to Manchester for me, so I ended up doing one year of pre-theology at St. John’s Seminary in Brighton, Massachusetts. I started out right away in pre-theology because of the philosophy degree. It turned out to be a very good year there at St. John’s.
I loved being near Boston; I just love that city. It was great having a Dunkin Donuts on every block. But something just felt in prayer not right…that something was missing. I knew that there was something else to my vocation that I needed to respond to. It was after a lot of spiritual direction and seeking the advice of close friends, I realized that I had a vocation to the Diocese of Harrisburg. After a year at St. John’s, I took a leap of faith and switched dioceses in formation.
Tell us about the process of changing dioceses for formation.
The process of seminary application in any diocese is extensive. You must go through a process of psychological evaluation, you must fill out extensive applications, biography, the gamut of biography. It was a big decision and an extensive process for sure. Dioceses want to do their due diligence and not just affirm your vocation; they want to discern in fact that you really are indeed called. You go through this process. I did that with the Diocese of Manchester, went through the whole process, which is just as rigorous as Harrisburg.
After a year, the Diocese of Harrisburg asked me to do the whole process again, and understandably so. I had to start at stage one. Looking back, it was a big leap of faith, and it was a very bold move because I was enjoying my time in New England. I was not unhappy by any means and I still think people are convinced to this day, no matter what I say, that I left because I was unhappy. No, things were great in New England. That is what made the decision tough. I just had this sense, a deeper awareness of my vocation that God was calling me specifically to be here in the Diocese of Harrisburg.
You are too humble to admit this I am sure, but that takes an awful lot of maturity to make that decision and change. You could have ignored that in your prayer life, but you didn’t.
Yes, it took courage, but it took a lot of grace as well, and I could not have done that without the help of the Lord. God was definitely involved in that decision. Of course, I am really thankful that happened.
It is interesting, the first year at the Mount, where I was assigned, it was a culture shock for me and I do not mean that in a bad way at all, but a very good way in many respects. It was a very different style of formation approach than what St. John’s had. At St. John’s, you would sing the Liturgy of the Hours every day; Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer were sung. You had specific times for lunch, you had lunch together; we prayed the Angelus together before lunch. It was a very, very rigorously structured, almost monastic lifestyle. It made my prayer life great, but at the Mount it was different.
You can have meals when you chose, and there is no set time for things like that. There was much more flexibility. There was nobody checking if I was at a Holy Hour from 5-6 p.m. The Mount made various hours in the day available and you were expected to take that initiative on you own and have that accountability with your spiritual director. Because of that, there was a culture shock and transition. I went from being with a bunch of cynical Bostonians to a bunch of really nice Midwesterners, so I went from being the optimistic easy going guy in Boston to being the pessimist with these Midwesterners (laughing). So that was a culture shock also. The first semester at the Mount, I had a few moments where I thought maybe I did not make the right call here.
What did you do in those moments when you had those thoughts?
I ultimately just trusted. And I knew it was just about making transition. It did not take me long to see what I was able to do at the Mount. Things like Mount 2000 – a youth oriented Eucharistic retreat that has been held for more than 20 years now. I helped out with that in many ways. It’s a whole unique experience that I would never have had elsewhere. I became involved in musical preparation like praise and worship Adoration on weekly nights. I would never have had those opportunities in Boston. An example is being involved also with the Byzantine choir. Really, there were just a boatload of opportunities provided at the Mount that I would never have had. It actually became very easy to see that God definitely called me here.
You were ordained June 1 of last year. Tell us about your first year as a priest.
It has been a rollercoaster. There is this meme on Facebook that has a picture of a brother and sister on a rollercoaster and the older sister has this big smile on her face and then the younger little brother has his hair sticking up and has this look of shock, holding on for dear life. There is a caption that points to the boy as God’s plan for us with a vocation and the older sister is the Holy Spirit who is just having a blast on the rollercoaster. It speaks to us and it would perfectly describe the year in a nutshell. It has been quite the ride. I was ordained a transitional deacon in the fallout of the PA Grand Jury report, so my diaconate service in many ways was having to pastorally minister to the faith community who was dealing with this.
Where did you serve in your diaconate ministry?
I was right here at St. Francis Xavier. I was assigned here right near the Mount. As many know, our pastor Father Dan Mitzel was still recovering from chemo treatment and I am happy to say that he is doing fantastic and is healthy. He has been a wonderful mentor and pastor for me, and I could not ask for someone more fitting and perfect for someone like me as far as my growth as a priest. In those early stages he was understandably not well, so I came in hitting the ground running. There was no time for transition or adjustment.
This is a parish with a school, Hispanic ministry and many things going.
It has 1,500 families. On Sundays, we have six masses alone. It is a very active parish. And as you point out, it has an active bi-lingural parish ministry. We have Gettysburg College, which is my responsibility also. We have plenty to do and there is never a dull moment. We had a lot of parish community go before us and pass away. Janet Oyler passed away in the fall. Her family was very active in the parish and also at the Mount. George Gelles was also very active in our parish and at the Mount. He was our parish finance chairman, on our Knights Council and served as our Sunday sacristan. And there were others that were pillars of our parish in many ways and they were shocking moments. December was my first Christmas as a priest and I was sick. So Father Mitzel thankfully pinch hit for me on Christmas morning.
Tell us how being a new priest in the midst of a pandemic has shaped you and how you have been personally dealing with the challenges.
That is a good question. It is still hard to articulate about it because we are still dealing with it and reflecting about it. It is the present yet, not the past. But number one, it is teaching priests to build the plane while it is flying in terms of ministry. Finding new and creative ways to remain connected with our parish family is a challenge. That has been adventurous in many respects but it has been helpful to me as a priest in terms of using technology as a means to evangelize and being able to be creative with that. It has helped me to look at things over the last year to refocus on how things have worked and what things maybe do not work as well. A natural disaster like this just makes you recalibrate your expectations, your goals and your approaches to things. In that regard, it has helped me.
The parish has been streaming Masses, correct?
Yes. Palm Sunday was our first Mass live. We have been using YouTube and Facebook during all this time. I have been doing other things livestreamed. I do a program called Cofice (Coffee and Office – 7:45 a.m. weekdays) – which is Liturgy of the Hours with coffee in the morning. I was doing that every day prior to the church’s reopening.
What has been the response to this program?
It has been really well received. Sometimes we just sort of shoot the breeze to my detriment, as it will be on YouTube forever (laughing). We also do the prayers of the Liturgy of the Hours, but it is important for people to be connected on a daily basis. We have been getting 25-30 people or so for it.
We also started an email newsletter just like The Witness has gone more online. We do a revised online form of our bulletin in a reformatted manner. We have completely revamped our parish website. There are a lot of things that we have done ministerial to connect. I don’t think that these things would have happened without the pandemic, so it kind of forced us to do things that we talked about but, because of everything that is happening and all the activities going on before us, we maybe just did not have the chance to get it done. It forced us to kind of move ahead.
Will this help the Church down the road, no matter how long this pandemic goes on or when another crisis comes?
In many ways it has been a blessing, at least for me. I realized this pretty quickly. One of our parishioners referred to our preceding pastor (Father Bernando Pistone) as a “priestoholic” (laughing) because he just was a worker. I have pretty much been working non-stop during this time, but also it has given me a chance to slow down since the physical schedule is not as full or demanding. When we were shut down, it was pretty much just on the computer. But it has also given me a chance and time to set those boundaries to read more, to spend more time in prayer. That aspect has helped me out quite a bit too, to set those times for that. Before the pandemic with all the activity and nursing home visits and Masses, I just did not give enough attention to those things that are needed. The pandemic helped me recalibrate that balance as well.
What do you do for leisure or to get away?
I love music and I play the piano. I like to compose music, although I am not saying it is a great product. That is a great intellectually stimulating task for me. It started as a child. At a very young age, I wanted to play the organ. I loved our organ at our home parish and thought it was the coolest instrument ever. My parents could not find an organ instructor, so they said how about you learn to play the piano. I fell in love with playing the piano, for the irony is I wanted to be an organist but became a pianist instead. And now I am uncomfortable with the organ . I prefer the piano.
What helped me persevere through musicals, piano lessons, voice lessons when I moved to Pennsylvania in eighth grade and through high school was that I fell in love with the music of Billy Joel. I realized that piano music is not just classical, but it can be applied in the contemporary context. In high school, I also discovered Elton John. I discovered contemporary Christian music also, and at that time Michael W. Smith was still prominent and he is today also. Secular and Christian musicians all sort of came together to influence me with music. By listening to it, it inspired me to want to continue to play.
You obviously like to read. What books do you enjoy?
It is a wide variety, really. I am the type of reader that can read 10 pages of 10 books at once. I do not stick with one book to the end. I will read maybe 50 pages then jump to another, and then I will come back.
A lot of times it is about a topic I want to think about or study and reflect on, whether it is theological or practical. I may go to my own personal library and pull a book or go on Amazon and find something I want to read about. I love baseball, and as we eagerly await the end of July, I like to read some good baseball history books of late. I also read to keep informed and read good theological books or Scripture study books from prominent Catholic authors like Scott Hahn and Edward Sri; some more deeper cuts into theological writings by Louis Bouyer. I was reading Matthew Levering’s book, The Achievement of Hans Urs von Balthasar, but that is not a page turner – it is a little dense and I recommend taking it in increments (laughing).
It depends what is captivating my mind. Right now, I am in the midst of doing parking lot Masses and returning to the sacramental life in a very abnormal way and wanting to help and guide people in a way of explaining the sacrament of charity. Our acts of charity at this time do not lessen devotion to the Eucharist, but actually enhance it. So I have been reading more books and rereading more books on the Eucharist these days.
How do you prepare your homilies, given your extensive reading discipline?
I do not have a consistent way. It kind of varies from week to week. I use a variety of resources, and one of those is a software called Verbum. This software is basically an online biblical index library, just like a Kindle. You can purchase various biblical commentaries, you can buy all libraries, and you can buy a monthly subscription. It was very economical for me to use while I was a seminarian. You can type in a Scripture passage and it will give the Catholic commentary on it as well as what the world biblical commentary says on it, what the Church Fathers say on it. It gives me a whole range on what has been said on a certain passage. So that is my form of research. It is an easy way to see what has been said in the Church’s 2,000 year history and what even non-Catholic scholars say about a passage.
I use various podcasts sometimes on Scripture, but many times they may just make a point and I will just run with it. Sometimes there is a topic that just comes to my mind from Scripture reading and I will go to a book I have in my library that I know touches on that catechetical point that I want to bring home. Sometimes, it is just current events or events on the parish level too, that trigger a point of reflection. Sometimes, my own prayer offers something that relates to a Scripture that captures a point. I kind of go back and forth to writing out the homily and just formulating it in my head, so I do not have a specific way.
Your ultimate goal with your homily is to do what for your parishioners?
For me, the ultimate point is through Scriptures to help parishioners see how God is working in their everyday life in the week. Sometimes that is exhortative telling or encouraging them to do X, Y, or Z. I do not try to be overly moralistic in my homilies. I’m not saying “This is why you need to be nice” or “This is why you need to do good.” I try and make it Christo-centric: “Here is the mystery of Christ and that is what draws us here to Mass through the sacramental life of the Church.”
The sacraments are a central tenet in every priest’s vocation, but do you have a favorite aspect of ministry that you appreciate or is rewarding?
It is not as if I have a favorite sacrament; all the sacraments I have found to be incredibly beautiful, whether it is anointing someone in the hospital late at night, baptizing a newborn child or witnessing a marriage. The celebration of Mass, of course, and hearing Confessions and being floored by the genuine holiness of people who come to Confession or seeking to grow in holiness is special. The vulnerability that they bring before the Lord and me being the instrument humbles me. There have been experiences in each sacrament that have given me the opportunity to say: God you are so awesome for having this for people and seeing people truly encounter Christ. It very much humbles me and leaves me in awe. We are all sinners and we all struggle with the pursuit of holiness. To see God use you despite your own flaws as a means for others to know Him and encounter Him at crucial moments of their lives is awesome.
Is there anything I have not asked you that you would like to share with us?
If anyone is discerning a vocation, I would encourage them to have trust in God and to persevere because the life is beautiful. In the priestly life, every single human being has the vocation to love and to be loved. Priesthood is expressed distinct and different than married life, but you are still called to a receiving of love but also a giving of love, a spousal love to the Church. Seeing that in this first year has just been beautiful. Just like in marriage, you at times have no idea what you are getting into, well, I had no idea what I was getting myself into on ordination day – I just would not trade it. It has been an incredible gift and blessing and one that I am still growing in my appreciation for.
For that young person who is 22 and just finished college, what advice would you give to that man about discerning the call?
I think one of the challenges that my generation has is making a commitment. I think part of the reason why is that many in my generation have grown up with divorced parents. For them, it is like they do not want to make a bad mistake. “I do not want to make a commitment,” they think, “and have it be wrong.” They want to make sure it is absolutely right, and there is a certain nobility to that and I think it is why my generation is getting married later also. I admire their sense of permanence.
But the reality is that you never have 100 percent certainty. Every decision has a certain amount of risk taking. We have, I think, lost the application of the virtue of prudence in discernment. That virtue is gathering the data one needs, seeking the council of others, but then having the courage after making that decision to deliberate and realize that this new information may require a course change. It happened to me switching dioceses. New information came to me that first year, and that required a course change. Also then having the courage to pursue that decision, remain faithful to it and act upon it was important.
My advice to maybe an 18-year-old is not to be impulsive, take the time you need to gather information, go to daily Mass, receive the sacraments regularly, grow in holiness and get a spiritual director. But when you have gathered all the information and gotten the advice and all the direction you can get, and you have a sense of where you are being called, then you must act. Don’t wait, but go. That is the best advice I can give.
(Interview conducted by Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness.)
The Called: Father Andrew St. Hilaire
Father Andrew St. Hilaire
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