After Hillsboro, Steenson’s vast journey led him to a rare group of married Catholic priests
Even his Wikipedia page belies his beginnings, although it traces its roots in the evangelical church, becoming an episcopal bishop, and eventually joining – and leading, with the help of the Vatican – a rare group of married Catholic priests.
Finally, the âneedleâ appears in a very short sentence in a longer article: âHe grew up on a farm in North Dakota.
âYes, I grew up in Hillsboro – my dad was a farmer – and I graduated from high school in 1970,â confirms Steenson. Much of his family still lives in the area, which he says prepared him well for a life of travel and higher education – not to mention becoming an airplane pilot and pastor.
The family farm, composed mainly of sugar beet production, had been set up in 19e century by his father’s grandfather. âMy brother operates it now, but since this area was opened to settlers, the family has been there. “
Jeffrey Steenson is pictured back to school in Hillsboro, circa 1970. Special for the Forum
But Steenson looked for another path, first studying history at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Illinois. “I worked as a sports reporter for a suburban daily in the Chicago area, covering the White Sox and the Chicago Cubs.”
After marrying his wife, Debra, Steenson took a course on the Church Fathers of Early Christianity at St. Mary’s of the Lake Seminary in Mundelein, Illinois, and became addicted.
Now drawn to the Catholic Church, Steenson was turned away when his teacher, Sister Agnes Cunningham, suggested an alternative, feeling he might have a priestly vocation. Since Latin Rite priests are usually married only in rare circumstances, she suggested the Anglican Church – or, in America, the Episcopal Church.
A fascination with faith
As a child, observing his Catholic classmates with their crucifixes and rosaries, âthe things they wore and the things they said and did,â Steenson became curious. Most of the families were either Catholic or Lutheran, “and there weren’t a lot of crosses,” he says, noting his gratitude for having acquired a good knowledge of the Scriptures in the Protestant church in his community.
With a master’s degree in divinity from Harvard, and later a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Oxford, Steenson, once ordained an Episcopal priest, served parish ministry in Pennsylvania, Texas and finally New Brunswick. Mexico, where in 2005 it became the 1000e Bishop of the Episcopal Church of the United States of America.
But Rome still whispered, largely through the writings of Pope Saint John Paul II, he says, which have become “deeper and deeper in my bones.” Finally, he was going to meet this professor whom he admired so much.
In 2007 he resigned his post as bishop and during a sabbatical, while at the Pontifical Irish College in Rome, he and his wife were received into the Catholic Church.
By then, the door had been opened by John Paul II for Anglican priests seeking to become Catholics and ânot have to send their wives to a convent somewhere,â Steenson says. âIt was very kind of him. So I was ordained a deacon in December 2008, then two months later I became a (Catholic) priest in Santa Fe.
Monsignor Steenson is pictured presenting the Pope to the group of about fifty pilgrims from the Ordinariate who have come to Rome. His wife Debra is right behind him in the front row. Special at the Forum
Steenson is one of some 125 such married priests in the United States, and the first to be appointed by Pope Benedict XVI to lead the ordinariate helping those of the Anglican tradition to become Catholics. He is also the only non-bishop member of the USCCB. He has three grown children and two grandchildren.
Humble and helpful
Since 2016, Steenson has been a University Priest in Residence at Saint Paul Seminary and assists the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis. He is also vice-president of Coming Home Network International, which helps Protestants find Catholic unity.
Marcus Grodi, president of the network, says he and his team did not know for years while working with Steenson that he was a bishop. “As far as we know, he was just a Christian considering the Catholic Church.”
Eventually, Grodi invited him as a guest on his TV show, âThe Journey Home,â which features interviews with converts, later inviting him to the board.
âDeep down, (Steenson) is deeply committed to the Church, even though he recognizes its flaws,â says Grodi. “He is not the type to point the finger without noticing that we too are sinners,” adding, “It has helped me to understand that we are all on a journey, and it is only by grace that we have been awakened to the beauty of the Church of Christ.
Monsignor and Marcus Grodi during his installation as Ordinary of the Ordinariate at the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Houston on February 12, 2012. Special for the Forum
Coming Home to Hillsboro
Last month, Steenson celebrated mass at St. Rose de Lima Parish in Hillsboro with some of his classmates while in town for their delayed 50th class reunion.
His visit made him think about his childhood years and the âcaliber of teachers,â Steenson says. âThey were so involved in our lives and taught me to think clearly. They pushed you but they weren’t rude.
He remembers a science teacher once explaining why phosphorus and water don’t mix. âIt then fell into the sink filled with water with phosphorus, and it exploded,â Steenson recalls. “Here is a very good teacher who will give a real demonstration” for the good of his students.
Indeed, his teachers offered “some of the deepest impressions of my entire life,” he says, and the bullying never happened. âMaybe it was idyllic, and maybe we had the privilege of growing up around that time,â he adds, âbut what a wonderful group of people.â
Hillsboro Directory Staff. Special at the Forum
Greg Downs, a classmate, says their childhood together seemed easier. âBack then you had a bike and you went to your friend’s house and you played touch football, and maybe clarinet,â adding: âIt wasn’t very complicated, and in hindsight , we realize that was a good enough place to grow up. “
Richard Mueller rode the school bus with Steenson and remembers his buddy “Jeff” as someone who excelled in studies, ran the mile in track, loved music and was an excellent yearbook writer and a sports reporter for the local newspaper. âHe’s down to earth and easy to talk to,â says Mueller, despite his life experience – and after meeting three popes.
Hearing Steenson present the homily at Mass recently moved Mueller. âThis is the first time I’ve heard him speak outside of high school,â he said, noting that the gospel reading of Mark 5: 35-41 came to life because of Steenson’s interpretation. âHe reminded us that, even though times are tough, Christ never leaves us. “
Comments on and from the clergy
Steenson calls the Diocese of Fargo âan enchanting placeâ, with an impressive unity between clergy and laity. âAnd the seminarians I worked with (from North Dakota) are just the salt of the earth; such wonderful guys.
Reverend Jayson Miller, secretary to Bishop John Folda, studied with Steenson at St. Paul’s Seminary in 2015. âHe taught an optional course on Church Fathers,â Miller says. âWhat I took away from his class was his love for studying, and also the humor he brought to it. He allowed us to really see the humanity of the Fathers of the Church, âwho did not always agree.
He remembers learning how Sts. Jerome and Augustine, in their written correspondence, were “not always polite” and appreciated Steenson’s own experience of striving for his conversion, ultimately finding “a comfort and a kind of refuge with the fathers of the Church, knowing that ‘they also fought in their own way.
It wasn’t until Steenson attended mass at a ward Miller was assigned to, in Fargo, that Miller learned of his local origins. âHe didn’t seem like a North Dakota to me,â says Miller, who also grew up on a North Dakota farm. “After all his travel stories and joining the Church, it was a little surprising to find out.”
Bishop Thomas Richter of the Diocese of Bismarck met Steenson at St. Paul’s Seminary while on staff together in 2018. âHe is clearly very intelligent, kind and gentle,â says Richter. âHe laughs easily – it’s always a good sign – and has affection for the Church.
Steenson’s unique journey benefited the seminarians, he said, and with his affable nature and âfatherly gentleness,â besides being a great scholar, âhe had a good rapport with the guys. They trusted him.
Helping others move from one religious tradition to another is a passion for Steenson, and he can talk about challenges. âSometimes you have these extraordinarily gifted people who have had important ministries as Protestants, and now they’re just sitting on the benches, and no one understands what it is,â he says. âYou have to have a lot of courage and a lot of support. I have been incredibly blessed in this.
Salonen, wife and mother of five, works as a freelance writer and speaker at Fargo. Email him at [email protected] and check out more of his work on Peace Garden Passage, http://roxanesalonen.com/.