Newly ordained Fr. Joe Stefancin is pictured with his children, Joey and Amanda. Fr. Joe married his wife Audrey in October 1987 and the couple celebrated the adoptions of their two children as answers to prayer and his ordination to the permanent diaconate in 1995 as another step in a life of service to the church. He entered the seminary in 2017 for the Diocese of Superior, 10 years after Audrey passed from cancer. (Submitted photo)

Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald staff

Writer’s note: This article on Dcn. Joseph Stefancin’s journey to the priesthood was written the week prior to his ordination.

Dcn. Joe Stefancin’s first recollection of the priesthood is from the fourth grade.

Explaining the offertory rite during the Mass, the priest taught the children about the precious gift of God’s son by giving them a relatable experience.

“I remember him telling us to pick a slip of paper out of the bowl he was holding,” the deacon recalled. “When we each had one, he asked us to look at the name and keep the name to ourselves. We were to go home and find something that was precious to us, wrap it up, tape the piece of paper on it and bring it to class the next week.”

The following week during the school Mass, at the time of the offertory the students were asked to give their precious gift to the person whose name was on their selected piece of paper.

Dcn. Stefancin explained that the priest asked them to think about how they felt giving their most precious gift away and concluded by sharing the similarity with how God felt when he gave Jesus away.

“That example still has profound meaning for me today,” the soon-to-be priest affirmed.

Various parts of his story – before, leading up to and during his preparation for the moment of priestly ordination – witness a life of precious offerings and the fruitfulness of his generosity and faith.

“So much of my life has gone by, and yet I feel like it is just beginning,” Dcn. Joe commented.

He was raised in West Allis, near Milwaukee, in a Catholic family that always went to church and prayed before every meal. The deacon remembers his dad taking the family to confession on Saturday mornings, and Sundays were not “free days” during Lent. What was given up for Lent was given up “every day ‘til Easter Sunday.”

When the Christmas manger scene was set out by his mother, the shepherds had sheep, but baby Jesus was always hidden away until he was placed in the crib on Christmas Day.

After graduating high school, Stefancin attended several technical schools, colleges and universities before earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in religious studies and a certificate in youth ministry from Milwaukee’s Cardinal Stritch College (now a university).

“Each school has prepared me for my ministry today,” he added.

“Many years have gone by since the fourth grade,” Dcn. Joe continued, “and I have had many opportunities to learn more about myself, and my relationship with God and others. I have finished school, changed jobs, changed careers and even thought about changing churches at one time.”

One moment of drastic change happened thanks to the meeting of another young adult on fire for Jesus Christ.

“He reacquainted me with Jesus and his love for me,” Dcn. Stefancin stated.

That encounter led to more frequent prayer with the Scriptures and many hours talking to God before finding his way home to the Catholic faith.

Dcn. Joe explained, “The Catholic faith offered me everything I needed and more. I love all seven sacraments, the bells and the incense, the liturgical seasons and our saints.”

Retreats, including TEC (Teens Encounter Christ), Koinonia and silent retreats, have all been fruitful spiritual experiences, although the deacon admitted silent retreats are his favorite.

“Just Jesus, my favorite saint (Joseph), me and a spiritual director,” Dcn. Joe noted, “What more does one need?”

A history of ministry

Dcn. Stefancin’s first ministry job in the Diocese of Superior – at the parish in Merrill, then at St. Robert Bellarmine – was also the beginning of his love for Wisconsin’s Northwoods and the diocese he will continue to serve as a priest. It was also a place of other beginnings, important steps on his journey to the altar, Mass of Ordination and sacramental ministry to the people of this diocese.

For a time, he struggled with addiction.

“It was here that I started living a sober life,” Stefancin confided. Another deacon, Dcn. Dick Heckman, “helped me tremendously by attending AA meetings with me,” almost 34 years ago. “Jesus and Mary were pivotal to my success.”

Dcn. Joe recognized the many hours spent “with them in prayer, asking for help to make it one more day … those days continue to add up quickly,” he said. “It is because of my sobriety and my faith in Jesus Christ that I am sober today.”

For Dcn. Stefancin, his sobriety has helped him to see “how God works in each of our lives … the blessings I have received from him are too many to mention. God is good all the time,” he added.

Despite that he’s not from the region, the deacon says when asked where he is from, the truest and most natural answer is always Medford, “because Medford has been the home and community where my wife Audrey and I raised our family.”

The deacon met his wife at a religious education meeting at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Rhinelander. The couple married Oct. 11, 1987.

Dcn. Stefancin recalled the spectacular color of the leaves on that very beautiful day with family and friends.

Learning early in their marriage that neither could naturally become parents, and “grieving the loss of that seemingly natural process in a young couple’s marriage,” Audrey brought up the idea of adopting.

He remembers learning all they could about it, going to adoption conferences and finding an agency.

“Each adoption is a journey in prayer,” he said, “whether the child ends up a part of your family or not. The ones who do not become part of your family after the process has begun are very painful experiences and have their own grieving process.”

The couple lost one adoption and said no to another before successfully adopting two beautiful children.

Dcn. Stefancin affirmed, “There is so much love surrounding each child during the adoption process.”

As the adoptive couple, there is the love and desire to raise a child. For the birth parent(s), there is the ultimate sacrifice out of love for another by giving the child up for adoption.

In cases where it is the birth parents deciding which adoptive couple would best fit their child’s needs to grow up healthy and happy, the deacon acknowledged how emotional the court hearings can be.

The older of the Stefancins’ children is a boy Dcn. Joe saw playing in a driveway one day on his way to work while praying about their adoption process. Not longer after, the deacon’s best friend in Rhinelander shared the boy’s story and mentioned he was going to be put up for adoption soon and asker if Joe and Audrey would be interested.

They were, and after a long process, Dcn. Joe confirmed “that same little boy in the driveway came home to our house.”

The father said of his son, “He has grown into a very fine young man …. I am very proud of him and all his accomplishments.”

Another long adoption process, the Stefancins’ daughter came to them after first meeting her birth grandparents, to whom they were introduced by friends. There were several visits and weekends spent with the little girl.

At one point, given the requirements and costs, the couple wasn’t sure the adoption could move forward, but after praying “as a family about this baby, our home and our desire to share our lives with her,” Dcn. Joe shared by the end of that day, everything on the list was accounted for. The adoption moved forward and was finalized soon after.

“We named her Amanda, which means ‘deserving of love,’” Stefancin said. “Amanda is a lovely young woman who fills my heart with pride every day.”

He affirmed both adoptions were causes for true celebration. He also noted the saying about all that parents teach their children – life, love and relationships with God and others.

“While this may be true,” the deacon said, “our children have taught us many things about life, love and forgiveness.”

Stefancin was ordained to the permanent diaconate Aug. 12, 1995, by the late Bishop Raphael M. Fliss. In the deacon’s words, it was “another grace-filled day with family and friends from throughout the diocese and across the United States.”

He is very grateful for all that he and his family received through the diaconate program as well as the many good friendships he has made within and outside the Diocese of Superior.

“Being a deacon has helped me continue to grow in my faith and relationship with God and others,” Dcn. Stefancin said. “It has given me the opportunity to serve in a variety of different parishes and/or clusters (all but one with a school), and each placement had its successes and failures.

“By listening to those whose role it was to critique my work, and from priests and fellow deacons I have learned from my mistakes,” he admitted. “Mistakes bring us to reconciliation with God and others. The Sacrament of Reconciliation allows us to begin again.”

Dcn. Joe’s priestly ordination will take place just weeks before the 25th anniversary of his ordination to the permanent diaconate.

He answered his own question of “Could I have continued to serve as a permanent deacon?”

“You bet!” However, he acknowledged, “A vocation is a calling by God. He may use many things to get your attention, especially the voices of other individuals who believe you have what it takes to be a good priest,” but the seed of the calling has a divine source.

In fact, Dcn. Joe sees what helped him prepare for the journey to the priesthood happened in the first diaconate class he attended.

He recalls the professor asking if any of them could see themselves going on to becoming a priest if their spouse died. A large discussion broke out, and Dcn. Stefancin responded the question is not about “What you or I want, it’s what God wants.”

This was still years before the deacon and their children would be called to offer Audrey back to God.

“Audrey’s death was hard for all who knew her,” Stefancin said. “She was so good to so many people. She served many of the poor in the Medford area without saying a word to anyone.”

The couple did share words of how much they needed each other, yet once the inoperable cancer was discovered, she lived less than two months.

“She taught me so much about love, forgiveness and the joy of living,” Dcn. Joe said of his wife, who in death joined her parents and an older brother who had died in infancy.

He spoke of the “two caring families” who helped accompanied himself and the two children after their loss. One, the deacon’s own immediate family, and two, their Medford parish and community family.

“They all help me raise my children to adulthood,” Dcn. Stefancin acknowledged. “For these reasons and more, Medford will always be home for me.”

He doesn’t remember exactly how long after Audrey’s passing it was that diocesan vocation director Fr. Thompson asked if he had ever thought about a call to the priesthood, but since that time – and going back to his diaconate formation – Stefancin has appreciated the need for a good spiritual director, pastor, vocation director and team.

When others in their home parish also asked the question, Dcn. Joe began seriously to pray about it as Joey went off to college and Amanda started middle school. By the time she was entering high school, then-Bishop Peter F. Christensen asked the young woman if she could offer her Dad for a few years for him to go to seminary.

She thought she could after she graduated high school. With much discernment, prayer and guidance, and with the help of God, St. Joseph and the seminary formators at St. Francis de Sales Seminary and Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology, Stefancin entered the seminary in August 2017.

He entered knowing “God’s love is equal in proportion to all,” and that priesthood would not make God love him any more, but that his response was in love to what he felt God was calling him to.

For an older student, a widowed husband and father, established in a career and diaconate ministry, it was a hard adjustment at first.

“I have learned that the seminary is not a place one rushes through,” Stefancin commented. “One must take their time grow into the four pillars that develop a man into the priest God calls him to be … It is challenging to learn about yourself in a deeper way than before, to make the necessary changes so that you can be a good priest.”

He also acknowledged the challenge it is to say good-bye to brothers who discern out. Some clearly discerning their call to marriage, others with reasons he accepts might not ever be known.

What is important in the deacon’s experience is “that they took the time to know where God wanted them to be so that they can be whole and happy.”

Dcn. Stefancin is most grateful for the “homey feel” he had at St. Francis de Sales Seminary, the strong bond of brotherhood where everyone cares for each other – whether sick or healthy, struggling academically or in need of other support, “someone is always there to lift you up,” he affirmed.

He admits he will miss that, as well as praying in chapel with his brother seminarians.

What he takes with him is an openness to continued growth.

“The seminary is to help you grow in all areas of your life. What challenges you today may not be challenging you tomorrow.”

Looking to the “tomorrow” of his priesthood, Dcn. Stefancin cannot wait to celebrate Mass and to administer the sacraments.

If he had to choose one sacrament to administer “to anyone, it would be the Sacrament of Reconciliation,” Dcn. Joe said.

“I would like everyone to feel the love of God as he wipes away your sins, for there is no sin he cannot forgive us for, not one. With this gift of forgiveness, we are all open to what the sacraments have to offer us.”

Coming to the end of this preparation phase, Dcn. Stefancin is “ever so grateful to God: for the gift of my sobriety; for Audrey’s life and how she touched mine; for my children whom I love more and more each day and miss them greatly; for everyone who has encouraged, prayed and supported me along the way and to Fr. Thomas Thompson, our diocese’s vocation director.”

His priesthood will continue the lifetime of self-offering and precious gifts given, accompanied by the “two most important people” on Dcn. Joe’s journey.

“God and St. Joseph,” Stefancin affirmed, “who continue to show me how to love Jesus and Mary the way they do.”