By TERRY DICKSON
BILOXI — Father Steve Wilson’s death leaves a gaping hole in the hearts of many from around the world impacted by his ministry.
The loss can be felt in Rome, where he served as an internal auditor for the General Government of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, better known as the Redemptorists. It can be felt in Thailand, where he worked tirelessly for the Father Ray Foundation, a home for underprivileged children and students with disabilities. It can be felt in Denver, where he served as provincial treasurer. It can be felt in the inner-city of Chicago, where he ministered to African Americans, Hispanics and the homeless. It can be felt in the Bronx, where he ran a formation house for seminarians and in his home-town of Seattle.
The loss is especially palpable for the people he served in East Biloxi, where Father Steve and a team of Redemptorist priests and brothers arrived in August 2005, at the invitation of Bishop Thomas J. Rodi, now the Archbishop of Mobile, to administer three parishes — St. John, St. Louis and Our Mother of Sorrows.
Their scheduled arrival date was August 31.
“Then Katrina hit,” said Archbishop Rodi. “I contacted the Redemptorists and told them that the devastation in East Biloxi was catastrophic and that I would not hold them to their commitment to come to serve in this situation. Father Wilson and the others said that they were coming to serve, despite the disaster. And they did. St. John and St. Louis Parishes were combined, and I named the new parish Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos Parish, especially since Father Seelos was himself a Redemptorist.
“Father Wilson could have backed out of coming to Biloxi, but he did not and joined in the recovery effort. He was exemplary as pastor and led the people of his parishes through the long and challenging process of rebuilding. His parishes were renewed and became bright lights of faith and hope to all.”
As then director of Catholic Social and Community Services, Sister Rebecca Rutkowski, OSF, was on the front lines after Hurricane Katrina and worked closely with Father Wilson. “In the early 2000s, the Redemptorists of the Denver province began an initiative where they invited them-selves into dioceses to offer their services to minister in underserved areas with the intent to focus on community organizing,” she said.
“The Diocese of Biloxi jumped at the opportunity and sent a proposal for the Redemptorists to minister in the Point Cadet area of Biloxi, which had four ethnic churches: Slavic, African American, French and Vietnamese and fragmented, territorial communities of African Americans, whites and Vietnamese.
“The Diocese of Biloxi was selected and three Redemptorists — four, if you counted Brother Gene’s black Labrador — made plans to move to Biloxi and serve at Our Mother of Sorrows and the then-St. John and St. Louis parishes on the Point,” Sister Rebecca continued.
“Enter Hurricane Katrina on August 29, 2005, which turned the Diocese of Biloxi upside down and nearly destroyed everything on the Point. This reality did not deter the trio of Reverends Steve Wilson and Chung Cao, Brother Gene and his faithful black lab. They arrived, and as Hurricane Katrina forever changed the Diocese of Biloxi, so did this merry band of musketeers led by the creative and innovative Steve Wilson.”
Sister Rebecca said Father Steve’s impact was far-reaching, touching not just his parishioners but those who were marginalized.
“Father Steve’s leadership, which was always for-ward-thinking and joyful, topped with an over-riding sense of very dry humor, slowly built back the hearts and homes of the residents of Point Cadet,” she further noted. “Their ministry now included Latinos, who had come to help rebuild the Gulf Coast.
“In time, the Point slowly began to thrive once again: Steve became a regular at Kim Long’s restaurant, down the street from Our Mother of Sorrows, not only knowing all the staff and customers, but both restaurant menus by heart. He also reached out to the LGBTQ community, who found a safe haven in Just Us, a little further down from Kim Long’s.”
Gilda Sizor called Father Steve “a game changer in the hearts and families of Our Mother of Sorrows and Blessed Seelos communities.”
“Father Steve and Brother Gene (Patin) brought a summer work program to our parish which they originally developed while in the south side of Chicago with the youth there. This program was the WEAL program — Work, Earn and Learn summer program,” she said.
“Our youth as well as the community youth were able to learn employment skills, banking and saving their earnings, skills such as carpentry, painting, gardening, finance and communication on the job with others and time management. Friendships among the youth developed and trust with the religious and camp counselors and Father Steve. Movie night and going to lunch or out to pizza became ritual outings. Father Steve was right there — popcorn and the movies.”
Father Steve was more than a pastor and friend, said Sizor.
“Father Steve was family,” she explained. “With his guidance and mentorship our youth felt they had some-one to trust, guide them through their Catholic Christian journey as well as discuss the many challenges encountered by young people in this world. Father Steve Wilson spoke the honest truth, and the youth respected him for his honesty.
“Father Steve Wilson was part of the Sizor family — the uncle who spoke hard truth, dined with us, celebrated graduations, birthdays and holidays with laugh-ter. When the OMS choir sings ‘Taste and See’ which is one of his favorite songs, I will smile and remember Steve Wilson, priest, mentor, and friend.”
Charnell Martino said Father Steve’s friendship was unwavering.
“He was there for me and my son, Cobie, through the good and the bad,” she recounted. “He came to Biloxi and our parish when we didn’t know how we were going to pick up the pieces after Hurricane Katrina. He was truly an Angel sent to us. When I told him I was pregnant he told me ‘You are carrying a future priest.’ It was before I even knew I was having a boy.
“Father Steve baptized him, came back for his first Communion and I always knew he prayed for us. Not a time we saw him went by without him asking Cobie, ‘What order are you going to join?’ And with a smile on his face Cobie would say ‘The Redemptorists.’ I am so grateful for the time we were able to spend with him.
He lit a fire in Cobie like no other for his faith and love of his Catholic Church.”
Martino said Father Steve was not one to beat around the bush.
“We are truly better Christians because we knew such a faith-filled man of God, a man who was not only a priest but a mentor, teacher, counselor and most importantly our friend,” Martin continued. “If you wanted an honest opinion, he was the one to give it you and always with a good story and lesson. Even if you had heard the story before there was still something new to learn from it. We will miss Father Steve and it will be a hard time, but I find comfort in knowing I know right where he is.”
Brently Byers said the timing of Father Steve’s entrance into his life was providential.
“I lived the first 20 years of my life Godless, spiritually destitute. I was searching for God but hadn’t found him,” said Byers.
Byers was brought to Seelos by a friend who said he should check it out, so he went one evening and met Father Steve, and remembered him in that encounter as different, charismatic and funny.”
“He couldn’t get more than a few sentences out without making a joke, which he then laughed at hysterically,” Byers further recounted. “I entered RCIA in 2010 and the Church the following year at Easter. My mother entered the year after; my brother and nephew the year after her. In my time since being baptized, I have had many seasons of being lukewarm, even stepped away from the Church completely a few times. Father Steve always came after me and brought me back into the fold.
“He was a very popular man in our parish, with many, many families, religious, friends and parishioners to keep up with. But just as Jesus left the 99 sheep to find the one, Father Steve always came searching for me, like a good shepherd.”
After Byers experienced a series of broken relation-ships, Father Steve told him to consider entering a period of discernment for the priesthood.
“I followed his guidance and attended a come-and-see. I ultimately discerned that I was called to married life,” said Byers.
“It was a few weeks after that I met my now wife of six years. She came into the Church in 2017 and we have been devoted Catholics throughout our marriage. We have three beautiful children (Brexleigh — 5, Charlie — 3, Brady — 1) and we are living God’s will and design. I owe my life, everything I have, to Father Steve Wilson.”
Peter Stich met Father Steve after Hurricane Katrina when his parish, Our Lady of the Lake in Holland, Michigan, adopted Our Mother of Sorrows Parish. Stich was 12 years-old at the time.
Over the next few years Stich would go on 10-plus trips down to the parish in various mission trips, and Father Steve quickly became what he liked to call his “phone-a-priest.”
“I always enjoyed his approach and candid conversations around faith and our journey through it,” he said. “My wife and I attended a Mass in Minnesota, where we lived at the time, and the homily one Sunday really did not sit well with either of us or our faith, to the point we left Mass.
“After a couple of days. I decided to message Father Steve as he was living in Rome. He happened to be in the States and called me immediately to talk through my struggles. He listened and understood where I was and would even call out issues with the homily as I relayed my experience.”
Stitch recounted when Father Wilson called him around the time of his final exams in college to see how he was doing. At the end of their conversation, Father Wilson asked if he had gone to Mass that week.
“After saying I was too busy studying and I had missed the morning Mass, he responded ‘Oh, that’s okay, the church there has a 6:30 Mass, let me know how the homily is,’” Stitch said. “He had that in his back pocket during the whole conversation, and looked up churches in Michigan where I was going to school beforehand.”
Rita Essick came to work at Keesler Air Force Base from August 2007 to August 2010. She joined Our Mother of Sorrows and volunteered to work with its youth group, teach CCD, sing in the choir, and help out whenever needed.
“Led by Father Steve, the parish became so special to me, that I return as often as I can to help when I can,” she said. “Father Steve had qualities that the world is very much in need of. I especially admired his ability to lead with presence. Simply put, he was there. He stayed engaged and did his very best to help the parishioners of Our Mother of Sorrows and the community recover /rebuild in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Like so many others, Essick also admired Father Wilson’s straightforwardness. “He gave the best sermons I ever heard on why it was important to sign the kids up for CCD. They were compelling. When he spoke, he was firm; he was direct; he was motivational, and managed to be funny as well. “Whenever I think of him, I can’t help but laugh. I regret that I only got to watch him work for a short time. But the ripple effect of his dedication is some-thing that will live on and on.”
That ripple effect extended outside of East Biloxi to neighboring parishes.
“I came to know Father Wilson in 2007, as the Redemptorists were continuing to re-build Blessed Seelos Church in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He was determined and driven by this effort and loved the people of Back Bay Biloxi, St. John’s and Our Mother of Sorrows,” said Deacon Gayden Harper. “He consumed copious amounts of Starbuck’s French Roast coffee, black, and on occasion slipped into the street language of Chicago’s South Side, even though he was from Seattle. A Certified Public Accountant, Father Wilson would let you know that no one was exempt from his fund-raising projects.
“When Father Patrick Hayes passed away at St. Mary’s in Gautier, Bishop Rodi tasked me to secure priest coverage for the weekend Masses from June 2007 to January 2008. Father Steve Wilson heard of this situation, called me one night and said, ‘Deacon, not to worry…we’re gonna work this out together.’ For the next seven months, Father Wilson always found a way to assure we had priest coverage at both Sunday Masses, either coming himself or sending another Redemptorist Father. Our friendship grew, and he became a mentor and encourager of my diaconal ministry until he was moved by the Redemptorist Order.
Deacon Harper also remembered Father Wilson’s passion for social justice and how he took advantage of every opportunity to share this passion, especially with the Community of Deacons and those in formation for ordained ministry.
“Father Wilson thought it was of vital importance that the Deacons of our Diocese had the fullest expo-sure to the needs of Social Justice, and taught several courses to our formation groups,” Deacon Harper further noted. “He led several retreats for our community, volunteered at the renovated Seelos Center for conferences and meetings, and presided at many of our special liturgies.
“He was a friend whom I valued and respected. And since, I have always favored Starbucks French Roast Coffee.”
Teresa Lamey, like practically everyone else who knew Father Steve, considered him to be so much more than just her parish priest. She recalled how he would join her and her sister, Lowana, for movie night. “If there was not a new movie playing that he wanted to see, it would be a DVD at one of our houses. Pizza, popcorn and Peanut M&Ms were his order,” she recounted. “Many times, Father Chuong Cao or any other seminarians that happened to be helping the parish out were included in the fun.
“He and Father Chuong became honorary members of our fam-ily at our reunions, and I know of many other families that felt that same way about them. And I remember our bus trips to the Blessed Seelos Shrine over in New Orleans. We would take gifts from our bookstore and hold drawings on the bus. He said I was his Vanna White to his Pat Sajak. We always had to do this on the ride over because he always fell asleep on the ride home. I have pictures to back this up.”
Lamey said one of her fondest memories of Father Steve was visiting him in Rome.
“My sister and I were fortunate to be able to go to Rome in January 2019 and visit him. We were able to stay in the guest wing of the Redemptorist house,” she said. “The majority of the priests only spoke Italian so on our first day there for lunch, we were lucky enough to hear our names spoken in Italian and Father Steve told us they were introducing us.” Lamey said Father Steve was a also a very good teacher of the faith.
“Father Steve held RCIA classes for the new con-verts, but also urged the ‘cradle Catholics’ as he called us, to come get a refresher course,” she said. “Many times, he would get aggravated with us for not knowing the answers, but he continued to strengthen our religion.”
Added Lamey, “I have never heard anyone say an unkind word about Father Steve.
He was dedicated to his calling, strong in his faith, and always ready to tell you about God.”