Edmundite Father Thomas Hoar worked as a college administrator and chaplain before accepting his current assignment: director of St. Edmund's Retreat on Enders Island, 12 acres of peace and prayer just off the mainland of Mystic, Conn. There he's overseen the launch of the St. Michael Institute of Sacred Art and co-founded a radio show, “Abound in Hope,” now broadcast on the Ave Maria Radio Network. He's also a popular parish-mission preacher around New England and a superb chef known for his fund-raising dinners and English high teas on the island. He spoke with Register correspondent Joseph Pronechen about the retreat ministry and his priestly vocation.
How do you preach the call to holiness?
It's about living ordinary lives extraordinarily well with the grace of God. We all have crosses in our life. Can we deal with them with dignity and grace? Can we live in hope? We haven't been preaching Christian hope with enough dynamism and authenticity. That's why so many people are running off to psychics, New Age gurus and mega feel-good churches. Jesus Christ, Lord of Heaven and Earth, said, “If you believe in me …” We have to help people hear the message of hope and new life in Christ.
Is there a way that you apply it to yourself?
I've had three cancer surgeries. Once we can let go of the fear of death — we're all going to die — then we can truly live our lives in hope and without fear. Hope isn't about making people feel good. Jesus didn't feel good hanging on the cross. I didn't feel good about having cancer surgery. But you can still be at peace, still have hope, still live under the assurance of God's promise of his presence. Jesus falls three times in the Stations of the Cross. But he gets up and he continues. So must we.
I look for all sorts of ways to interact with people and invite them to discover the Lord in ordinary ways. It's not my message. It's the message of the Church, the message of the Gospel, the message of Jesus Christ. I've been privileged to witness to it for the past 24 years.
What do you do in addition to your duties on Enders Island?
I help out in local churches and I preach parish retreats from Nova Scotia to Texas — I never turn down an invitation when I'm asked to preach, no matter how far I have to travel to get there. God's given me a lot of energy and blessings and it's really only because of his grace that I can do it. I try to have balance in life, too. One of the things I do for leisure is ride horses. It gives me an opportunity to put away all the administrative stuff, clear my mind and do something enjoyable. Being balanced physically, spiritually and emotionally, and having your life centered in the Eucharist, the Lord — that's not just important for priests. It's important for everyone.
How did you come to join the Edmundites?
I went to St. Michael's College in Vermont as a pre-med major. The Society of St. Edmund founded the college in 1904. I was going to daily Mass and was impressed by the preaching and personality of Edmundite Father Ray Doherty, who was the college chaplain. I started to think about the priesthood, which I had thought of as a boy, and it seemed natural to join the Edmundites. I liked the fact that they worked on college campuses, and that is what I did for the first 15 years of my priesthood.
How did your priestly ministry develop?
I professed my vows on Aug. 22, 1971, and was ordained a priest on the vigil of Pentecost — May 13, 1978 — at the Chapel of St. Michael the Archangel at the St. Michael's College in Winooski Park, Vt.
I went on for a doctorate, became a college vice president and then returned to St. Michael's. There we promoted volunteerism and created excitement about campus and social-justice ministries. Our efforts to invite students into the Mass resulted in a vibrant Sunday worship community.
In 1989, before taking a trip to Lourdes, I found myself trying to remember the mysteries of the rosary. I was touched by the whole story of Lourdes and by the procession with thousands of people praying the rosary in every language. That was a powerful moment in my life. Then I said Mass at the grotto with my feet by the holy well dug by Bernadette.
When I returned to America, Mary became for me a means to come to a deeper understanding of God's call to personal holiness. My preaching followed my personal development; I started to stress God's call to personal holiness over the social-justice ministries. I came to see that, if we don't have a real commitment to grow in holiness, we can easily fall into the trap of becoming secular humanists. The Christian, I believe, is called to be much more than just a very dedicated volunteer.
How has Enders Island changed since you arrived?
One of the first things I did nine years ago was to consecrate the island to the Sacred Heart and the Immaculate Heart. And we moved forward, by God's grace. Back then we were running a deficit of well more than $100,000 annually and the facilities needed $1 million in repairs. Now our retreats are breaking even. Our new chapel will be dedicated on Dec. 7.
I noticed the construction project — it would have been hard to miss. Looks like a major addition to the island.
This chapel will be the heart of the island and it's already a powerful symbol.
Some of our neighbors who have a view of the island were opposed to the cross that tops the chapel — it's very prominent and visible from a long way away. But the cross is key to victory. It's right where it belongs.
The stones on the chapel's façade are being placed by hand with great care. Some special rocks are being placed; they came from Marian shrines throughout the world and from the abbey where St. Edmund is buried. This physical building is such a representation of the Church universal. It's a traditional Romanesque design, but it's also unique. All the artwork is done by people who teach at the St. Michael Institute of Sacred Art here on the island.
This is symbolic of the real challenge we have in the world today: to build the Church out of living stones. To me, the fundamental ministry of the priest is to build the Church.
How did you come by the principal relic of St. Edmund, his arm and hand?
The relic of St. Edmund, a contemporary of St. Francis, came to this country in 1950. It was held at the chapel of St. Michael's College until about 1965, then it was moved a couple of times. I asked if we could have it for Enders and the new chapel. So St. Edmund came here last year just after we broke ground for the new chapel. Around that time we also made an exciting discovery in the basement of the main house here — a box of firstclass relics was found; it included a relic of the true cross with the papal seal of Innocent IX. This will be placed in our processional cross.
How will the chapel's art inspire people?
The stained glass, the stations, the frescoes, the icons — all will be catechetical, teaching people about the wonders and powers of God. It's the Gospel in living images. It's important for people to hear the message of hope even in their brokenness. The Holy Father is always talking about hope. He's a great role model to me. And in our chapel, the altar is smack in front of you: The heart of everything is the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.
Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.