When Frs. Joseph Hornacek and Richard Mirsberger met at Saint Francis de Sales Seminary some 56 years ago, they likely never expected to still be ministering together a half century later. Yet, for more than six years, the two classmates have served together as co-assisting priests at St. Catherine of Alexandria, Milwaukee.
“We’ve been classmates and friends for 56 years,” Fr. Hornacek reflected.
On May 28, the two senior priests celebrated their golden jubilees of priesthood at St. Catherine with a Mass and parish ceremony. They reflected on their many years serving in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, their journey to the priesthood and their strong friendship throughout the journey.
Fr. Hornacek and Fr. Mirsberger came from opposite sides of southeastern Wisconsin. Fr. Hornacek grew up in Kenosha; his home parish was St. Anthony. Fr. Mirsberger attended Holy Name, Sheboygan. Both knew at a relatively young age their calling to be a priest, even in the games they played as children.
Fr. Mirsberger and Fr. Hornacek would play priest with support and assistance from their parents.
“My father and I made different articles for a Mass kit,” Fr. Mirsberger reflected.
Fr. Hornacek and his father constructed a pretend tabernacle complete with door hinges, made from an orange crate. Fr. Hornacek’s sister would play the altar server or sometimes the bride, and for communion, Fr. Hornacek “distributed” Ritz crackers or goldfish food.
While other children their ages wanted to be firefighters or policemen, Fr. Mirsberger and Fr. Hornacek always wanted to be priests.
“My sole motivation was to thank God for all that I had already received,” Fr. Hornacek said of his calling to the priesthood. “A wonderful family, a Catholic education, Notre Dame nuns in grade school, good health, lots of friends. I thought, very simply, maybe this is one way of giving back to God.”
Different paths, however, led them to Saint Francis de Sales Seminary for their last six years of education before ordination. Fr. Mirsberger went to the Salvatorian minor seminary in St. Nazianz for six years before going St. Francis de Sales Seminary.
Fr. Hornacek, on the other hand, never graduated from grade school. He went straight to Saint Francis Minor Seminary. He described it as a time that went by surprisingly quick, Fr. Hornacek enjoyed the company of a “band of brothers,” something he never experienced growing up with only one sister.
Fondly recall seminary stories
Both priests talked fondly of their time in the seminary, sharing stories about the other seminarians, their rigorous education and even their ability to break the rules.
The seminary would put on all-male productions of Shakespeare’s plays performed for the whole seminary community and the nearby Franciscan sisters. Fr. Hornacek, an avid patron of the arts, recalled his last performance at the seminary.
“In my last production, when I was Gonzalo in ‘The Tempest’, I snuck my mother and grandmother into the back row and said if you need to wear a veil, do so,” Fr. Hornacek said.
Late at night, the seminarians would order pizza and tell the delivery boys to go in the back entrance with their headlights off. The seminarians would sneak the pizza in without the knowledge of their professors.
Fr. Hornacek and Fr. Mirsberger were studying to be priests during a time of change for the Catholic Church. In their last few years of seminary, they saw the church transform under the influence of Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council. It was then that Fr. William Schuett became the rector of Saint Francis de Sales Seminary.
“He opened up the windows of the seminary, much like Pope John XXIII opened up the windows of the church, allowing the Spirit to come,” Fr. Hornacek said.
Frs. Mirsberger and Hornacek, along with 21 classmates, were ordained by Archbishop William E. Cousins at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, Milwaukee, May 28, 1966. It was a beautiful, sunny day, they recalled.
Describing butterflies in his stomach that morning, Fr. Mirsberger said several of his classmates felt the same way, and went for a walk down Kinnickinnic Avenue to calm their nerves. Despite living so close to the busy street for so many years, it was the first time Fr. Mirsberger had walked down KK.
Fr. Hornacek had a different experience. In most of their years at the seminary, the students were not allowed to own a car. In his final year, however, that rule changed, and Fr. Hornacek brought his car — an Oldsmobile F85. When he was going to fill up his tank before the Mass that morning, Fr. Hornacek got stuck on the curb and couldn’t get out.
“I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is a sign. God does not want me to be ordained,’” Fr. Hornacek said. He was able to get out though and made it to the Mass on time.
For both priests, their ordination was a beautiful ceremony they remember to this day.
“It was a marvelous experience of God’s grace,” Fr. Hornacek said.
Fr. Mirsberger served at St. Joseph, Fond du Lac; St. Margaret Mary, Milwaukee; St. Joseph, Wauwatosa and St. Rita, West Allis.
“I was always looked at as a simple priest,” Fr. Mirsberger said. “But I enjoyed what I did. I loved parish ministry.”
“He’s never been a simple priest,” Fr. Hornacek rebutted. “He’s been one of the finest pastors that’s ever served our diocese.”
Fr. Mirsberger’s greatest gift is his ability to serve, minister and be with people, according to his classmate.
“I loved visiting hospitals and nursing homes. I like being with people,” Fr. Mirsberger said. “If it’s a party, I’d like to be there. If it’s somebody dying, I’d want to be there.”
Fr. Hornacek, although he said he originally wanted to be a parish priest, served in many roles. When he was offered his first non-pastoral role in the archdiocese, Fr. Hornacek called it his cross because of his deep love for parish ministry.
“Joe has a lot of expertise,” Fr. Mirsberger said. “The reason he was in these positions is because he’s a leader.”
Fr. Hornacek went from being an associate pastor in West Bend to the director of field education and then vice rector at Saint Francis de Sales Seminary.
Following his time teaching at the seminary, he became executive secretary of the archdiocesan Priests Personnel Board. He was then pastor at two parishes before he accepted the role of vicar for clergy and vicar general for the archdiocese — a role known among priests as being extraordinarily difficult. Fr. Hornacek’s final assignment before St. Catherine was at St. Anthony on the Lake, Pewaukee, where he served six years as pastor.
After 42 years of different assignments throughout the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, the two priests were reunited at St. Catherine of Alexandria. Fr. Mirsberger had been at the parish for two years when his classmate arrived.
The two have been co-assigned to the parish for six years, nothing short of a blessing, according to Fr. Hornacek.
In this role, Fr. Hornacek joked, he gets to be a priest without the stress.
“I’m finally doing what I was trained to do,” he said. “Just celebrating the Eucharist, which is the core of my spiritual life and celebrating the sacraments with God’s people.”
St. Catherine’s parish director Debbie Hintz, who works daily with the two priests, is grateful for their joint assignment at the church.
“They work well for each other,” she said. “They’ve been involved in the parish community. They’re very much present, and they’re very much happy they have a parish to be rooted in.”
In their 50 years of priesthood, Fr. Mirsberger and Fr. Hornacek have remained close friends. They have been subscribers to the Milwaukee Repertory Theater for 42 years, attending six to seven productions a year together. Fr. Hornacek entertains Fr. Mirsberger and other priest friends with his poor golfing skills. The two have even vacationed together.
“He’s just a great friend,” Fr. Hornacek said.
Fr. Mirsberger and Fr. Hornacek, through their many roles in the archdiocese, have interacted with a wide range of people from southeastern Wisconsin. While their love of God and love of other is inherent in their personalities and their preaching, there are unique facets of their lives about which people may not know.
Fr. Hornacek has an adoptive family from Peru. During his time at St. Anthony on the Lake, the parish adopted a sister parish in Piura, Peru.
Parishioners from St. Anthony were asked to adopt a family through monetary donations, prayers and general support. Fr. Hornacek’s adoptive family was so appreciative of his love and aid they named their fourth son after him. Since 2004, Fr. Hornacek has been to Peru five times.
Fr. Mirsberger is an avid traveler. In a span of 21 years, he has hosted 21 trips around the world. While pastor at St. Joseph, the parish created St. Joe’s Travel Club as a way to organize these trips. When Fr. Mirsberger became pastor at St. Rita, they simply called it Fr. Dick’s Travel Club.
Fr. Hornacek is a roller coaster enthusiast.
“My best day was a cloudy day at Six Flags Great America where I was on 42 rides in one day,” he said.
Fr. Mirsberger is a gifted card player and loves to golf. He has a big family, who he enjoys spending time with, and he has even married 12 nephews and nieces.
Of their combined 100 years of priesthood, Fr. Hornacek said, “I always think that we lived at the best time of priesthood.”
While they were willing to share stories of their childhood, the seminary and priesthood, they were more compelled to emphasize the great need and blessing for the vocation of the priesthood, as well as the ministry of the lay people.
“Pope Francis gives me hope that the laity will continue to be invited to share their priestly role through baptism,” Fr. Hornacek said.
The two ask for continued prayers for priests as well as those considering the vocation. The priests also ask for the need to accept these vocations. They both had supportive families, but they said it becomes difficult if a young man’s parents aren’t willing to accept his vocation.
“I really thank God for the vocation and the people that nurtured me,” Fr. Hornacek said.
When asked about his favorite assignment, he always says, “I don’t have a favorite assignment because every one is a gift and a blessing.”