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(Editor’s note: In conjunction with the Year for Priests, The Criterion is beginning a new monthly feature titled “Faithful Fathers.” We plan to profile a priest from each deanery during the next 11 months.)
NAPOLEON and OSGOOD—Father Robert Hankee is pastor of St. Maurice Parish in Napoleon and sacramental minister of Immaculate Conception Parish in Millhousen and St. Denis Parish in Jennings County, all in the Batesville Deanery. He was ordained in 2002 and is 37. Born and raised in Indianapolis as a member of St. Pius X Parish, he has enjoyed ministering in rural parishes for the past five years.
Early hints of a vocation—“Shortly after I got to St. Pius X School [in the fourth grade], I started serving [as an altar boy]. I always was the one who would listen to the homilies and would critique [them], even as a young kid. Not that I knew what I was talking about anyway. I was just always fascinated by what [the priests] were doing up there. And when I got to serve, I got even more fascinated by it.”
Becoming a seminarian—After graduating from Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., in 1994, Father Hankee worked at the Catholic Youth Organizations Camp Rancho Framasa in Brown County for three years.
During that time, he kept in contact with Father Michael O’Mara, whom he had known as a teenager at St. Pius X Parish and who then was ministering at St. Paul Catholic Center in Bloomington.
Father Hankee would periodically talk to him about the priesthood and his own discernment of a possible vocation.
“He was asking me about it. And I said, ‘Well, I think I’m going to think about it and pray about it.’
“He just looked at me and said, ‘You’ve been thinking. You’ve been praying. So what are you going to do about it?’
“That was kind of the kick in the pants that I needed.”
Father Hankee became an archdiocesan seminarian within a few months, and began his priestly formation at Saint Meinrad School of Theology in St. Meinrad in January 1998.
When he knew he was going to be a priest—It happened after his third year in the seminary after a couple of opportunities to minister in hospitals.
“My biggest fear was, ‘What do you say to someone in a hospital room? What do you say at funerals?’ I didn’t feel like I knew enough about what to say or what to do.
“The one thing that I learned … was that the ministry of presence was more important. A lot of the people won’t even remember what you said. They’re just glad that you showed up.”
Why he likes ministering in rural parishes—“It’s a slower pace to life. You get on the road and you don’t have someone right on your tail pushing you in traffic. And if you get behind a tractor, you don’t really care. It’s just a way of life.
“These parishes are [also] so old that there’s a deep history here. There’s a legacy that’s being left behind. These buildings were built by the parishioners. You just get a sense of the Catholic identity. It gives you … a direction of where to go. The legacy has been handed to me. What am I going to do to hand it on next?”
Maurice, the parish dog—In his first year as pastor of St. Maurice Parish, a couple who are parishioners convinced him to take in a stray dog, whom he named after the parish’s patron saint.
When Father Hankee has been away on vacations, parishioners have decorated Maurice’s dog house, adding a steeple, fake stained-glass windows and even a satellite dish.
“To me, it’s important to be able to laugh. … They wouldn’t go to all of that trouble if they didn’t somehow appreciate me.”
Once, Maurice got loose during a Sunday Mass and was severely injured when he was hit by a car. A parishioner saw him lying by the side of the road and took him to a veterinarian. Father Hankee went to his office on Monday to check on Maurice.
“The veterinarian comes up to me and says, ‘Do you realize how popular your dog is? We’ve had phone calls. We even had someone stop by and bring a balloon.’ And when he made house calls [at] farms, farmers were asking about how the dog was doing. I had to stand up at Mass that following Sunday to give a report about him.”
When he most feels like a priest—“I still get nervous when I preach. I still get butterflies.
“But when I’m at the altar presiding at the Liturgy of the Eucharist, that’s the most comfortable that I’ve ever felt in my entire life.”
Why he likes being a priest—“When you think about it, I’m invited into situations whether people know me or not. They’re very personal [situations]—baptisms, weddings, funerals. They’re very important moments in people’s lives. To be a part of that and to see that has been a blessing.
“The biggest thing is that I’ve learned a lot [from parishioners] about how to love and how to receive love by being a priest. And you know that at the center of all of that is Christ himself. So that’s been a great, great blessing.” †