Hilton Head Island priests with 97 years combined experience leaving posts

charley@beaufortgazette.comJune 9, 2012 

Father Edward Bell, left, and The Rev. Monsignor Donald Horak have a combined 97 years serving the Catholic community. The two, currently serving at Hilton Head's Holy Family Catholic Church, were photographed at their home June 7.

JAY KARR/LOWCOUNTRY LIFE

The Rev. Monsignor Donald Horak and Father Edward Bell have a confession to make: They will never retire. Not really.

Both celebrated their ordination anniversaries on May 23: Horak's 49 years ago; Bell's 48 years ago.

While they technically are retired for medical reasons and have worked a combined 97 years, they continue to serve at Holy Family Catholic Church, Hilton Head Island. They also fill in at other area Catholic churches, performing Masses and weddings.

"It's great," Bell said. "Because that's what we're free to do."

In the fall, the priests will leave their Lowcountry posts. They plan to return to their hometowns where they will continue to serve because of a shortage of clergy in those areas.

"A priest never retires," Bell jokes.

In fact, jokes about priests and their lack of retirement are common.

"We've heard them all," Bell said. "I've heard every priest, minister and rabbi joke there is to be told."

Horak and Bell, both 74, became friends when they met in the early 1970s while teaching at St. Joseph's Preparatory Seminary in Vienna, W.Va.

In 1979, a physician whose son was in the seminary offered Horak and Bell a place to stay on Hilton Head for a week after Easter. That's when the priests first fell in love with the area. They continued to visit for almost 20 years, purchasing a lot together in Sea Pines in 1984 and later building the house in which they now live. For the past eight years, they've helped out at Holy Family. Just this past Easter, they helped perform 11 Masses in three locations, serving more than 10,000 people.

For the past eight years, Bell has performed Christmas Eve Mass on Daufuskie Island.

Their paths as priests have not always taken them where they expected to go.

"The journey was far different than I ever imagined it would be; it was the action of the spirit," Bell said.

While studying theology in the seminary, Bell had hoped to do parish work, but he was asked to pursue his master's in education at Loyola University. He was assigned to a parish, but worked as a high school guidance counselor. His services were later needed as a principal, so he returned to school to obtain his certification in administration.

"I thought I had come to do parish work, but they sent me to school and assigned me as principal," Bell said.

Horak's journey also threw him a few curves. With his father having served in the U.S. Marine Corps, Horak had always wanted to be a military chaplain. But he was assigned to teach Latin, math, religion and social studies, which he discovered he really enjoyed.

"I'd prepare for one thing and get something totally different," Horak said of his service. "In one sense I got everything I didn't want, but everything I needed."

Both have spent much of the past few years providing extra help in other area parishes such as St. Gregory the Great in Bluffton, St. Peter Catholic Church in Beaufort, St. Francis By the Sea on Hilton Head Island, St. Mary's Catholic Church in Hampton and other parishes north of Charleston and as far away as Columbia.

At Holy Family, Bell fills in during the summer when extra Masses are offered for vacationers. He also gives Monday Mass to allow the pastor to have a day off.

"There are five Masses on weekends, and it taxes the pastor," Bell explained.

And for the past eight years, Horak has been living his dream by serving Parris Island recruits every Sunday.

But staying in tune with church members at Holy Family has been a passion for both of them.

"It is marvelous when you can connect with those people," Bell said. "Connecting (God's) word to the people is the challenge."

This fall, Bell will head back to his home in Parkersburg, Va., and Horak will move to Athens, Ohio, where he has five sisters and a number of nieces and nephews. The two will continue to do what they've done in retirement -- that is, help where they can.

"There is a great need of priests to fill in for when a pastor takes vacation or is away for an illness," Bell said. "Some pastors are taking care of two to three parishes."

But the Lowcountry will remain very special to them.

"We have gotten very, very close to a lot of people, but choices have to be made and we will miss the people here," Bell said.

While they have sold their house, they surely plan to return to the area for vacations.

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