One of the East Valley’s most prominent priests who was born on an historic day is set to celebrate a landmark event himself.
The Rev. Stephen John Adrian, who has served as associate pastor at St. Anne’s Church in Gilbert since 1984, will turn 100 on Saturday.
The day the Titanic hit an iceburg in the northern Atlantic — April 14, 1912 — Adrian was the first of seven children born in St. Paul, Minn. Only he and his sister, Sister Lois, a retired nun who is 96, survive today.
“The mid-wife always told me I was born on the day that big ship sank,” said Adrian, who was ordained as a priest in June, 1939 and still co-celebrates Sunday Mass, gives children’s Mass and hears confessions once a week at St. Anne’s. “In those days, we still rode on horses.”
And generations of people who have loved Adrian and think highly of him, will have a chance to wish him a happy birthday beginning with a 5 p.m. Mass on Saturday at St. Anne’s, 440 E. Elliot Road, Gilbert. A reception will follow in the St. Anne’s Community Center hosted by the church and the St. Anne’s Parish Knights of Columbus Council 10540, which Adrian founded in 1990.
In a statement issued by the Diocese of Phoenix, Bishop Thomas Olmsted said, “As Father Adrian turns 100, I am happy to have this occasion to celebrate his life and the nearly 73 years he has given to the church as a priest. I give thanks to God for Father Adrian’s vocation, for being a faithful witness to the gospel, and for serving with such a cheerful and generous heart.”
Adrian is blind in one eye, requires oxygen and is assisted in his Sun Lakes neighborhood home — it says “Padre” above his mailbox — by fellow parishoners; he won’t let any of that deter him from delivering a clear message during the reception.
“I’ve always loved preaching,” Adrian said.
Sitting at his kitchen table under a picture of the Angelus of two peasant workers praying in the field as the church bells toll, Adrian said, “I’ve always liked to preach about what the good Lord said: ‘love one another as I have loved you.’ When you love one another, you’ll have a happy home and community.”
Retired, Adrian arrived in Arizona in December, 1984 and began serving at St. Anne’s when it had 300 families. The church peaked at about 8,000 families in 2000 and after the growth of other parishes in the East Valley, including St. Mary Magdalene in Gilbert. St. Anne’s now serves about 4,000 families, Adrian said.
“I told the Lord, put my feet on the ground and I will work for you,” Adrian added. “There’s no such thing as retirement.”
Entering the priesthood and telling homilies almost wasn’t the career Adrian chose as a young teenager, but divine intervention played a role in putting him on the path.
Adrian could be considered one of the earliest school resource officers when he became chief of the school police at Cathedral School as an eighth grader to help ensure the safety of other students walking to school during the 1920s.
“I was always going to be a cop, and I always wanted to work with people,” he said.
It was a priest at his church who could preach well, sing and play ball who inspired Adrian to enter the priesthood.
Adrian learned he had a gift after he delivered the dedication speech of an armory in Duluth, Minn. and through talks he gave to various clubs about the need for safety of children when he was a student.
After a story about the dedication of the armory ran in the newspaper with the headline, “Young Herculean Orator dedicates New Armory,” Adrian moved toward the direction of the priesthood, entered the seminary and formed a solid foundation of bringing God down from Heaven, the eucharist and confession in his messages. He also preaches on the importance of the Blessed Virgin Mary to the youth, resulting in Father Adrian’s Hail Mary Club a number of years ago.
“I always believed that the children are the future of the church, and my idea was to prepare the children for the future,” Adrian said. The future of the church is in their hands.”
After he was ordained in June, 1939 in Minnesota, his first assignment was to teach those preparing to enter the priesthood. He later served as a chaplain during World War II.
After the war, he served at three parishes in Minnesota and one in Wisconsin. After suffering a stroke in 1968, he briefly took medical leave, but didn’t let the setback stop him from continuing his mission.
Rudy Giatan, deputy grand Knight of the Knights of Columbus Council 10540, who has attended St. Anne’s most of his life, said he has known Adrian since he arrived in 1984.
“He sets an example,” Giatan said. “He’s a hardworking priest. The way he has gone about his job, that’s something you can respect. You can’t help but admire him. He exudes faith and the life of a priest. When I went to Minnesota, I visited the parishes where he had served. He hadn’t been there in 30, 40 years and they still remembered him.”
When asked what he thought about living 100 years and seeing everything that he has — seeing the transformation of transporation from horses to automobiles, airplanes in their infancy, men landing on the moon and the digital age — Adrian said he doesn’t know why he has lived as long as he has.
“I keep wondering why the good Lord has kept me alive this long,” he said. “There must be a reason.”
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