Former teacher loves his second career calling
By Laurie Hallstrom
The newest retired priest, in the Diocese of Rapid City, was truly “Called by Name” to be ordained.
Father Edward “Ed” Vanorny was born May 6, 1945, near the close of World War II. One of nine children of Eugene and Berniece Vanorny, he grew up in Hand County and went to church at St. Liborius Church in Polo, where he attended his parish school.
In 1960, “As a freshman, I suggested to my parents I should study to be a priest. My parents called the parish priest who happened to be an Oblate of Mary Immaculate and he got me lined up with his religious order to study at Our Lady of the Ozarks, Carthage, Mo.,” said Father Vanorny. He studied there for six years — completing high school, two years of college and one year in the novitiate. In 1966 he discerned this was not his vocation.
“I decided a career in special education as a teacher was what I really wanted to do,” he said. He attended Northern State University, Aberdeen. He taught special education at the junior and senior high school levels from 1973 until 1979.
“During my years at Northern I fell in love and we got married in 1970 at the Newman Center,” he said.
With his former wife, Lynda James, he had two daughters, Debra and Holly. At that time, the Vanornys were teaching in Belcourt, N.D., on the Chippewa Turtle Mountain Reservation. They moved back to South Dakota in 1977 and divorced in 1979. “I had a desire to work with adults who have intellectual disabilities rather than children. I located an opening in the South Central Adjustment Training Center in Winner,” said Father Vanorny. The facility does both job and independent living trainings.
In August 1979, he moved to Winner. He said, “I worked there for 13 years and I loved my work.”
The priest in Winner, at that time, was the late Father Joe Zeller. “I decided to go over to the Immaculate Conception Parish office and get registered and meet the priest if he was available. In our conversation he found out I was a guitar player. I had been playing guitar for Masses most of my years since college. I was big into the folk Masses and Father Zeller thought that was wonderful. He signed me up to lead the music at the next Saturday evening Mass.
“After Mass I was putting my music away and down one of the side aisles came Randy Donovan. His family and my family had grown up together around Polo and Orient. He knew who I was, but I would not have recognized him. Randy said, ‘Ed, I want to do that.’ So, I taught him how to play guitar and for the next 13 years we were pretty prominent in the liturgy and music program at the church. He is still one of my best friends,” said Father Vanorny, who was also active in parish religious education and faith formation.
Frequently people suggested he become a priest. In 1987, during Mass, parishioners across the diocese were asked to write down the name(s) of people in their midst who might have a calling to the priesthood, diaconate or religious life.
“The afternoon after Mass, (then-pastor) Father Arnold Kari called me and said, ‘Ed, I want you to come over to the office, I have something I want to show you. …’ More than 90 percent of the people in Winner wrote down my name.”
Then-Bishop Charles Chaput and Father Kari, who was the vocations director at that time, invited people to Sturgis for an afternoon to listen to vocation talks for the “Called by Name” program.
Since he had already been through the discernment process once, he was anxious and apprehensive. “On the way back to Winner the thought in my mind was so powerful and insistent — I am being called and I need to say ‘yes.’ I remember very clearly having a conversation with God and about being called. I told God, ‘if you are really calling me I will probably say ‘yes,’ but don’t come to me three years down the road and say, ‘no, I think I’m not calling you.’ You are pulling me away from what I think is my vocation in life — special education. This better be for sure and it better work out right.”
After consulting with two priests he began the annulment process. “My annulment was deeply healing, partly because I did not realize there were so many hurts and angers just under the surface in my life that needed to be brought forward and given to God’s grace. That experience was a wonderful gift to me in my priesthood, working with people who are in hurting marriages, in divorces or going through annulments.”
He was sent to Immaculate Heart of Mary Seminary, Winona, Minn., for two years to get his degree in philosophy. Next, he attended what is now called St. John XXIII National Seminary, Weston, Mass.
“At my seminary in Massachusetts, the students did the music for the liturgies. My third year, there was nobody in the classes who played the keyboard or the organ. I was the primary musician for all of our Masses and I played guitar. The rector of the seminary at that time was a true Bostonian — very high church. He wrote a letter to all the bishops for the guys who were moving into their fourth year. Bishop Chaput shared the evaluation with me. The rector said, ‘We really appreciate Ed’s contribution to the music for our sacred liturgies, but we could have done without the country western cowboy flavor he brought to his music.’ It was really folk music.
“The next year when I was helping with the music I would turn up the country western cowboy flavor even more just to tease him.”
Bishop Chaput was called away to become Archbishop of Denver. Since the diocese was between bishops, Bishop Robert Carlson (then of Sioux Falls) ordained him a deacon in 1997 at Winner. Then-Archbishop Harry Flynn of St. Paul/Minneapolis, Minn., ordained him to the priesthood in 1998 at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Rapid City.
Early in his ministry, he was serving six parishes in the northwest corner of the diocese. “I remember, very distinctly, one of the conversations I had with one of my classmates from the East Coast, I was telling him every weekend I put at least 250 miles on my car. I said, ‘one of the things that is unique about my assignment is I have a parishioner who has cancer and is pretty close to dying, but she lives 120 miles away in Ekalaka, Mont. I make the trip each week to go visit her and to minister to her and her family.’
“My East Coast classmates could not fathom a priest having to travel 120 miles to minister. They probably just walked across the street in Boston to their parishioners.”
While he was serving in Gregory County, in 2009, he had a brain aneurysm while at the Mitchell hospital for a routine health test. He was airlifted to Sioux Falls, then to Mayo Clinic in Rochester Minn. One of his daughters was able to get to Sioux Falls and she rode with him in the air ambulance to Mayo Clinic.
“It was all rather miraculous, when I look back at it now,” he said.
Among the chain of events, when they air lifted him up to Mayo Clinic, doctors knew there was no one open to work with him until the next day and they were not certain if they could keep him alive that long. Something was canceled and a surgeon sealed the aneurysm and stopped the leaking. From there his convalescence took several more weeks. A doctor recommended Father Vanorny live in Rapid City where he could be close to medical help. Then-Bishop Blase Cupich assigned him to the cathedral. After three years, he was told he completely recovered from the aneurysm.
Today, even though he is retired, Bishop Robert Gruss has approved Father Vanorny’s request to continue to serve in hospital ministry. He coordinates the health care assignment with parish nurse, Judy Hasenohrl. He also celebrates Mass at assisted living centers and nursing homes, and visits the homebound. He continues to reside at the cathedral and celebrate Mass there and at St. Michael Church, Hermosa.
“I have found the hospital chaplain ministry to be so fulfilling in ways that I can’t even put into words. I look forward to every day — being able to visit Catholic patients in the hospital — to minister to their needs as they are sick and dying and as they are moving into surgery. God’s put me in a good place, he really has, and I’m happy to be here,” he said.