AIKEN-Nearly every morning, Father Ernest Hepner goes for a two-mile walk in a subdivision near his home. There, residents out with their dogs greet him. They all know Father Ernie, and so do the canines. He carries a duffel bag full of treats for the dogs, and in October even held an impromptu pet blessing for the neighborhood in honor of St. Francis of Assisi.
That gentle, friendly attitude, a keen sense of humor and willingness to listen have helped Father Hepner during his 50 years of priesthood. He was ordained in Rome in 1961, and will celebrate his 50th jubilee Dec. 18 with a Mass in St. Angela Hall at St. Mary Help of Christians Church, followed by a reception.
Currently, he helps out at the Aiken church and other area parishes when needed. It’s a role he has enjoyed around the diocese ever since he retired here from his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, in 2001.
Shortly after Father Hepner arrived in South Carolina, Bishop Robert J. Baker asked him to serve as temporary administrator for the parishes in Georgetown. Since then, he’s filled in as administrator at 16 other parishes in all five deaneries, and helped out at others on weekends.
“I was looking for a way to minister to people here, and I’ve found the work meaningful and fulfilling,” Father Hepner said. “It’s important that they trust me to help out at these parishes, and I’m glad I can provide a service that’s needed. I’ve made a lot of friends all over the state. I just enjoy meeting and helping people, and they seem to respond to that.”
Father Hepner was in elementary school when he first thought about becoming a priest, but the call didn’t become serious until years later, while he was taking pre-med courses.
“I knew I just wanted to help people, and being a priest could help me do that in a more meaningful and significant way,” he said.
He is a graduate of John Carroll University, with graduate degrees in psychology from Case Western Reserve University and theology from Gregorian University in Rome. He spent 17 years teaching at a Cleveland seminary and 21 years as pastor at two city churches.
Besides his daily walks, Father Hepner nurtures his love of learning by reading, mainly nonfi ction. In the past, he also enjoyed traveling, especially to historic Native American sites around the U.S., and he visits siblings in Georgia and Ohio.
His main goal at the parishes he serves is to help people grow in their faith, share their gifts and talents and, if possible, learn the value of a smile and laughter.
“I’ve really enjoyed finding fulfillment in these ministries,” Father Hepner said. “The personal and prayerful support I get from the people is so important. I’m thankful for how easily I’ve been received wherever I’ve gone.”