For The Dialog
Former St. John the Apostle altar server visits his home parish after being ordained for Los Angeles
MILFORD – Ethan Southard began a great adventure to Hollywood in 2003 when he decided to take some time off from school after two years as a civil engineering major at the University of Delaware.
He had performed in musicals at Milford High School and acted in several community stage productions at Milford’s Riverfront Theatre before moving to California, so he took acting lessons there and worked in restaurants while living with a cousin.
“It was more just an adventure” rather than dreams of becoming a movie star, he recalled.
Slowly, he realized that “God had an adventure of his own for me,” one that led to his June 4 ordination as a priest for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
On Father’s Day, Father Southard was on the altar of St. John the Apostle Church, where he had been an altar server while growing up, to celebrate Mass at his home parish for the first time.
“It was very moving and a bit surreal, sitting in the presider’s chair in the church where I had received my first holy Communion and I was confirmed,” Father Southard said afterward. “Many memories came flooding back.”
With him on the altar was Deacon Jim Malloy, who also was there when the future priest was still an altar server. In the congregation were his parents, Alan and Jacqueline; he had been a Eucharistic minister and she had helped with a children’s Bible study during the Sunday Mass readings.
He could see Anita Layfield and Debbie Burris, the mothers of his two best friends, Tim Layfield and Todd Hammond, respectively. Hammond had attended Father Southard’s ordination, but Tim Layfield died not long after high school. Father Southard said that when Anita Layfield greeted him “with tears in her eyes [she] said, ‘He was with us today.’”
There was Tricia Rescigno Pastor, his classmate in elementary and high school who also was an altar server and performed in musicals at Milford High, and whom he took to the senior prom — “as friends,” she noted.
Those were just a few of the many at the Mass who remembered the priest as a young boy growing into manhood in their midst.
Few if any, including his parents, had predicted that he would become a priest, though looking back signs were there.
“We were surprised,” Jacqueline Southard said. “After a while, it all made sense. He always had a spirit of wanting to help people.”
Alan Southard sported a button that proclaimed “It’s all about God’s love,” part of Father Southard’s gentle reprimand about making a big deal out of his ordination. “It’s not about me; it’s about God’s love,” he would say. Some friends printed the buttons and, along with his family, performed acts of mercy as gifts for Father Southard’s 37th birthday last month.
“I think he’s going to be a priest of love,” Alan Southard said of his oldest son.
Father Southard also was surprised. Once a priest at St. John asked if he ever thought about becoming a priest. “I said no. I thought it was too weird and different. I wanted to get married and have a family. But in the back of my mind it stuck with me.”
Living in the Los Angeles area he realized something was missing from his life, started spending more time at church, and began helping at a soup kitchen.
On a chilly December night at the soup kitchen he saw a shivering man wearing a T-shirt. The future priest took off the sweatshirt he was wearing and gave it to the man. “His eyes welled up with tears and he said he was so moved that a stranger would offer him the shirt off of his back.”
It was then that, while “I wasn’t ready to become a priest, or even enter the seminary, I felt God had a special plan for me.”
When he decided to become a seminarian, his family’s reactions were mixed. “My grandfather was very excited,” he said. “My parents were more neutral but a little bit on the questioning side. My two brothers were a little more challenging, questioning if that was what I really wanted to do.”
All came to accept his vocation and attended his ordination.
After visiting in Milford, Father Southard returned some 2,750 miles from St. John the Apostle to Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Santa Clarita, Calif., his first priestly assignment.
Sometimes he wondered why God waited until he was so far from home to help him realize his vocation, and had once questioned in prayer why he could not be a priest for his home diocese.
“It felt like the response I received was, ‘If you want that, go ahead and do it. But if you do, the mission God has planned for you here [in the Los Angeles Archdiocese] won’t be fulfilled,’” Father Southard recalled.
“That scared me. I had tried my own way for about 10 years and I wasn’t too successful or too happy. I just wanted to follow what God’s will is.”