There and back again: Fr. Horn’s return to Shrine marked by topsy-turvy first year

Fr. Joe Horn smiles as he gives a homily at the National Shrine of the Little Flower Basilica in Royal Oak. Fr. Horn, who returned to the Shrine as rector last February just as the COVID-19 pandemic was getting under way, is still awed by the parish community that helped shape his vocation as a young man. (Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic)

Rector was surprised when he was asked to lead one of archdiocese’s most prominent parishes, but more surprises lay in store for Fr. Joe Horn

ROYAL OAK ­— It was December 2019 when Detroit Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron called for a meeting with Fr. Joe Horn, presumably to discuss priestly vocations.

Fr. Horn had been settled into his role as director of the Office of Priestly Vocations for five years. So when Archbishop Vigneron told Fr. Horn he was going to be the next rector of the National Shrine of the Little Flower Basilica in Royal Oak, Fr. Horn thought the archbishop was kidding.

“I just laughed, but then I saw him looking at me saying, ‘I’m serious.’ I thought, I better stop laughing and take this seriously; he really wants me to be pastor of the Shrine,” Fr. Horn told Detroit Catholic. “At first I was amazed, surprised. I was just gladdened the bishop asked me to do this, felt confident in me to take this one.”

The assignment was a homecoming of sorts for Fr. Horn. The famed shrine on the corner of Woodward and 12 Mile was his first assignment as an associate pastor after he was ordained in 1997.

Fr. Horn cut his priestly chops at one of the biggest, busiest parishes in the archdiocese — a community with both a national calling to care for those with a spiritual connection to St. Therese of Lisieux as well as thousands of families, a K-12 school system and a larger-than-life community presence.

The National Shrine of the Little Flower Basilica, on Woodward Avenue and 12 Mile in Royal Oak, is one of the Archdiocese of Detroit’s oldest and largest parishes. Founded in 1926, it stands as a monument of faith in the Metro Detroit community as well as a place of pilgrimage for those with a devotion to St. Therese of Lisieux. (Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic)

Fr. Horn knew the parish from his time as an associate. But lately Shrine has earned another reputation: that of a sort of “bishop maker,” since both of the parish’s last two pastors — Auxiliary Bishop Robert Fisher and Gary, Ind., Bishop Robert McClory — went on to the episcopate. 

“When the archbishop sat me down, saying he wanted me to say yes to being assigned to the Shrine of the Little Flower, I told him that the Shrine has a reputation of making bishops, adding, ‘What’s going on here?” Fr. Horn said. “But with a smile on his face, the archbishop said, ‘Don’t worry Joe, you’re not going anywhere.’”

An obvious passion for Jesus

Worries of an episcopal promotion aside, for now, Fr. Horn arrived at Shrine with a great appreciation for the place that helped shape his own discernment journey. 

Raised at Immaculate Conception Parish in Anchorville and graduating from Marine City High School, Fr. Horn joined the Franciscans of the Province of St. John the Baptist, living at the Dons Scotus Franciscan Friary on at Nine Mile and Evergreen. It was during this time that he first became acquainted with Shrine.

“I was a young man at the time, back in the 1980s, studying for the Franciscans, when Shrine invited a lot of us to come together and form a prayer group of young adults,” Fr. Horn said. “And it was awesome. Even before that, several priests came out of that group: Fr. Steve Wertanen, Fr. Bob Spezia, (Bishop) Bob McClory and myself. It was a great gift to the Church, having that young adult prayer group.”

Fr. Joe Horn is pictured in this 2002 file photo. As a young priest, Fr. Horn served as associate pastor of Shrine from 1997-2001. (Archdiocese of Detroit file photo)
Fr. Horn raises the host and chalice at the altar of the National Shrine of the Little Flower Basilica. Those who know him say Fr. Horn’s devotion to the Eucharistic Lord is obvious. (Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic)

Judy Maten, a volunteer coordinator of women’s ministry at Shrine, where she’s been a parishioner since 1981, has served in a variety of roles, including director of religious formation. She remembers conversations with Fr. Horn during his time in the young adult group and later as associate pastor.

Even back then, Maten said Fr. Horn wore the love of Jesus on his sleeve.

“Many of us knew Fr. Horn from when he worked on our LifeTeen program as an associate pastor, and now we have people who were in that young adult group who are raising their children,” Maten said. “There was an enthusiasm built in for those who knew him, and it’s spread to those who didn’t.”

Maten recalled a particular moment during one of his final Masses at Shrine as associate pastor when the congregation could see the passion Fr. Horn had for the Mass.

“As he started into the prayers of consecration, he choked up; he couldn’t speak, he was just so moved by the Eucharist,” Maten said. “The congregation started to pray the prayers, so he could be lifted up and back in. And anyone who was there still remember that, still gets choked up thinking about it. The beauty and movement of the Holy Spirit that happened at that Mass, as we lifted him as he lifted Christ up, it was just an incredibly moving experience of faith and of God, who loves us.”

It was during his time at Shrine when Fr. Horn said he felt the spirit of St. Therese of Lisieux’s “Little Way,” move in the charismatic spirit of the parish. 

“I saw people living more intently their faith,” Fr. Horn said. “They were doing what God wanted them to do. Doing Bible studies and evangelizing in their own way before the new evangelization ever got established. It was a great way for us to be attracted to the light they were raising up, the light of Christ.”

From country life to Woodward Avenue

Fr. Horn left Shrine in 2001 for a brief 10-month stint at Holy Family Parish in Novi as an associate, before he became pastor of All Saints Parish in Memphis. The parish was in the midst of transformation, clustering with nearby St. Philip Neri in Columbus and Holy Rosary in Memphis. The parishes were then merged, and clustered with St. Augustine Parish in Richmond. Together, the parishes had about 1,200 families. 

Rural northern Macomb County couldn’t be more different than the corner of Woodward and 12 Mile, but the extra space for gardening and life as a rural pastor gave Fr. Horn a perspective on how necessary it is for a pastor to create free time for himself.

Fr. Joe Horn, left, and Fr. Steve Wertanen, current pastor of St. Anastasia Parish in Troy, load Fr. Horn’s kayaks atop Fr. Wertanen’s car as they prepare for a 100-mile kayaking trip in 2008. (Robert Delaney | Detroit Catholic file photo)

“One of the big differences (at Shrine) is that I have a lot of professional people who can help me run the parish,” Fr. Horn said. “There are a lot more volunteers here who have a skillset on things I’m unable to do. Up in Memphis, there were many good people, faithful people dedicated to their parish, but the base of volunteers was a lot thinner. It’s been a real grace that I can call upon the wisdom of people here to help me run the parish.”

Fr. Horn stayed at St. Augustine and Holy Family until 2016, when he moved to Detroit to become director of priestly vocations for the Archdiocese of Detroit, a position he held until 2020.

Returning as rector of such a large parish means Fr. Horn’s role at Shrine will not be the same as when he left. A pastor has more administrative duties and needs to keep a “big picture” mentality. But so as not to lose touch with parishioners, Fr. Horn leans on his associate pastors and a rich crop of lay leaders.

“We have all kinds of committees and solution teams that in a way help break down the parish into smaller, bite-sized pieces,” Fr. Horn said. “Most of the parishioners here are very engaged; they want to be involved, and they recruit others to be involved.”

COVID-19 and answered prayers

Coming into such a large role was one challenge, but to do so right as the world was coming to a screeching halt was another. Fr. Horn came to the parish in February, and in March, he had to shut the doors just as Michigan’s stay-at-home orders were going into effect to combat the growing pandemic. 

The basilica has a six-figure weekly operating budget, so to shut the parish down for weeks was more than terrifying, Fr. Horn said.

Fr. Horn, top left, watches as a student places a crown upon a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary in May. Devotions at Shrine shifted outdoors during the pandemic’s summer months. 
Fr. Horn holds copies of a CD to be distributed to Shrine parishioners during Advent and Christmas. (Photos courtesy of the National Shrine of the Little Flower Basilica)

“When you shut the doors on a place like that, you ask, ‘Lord, what are you doing? Are you trying to ruin my life?’” Fr. Horn said. 

Shortly afterward, one of Shrine’s previous pastors, Fr. Ed Prus, called Fr. Horn with a lifeline of sorts. Someone had recently died, and Fr. Prus needed help managing the estate. 

“I felt it’d be a small amount, a couple thousand dollars, so I said, ‘Sure, Father, I’ll help,’” Fr. Horn said. “He said, ‘I want to set up an education endowment for Shrine.’ I said, ‘That’s wonderful,’ and asked how much it was. And he said it was more than half a million dollars. 

“In the middle of a pandemic, the Lord lays this beautiful endowment on the parish to keep this place going, to have scholarships so kids can come to our schools,” Fr. Horn added. “In that moment, the Lord said to me, ‘Don’t worry about it. You’ll have all the money you need. Be faithful.’”

With the doors open once again at the National Shrine of the Little Flower Basilica, Mass has resumed, and adoration and confession are available several times per week. The parish has gotten creative with livestreamed adoration, even placing the Eucharist in a window, so it’s available for people to adore from outside.

But the pandemic has still presented its challenges, particularly to the vibrant community life that’s come to define the archdiocese’s first basilica. 

“The community hasn’t been able to function as it typically does because of the pandemic,” Maten said. “It’s been a challenge both in our church community and our schools, and I know it’s been hard on Fr. Horn to try and introduce himself to parishioners he doesn’t know. He’s such a people person, and he likes to go outdoors and walk the neighborhood. He’s invited people to do outdoor rosaries or have parish groups meet in the parking lot. He’s been very open to doing things in new ways, adapting as things continue to change.”

Focusing on the here and now

Fr. Horn knows the decisions that had to be made to limit the spread of COVID-19 have been hard on parishioners. He said it tore him apart to limit access to the Eucharist, so he and his staff have had to figure out new ways to bring Jesus to the people.

Fr. Horn gives a homily at the Royal Oak basilica. Despite the Shrine’s national reputation, Fr. Horn said his primary focus is on his parishioners — particularly their journey as missionary disciples of Jesus Christ. (Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic)

“It’s been so hard for the people not to have Jesus as they normally have, so we’ve set up the Eucharist in the window of the rectory, facing the parking lot, because our 24-hour adoration chapel is so small,” Fr. Horn said. “Over the summer, when the weather was good, we had confessions out in the parking lot. When we did outdoor benediction, I’d see five to seven cars in the parking lot, people on bikes or just walking, stopping to spend 10-15 minutes with the Lord.”

Fr. Horn said Shrine parishioners have taken COVID-19 and all of its restrictions in stride, another chapter in the storied history of a parish that’s set to celebrate its centennial in five years.

It’s hard to not get swallowed up in Shrine’s history, the grandeur of its architecture or its national reach. But Fr. Horn is a pragmatist, focusing on the here and now. He loves hearing from pilgrims from all over the country who visit the basilica, but he lives to serve his parishioners.

“I really think ‘Unleash the Gospel’ is laying a foundation for all of us to get out there and to move,” Fr. Horn said. “If I’m at all going to have a part in the history at Shrine, I think, hopefully, it will be that we brought Christ to everyone in the community, and the community grew by leaps and bounds.

“Yes, we have a national and regional commitment,” Fr. Horn added, “but we’re a parish. We’re going to invest in the growth of our parish, that we will all come to know Jesus. As a priest, as a pastor, that’s what I’m excited about.”