When the Rev. Bart Stevens is ordained a Catholic priest in Billings on Thursday, he will share the moment with friends and family — including his wife and five children.
Stevens, 35, joins a small fraternity of married Roman Catholic priests. Since 1980, slightly more than 100 former Episcopal priests in the United States have been ordained priests in the Catholic Church.
He is the first in the Great Falls-Billings Diocese. And his presence has sparked talk around town, as his wife, Becky, found out not long ago at a local grocery store.
"She's in the checkout line and these people are talking about me," Stevens said, sitting in his office in a house next to Holy Rosary Church. "One says 'Did you hear about the married priest in the Catholic church?' "
The other person corrected the first one, suggesting it must be an Episcopal priest. The two went back and forth until Becky Stevens broke into their conversation.
"Becky's like, 'I think you're talking about my husband,' " Stevens said, smiling. "It takes people a while to wrap their head around it."
He will be ordained at St. Patrick's Co-Cathedral by Bishop Michael Warfel. Priests from throughout the diocese are expected to attend the ceremony.
So will Becky and their children, three girls and two boys ranging in age from 9 years to 4 months.
For Stevens, who will serve three parishes in Billings, his ordination is the completion of a journey that has brought him to the faith he was meant to embrace.
It has also brought the Billings native home. Stevens grew up in Billings and graduated from Senior High in 1993.
In his teen years, he was part of a Pentecostal youth group. It was then that he felt a strong sense that God was calling him to full-time ministry.
"At the time the only thing I could think of was youth pastor," Stevens said. "So when I went to college, that's what I was thinking."
He graduated in 1997 with a bachelor's degree in Bible and theology from Wheaton College in the Chicago suburbs, and earned a master's degree there a year later in missions and evangelism.
By then married to Becky, whom he met when the two were camp counselors at a Bible camp south of Bozeman, Stevens enrolled at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Mass.
"It was very much like Wheaton, very respected academically, conservative, Protestant evangelical and very reformed in theology," he said.
While in seminary, Stevens took the next step in his faith journey. He and his wife stumbled on an Episcopal church near the school that embraced a lot that the couple liked.
By the time Stevens graduated in 2003, he decided to become an Episcopal priest and was ordained in 2006. He was teaching, working with youth and learning about the liturgy and growing in his understanding and appreciation of it. It was an exciting, energizing time, Stevens said.
"I felt like that's what I was born to do," Stevens said. "I felt like I was doing what I was supposed to do, and I loved it."
Interestingly, his journey into the Episcopal faith also exposed him to Catholicism, because there are so many similarities between the two. The more he read of the early church and its teachings, the more he felt drawn to the certainties of that faith tradition.
As he read the Catholic catechism, it struck a chord.
"I'm in tears reading it because it's beautiful, and, lo and behold, I find Jesus everywhere," he said. "On every single page of that catechism, he's front and center. And that's what I was taught as an evangelical. That's what it's all about."
Eighteen months after being ordained an Episcopal priest, Stevens decided to leave it behind. It wasn't so much about abandoning one denomination, he said. It was more of finding a fullness of faith in the Catholic Church that he had been seeking all of his life.
Stevens contacted the Great Falls-Billings Diocese of the Catholic Church to discuss the possibility of his becoming a Catholic priest. Warfel, after meeting with Stevens, agreed to sponsor him.
"And I went through this long process of application and scrutiny," Stevens said. "It took two years."
What made it possible for Stevens to be considered for priesthood is the Pastoral Provision. Approved in 1980, the provision allows former Episcopal priests who have been accepted as candidates for priestly ordination to receive theological, spiritual and pastoral preparation for ministry in the Catholic Church.
During that time, Stevens worked for the diocese as a youth minister at St. Leo's in Lewistown. He went through the process knowing there were no guarantees.
"There had been, I'm told, guys who had gone through that same process and then at the very end were told that the answer came back no," he said.
Final approval has to come from the top. Stevens was elated when learned of his acceptance from Warfel, who called with the good news.
"We had just moved here to Billings this summer when I got the call from Bishop Warfel and he read the letter from Cardinal Levada, who is prefect at the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith, saying I had been granted permission from the Holy Father to be ordained," he said.
Stevens is one of about five Episcopal priests who have received their certification and are awaiting ordination, said Msgr. Daniel S. Hamilton of New York, editor of "The Link," the bimonthly newsletter of the Pastoral Provision.
The number of Episcopal priests coming into the Catholic Church has remained steady over time, Hamilton said.
Warfel is glad to add Stevens, with the declining number of priests in the diocese, he said.
"He's young, so we will have a lot of years of service from him," Warfel said. "He's very energetic, very likable, a very solid person."
Stevens was ordained a deacon in August. He works with the Rev. Paul Reichling at a trio of parishes, Little Flower, Our Lady of Guadalupe and Holy Rosary.
He lives at the rectory at Little Flower, a beautiful old house that's just perfect for a family of seven. When he preaches, he finds himself often using family illustrations in his homilies.
"Because God is our father and we are his children, there's a lot of material there for helping us understand who we are as God's children," Stevens said.
Asked if he thinks he has an edge when it comes to doing marriage counseling, he said he might. But he thinks other priests have a wealth of wisdom to share.
"I don't think celibacy bars you from giving good advice about how to love somebody else, how to deal with the hardships and difficulties of marriage," he said.
And while having a wife and kids is very fulfilling, it can also make life in the ministry a juggling act.
"I have moments of envy for celibate priests who have the time and the availability to go," Stevens said. "They don't have to turn down an opportunity to do some kind of ministry because they have to take a son to a Scout meeting."
Stevens is excited to begin his new life as a Catholic priest. He is especially looking forward to sharing with his parishioners the joy he has found in his new faith.
"I just love the Catholic Church, and my hope, my earnest desire as a Catholic priest is to help Catholics rediscover the richness, the beauty of their church and their tradition," he said.