On the front page of the June 16, 1967, edition of the Florida Catholic, there are photos of five young Irish priests newly ordained to serve the Sunshine State. It is easy for the eye to go straight to the fourth photo down. Among the solemn photos of the other priests is a mug revealing a bright-eyed, young man with a huge smile. That would be Father Heslin — a fixture of spiritual strength and humility for the Orlando Diocese for the past five decades.
Bishop Peter Birch of Ossory ordained Father Heslin for the St. Augustine Diocese (which encompassed most of the state) Jan. 11, 1967, at St. Mary’s Cathedral, Kilkenny, Ireland. The sixth of eight children, Father Heslin was born Nov. 27, 1942, in Drumcauskeen, Cloone, County Leitrim in Ireland. He attended Rossan National School there, St. Mary’s Apostolic School in Moyne, County Longford, and made his seminary studies at St. Kieran’s College, Kilkenny.
When the Diocese of Orlando was established in 1968, Father Heslin began teaching at Bishop Moore Catholic High School in Orlando and assisting at St. Margaret Mary Parish in Winter Park. During that time he also served as director of Scouting for the Central Florida Council of Boy Scouts of America. He was assigned to St. Peter Parish in DeLand and St. Paul Parish in Daytona Beach, where he served as pastor in 1974. Beginning in 1984, he served as pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Winter Haven, where he stayed for eight years until he was named rector of St. James Cathedral in Orlando in 1992. He served at the cathedral for nine years before being named pastor of Our Saviour Parish in Cocoa Beach in 1991. He retired in 2015 as pastor emeritus, and is still active in the parish.
In a November 1987 profile of Father Heslin, the author wrote, “If ever there was a truly nice guy, Father Sean Heslin is he. He’s the kind of guy boyhood buddies want to be best friends with. You know he won’t turn his back on you — no matter how much trouble you may be in — and you know any secret is safe with him. And if you ask Father Heslin, he’ll tell you nice guys really do finish first.”
In the interview Father Heslin described his vocation to the priesthood as “satisfying.”
“There is no substitute for working with people. The priesthood is about dealing with people. You’re involved in their joys and sorrows; you’re there from birth and at death. It’s very rewarding. … “You have to listen with a sympathetic ear to the needs of anybody. Listen to all people, not just parishioners,” Father Heslin said, adding that being a priest is demanding and hard work. But it is work he can handle “When I finally stand before God, I hope the Lord can say to me that I treated everybody fairly. That I was the same to you whether you were rich or poor, educated or uneducated,” he said.
When asked if he had any regrets, the priest said, “I do wish I could sing better.”
From his home in Cocoa Beach, Father Heslin recently offered his thoughts about his golden jubilee.
“I thank God for the grace to serve his people as a priest. It has been a singular privilege that has given me access to so many wonderful and dedicated people,” he wrote. “I would gladly do it all over again. May God bless you all.”
It would seem that young priest captured on the cover of the Florida Catholic in 1967 is still smiling big 50 years later.