Father Ernest “Ernie” Leo Hardesty, a pastor known for his dedication to serving students in Catholic campus ministry for almost 30 years, died from pancreatic cancer July 10. He was 73.
He was born Oct. 21, 1948, to the late Alma Etienne and Kenneth Leo Hardesty in Blytheville. He was ordained a priest May 17, 1975, by Bishop Andrew J. McDonald. According to his diocesan obituary, Father Hardesty “always expressed his pride at having never missed celebrating the Holy Mass during his 47 years as a priest.”
His early assignments included assistant chaplain at St. Vincent Infirmary in Little Rock, associate pastor at Christ the King in Little Rock and St. Joseph Church in Pine Bluff, as well as chaplain at the Cummins and Tucker prison units. In the 1980s and early 90s, he went on to serve as pastor at St. Agnes in Mena, St. Jude Thaddeus in Waldron, All Saints in Mount Ida and Blessed Sacrament in Jonesboro.
In 1993, Father Hardesty began to serve students in campus ministry. While pastor of St. Anthony in Weiner and St. Norbert in Marked Tree, he was assigned as campus minister from 1994 to 1996 at the Catholic Newman Center at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, now known as St. John Newman University Parish.
His longest campus ministry role was as pastor of St. Leo the Great University Parish at Arkansas Tech University in Russellville, from 1996 to 2022. For those 26 years, he also was pastor at several parishes in the region, including St. John Church in Russellville, St. Augustine in Dardanelle and, before his passing, at Church of the Assumption in Atkins.
Father Hardesty was a pivotal force in building the current Catholic campus center at Arkansas State. Last year, he saw a 25-year dream come to fruition with the dedication of the new St. Leo the Great University Parish in Russellville on April 14, 2021.
“People say, ‘Why do you do college ministry?’ I do it because I believe it's a calling to keep them reflecting on their faith,” Father Hardesty said at the dedication last year. “Especially as they go forward in life and do their service to God in the world, they need to stay connected right now, to go forward to do God's work because God is calling them. Some of them don't know what their future is going to be, but God is calling them right now.”
At the diocesan level, Father Hardesty served twice as dean of the West Central Deanery, on the Presbyteral Council and on the Clergy Welfare Board.
He is survived by one sister, Kathryn Davis of Blytheville.
A visitation and rosary will be held July 13 at St. Leo the Great University Parish in Russellville. A Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated July 14 at Immaculate Conception Church in Blytheville with burial at Elmwood Cemetery.
Memorial donations can be made to St. Leo the Great University Parish in Russellville, St. John Newman University Parish in Jonesboro or any parish where Father Hardesty served.
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