Father Joe Campbell remembered as diocese’s ‘gentle giant’

Bishop Stika, Father Harvey lead funeral Mass for pastor of St. Henry, St. James the Apostle parishes

By Bill Brewer

Bishop Stika speaks about Father Joe Campbell’s life and ministry during a funeral Mass for Father Campbell on Oct. 29 at St. John Neumann Church in Farragut. The Mass was attended by Father Campbell’s brother priests as well as deacons, women religious, and members of parishes where he served.

A wrestler, football player, retail manager, woodworker, and boater who was a bit of an intimidating rebel, Father Joe Campbell also was a gentle giant of a teacher and pastor.
Father Campbell was many things to many people during his lifetime, but he was remembered primarily as a humble servant of God who faithfully served the Diocese of Knoxville and his parishioners. The 67-year-old priest died Oct. 20 after a lengthy illness.

Bishop Richard F. Stika was the principal celebrant at a funeral Mass for Father Campbell on Oct. 29 at St. John Neumann Church in Farragut, and more than 30 diocesan priests concelebrated the Mass. Father Jim Harvey, pastor of St. Alphonsus Parish in Crossville, gave the homily.

More than a dozen diocesan deacons were in attendance, led by Sean Smith, who served as deacon of the Word, and Patrick Murphy-Racey, who served as deacon of the Eucharist. Father David Carter, Father Christopher Floersh, and Deacon Gary Brinkworth served as masters of ceremony.

To illustrate the mountain of a man that Father Campbell was, Bishop Stika held a custom-carved walking stick the pastor of St. Henry and St. James the Apostle parishes had used. The stick, which rose above Bishop Stika’s nearly 6-foot frame and was as big around as a small tree, offered a unique hint at the stature of the 6-foot-8-inch priest who was born in Chelyan, W.Va., and was raised in Clearwater, Fla., along the Gulf Coast, where his family operated a fishing business.

During his priesthood, Father Campbell never ventured far from the water and a love of boating that he developed as a boy. He incorporated that maritime passion into his ministry by holding Masses for boaters on Tellico and Norris lakes during his 17-year priesthood. Those marine Masses presented Father Campbell an entirely different congregation of out-of-state Catholics who vacationed on Norris Lake.

“Father Joe had a flavorful life, from West Virginia to Florida to California to Tennessee and Indiana. It was a long life in many ways, but also a very short life, just 67 years,” Bishop Stika said in remarks he made during the funeral Mass. “You know, we all wish to die a holy death. Joe had a very holy death. He was at the end; his body worn out from all the surgeries.”

Father Campbell was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Knoxville at St. Mary Church in Johnson City on June 5, 1999. His first assignment was as associate pastor at St. John Neumann Parish in Farragut in 1999. While at St. John Neumann, women’s guild members asked him to hold a boat Mass on Tellico Lake, which was the first of many he celebrated twice a year, first on Tellico and then on Norris Lake.

Father Campbell was appointed pastor of Christ the King Parish in Tazewell and Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in LaFollette in 2002. He served as pastor of both parishes until 2015, when he was appointed pastor of St. Henry Parish in Rogersville and St. James the Apostle Parish in Sneedville.

While serving at Our Lady of Perpetual Help and Christ the King, Father Campbell liked to visit Norris Lake, where he would travel by boat to celebrate Masses on the water twice a year. He said the boat Masses each spring and fall helped keep him connected to the water. He was set to retire and live in residence at St. Francis of Assisi in Fairfield Glade before his health began to significantly decline.

Father Campbell attended seminary at St. Meinrad School of Theology in Indiana with Father Harvey, and it was at St. Meinrad where they developed their friendship.

Father Jim Harvey

Father Harvey highlighted the Gospel reading, Luke 23:44-49, in his homily, singling out the centurion who dared declare when Jesus died on the cross that Jesus was an innocent man, contrary to the Roman government’s sentence.

“I found this Scripture a very appropriate tribute to my friend, Father Joe Campbell, for several reasons. He would, I think, appreciate a Bible story that highlights a little rebelliousness toward authority,” Father Harvey said. “If you know Joe, you know that he was never shy about declaring his disapproval of anyone or anything he didn’t like. At seminary, especially that first year, he loved to argue. You could often hear Joe’s voice booming through the six-inch concrete walls, usually directed at one of his classmates, sometimes at a teacher. That’s just one of the many personality traits that initially endeared me to Joseph.

“Back at St. Meinrad, we would sometimes just marvel at the fact that what he lacked in diplomatic nuance he certainly made up for in volume. And when shouting didn’t work, he would also intimate that he could resort quite easily to physical violence. Mind you, Joe never carried out any acts of physical violence. But just the thought of it would give a would-be critic pause.”
But that tough exterior, honed over years through activities like football and wrestling, belied Father Campbell’s pastoral side, according to Father Harvey.

“Actually, his reputation, which had preceded him because he had been a football player and a wrestler, was a great deterrent, unless, of course, you took the time to know Joe. He was the proverbial gentle giant. He was a very gentle man. He was sensitive, but he didn’t like you to know that. One of the ironic things to me was Joseph didn’t like school, he didn’t like classes. … Ironically, Joseph became a great teacher,” Father Harvey said.

“Some of the most incredibly wise things would come out of Joe at the most unexpected moments. We would just marvel. It doesn’t surprise me that he became such a good teacher and a good pastor, because he himself was influenced and encouraged and supported and nurtured by so many good people, especially when I think of his clergy friends. There was Bishop (Anthony J.) O’Connell, Bishop (Joseph E.) Kurtz, and Bishop Stika. There were many priests, starting with Father Tom Field, and Father (Bill) Gahagan, Father (Michael) Sweeney, Father (David) Boettner, Father (John) Dowling, Monsignor (Patrick) Garrity, Monsignor (Al) Humbrecht, Father John Orr, Father Michael Woods, Father (Mike) Creson. And there were deacons, especially Deacon Sean (Smith), who was a dear friend of Joe’s. The list just goes on and on and on and on,” he added.

One of Father Campbell’s closest friends, Father Bill Ehalt, who was a classmate at St. Meinrad, described the well-traveled pastor as “a giant soul with a giant heart,” according to Father Harvey.
“That was true, and I share that sentiment. But I also want to say that I’m just amazed by his pastoral development in the last 18 years. Joe really was a good priest. I was ordained before him, but Joe quickly surpassed me in pastoral skills,” Father Harvey said.

As he delivered his homily, Father Harvey looked out over Father Campbell’s casket, which was of hand-crafted natural wood from St. Meinrad Archabbey, a fitting tribute to the towering priest who loved to work with his stout hands.

“You know that casket contains a huge lifetime, because it touched lives, and it saved souls, and made claims on us. Father Joe loved being a priest. He was a faithful friend. He was a talented woodworker. But in addition to that, he was a great builder of community, often in building projects and improving his church and his community, whatever he could do. Joe loved to build things. He blessed our diocesan faith family greatly. His interests were many. Besides, of course, his parishioners, he loved old cars, cats, waterfalls, cooking, redheads, and Jesus; not particularly in that order.

Father Joe Campbell gives (from left) Sister Mary Sarah Macht, RSM, Mother Timothea Elliott, RSM, and Sister Mary Christine Cremin, RSM, a ride on the boat he used to navigate Norris Lake, where he celebrated boat Masses in this photo from October 2012.

“He was a strong man. And I found it very poignant that in these last few years Joe had to be humble and ask for help. There were so many of you that came to his aid and did help him, and I want to thank you for that. That says volumes about your own goodness,” Father Harvey said.

Bishop Stika and Father Harvey were among a small group of family and friends that held vigil at Parkwest Hospital as Father Campbell died.

“I’m so appreciative of that. It was a great honor to do that,” Father Harvey noted. “We sang prayers. We sang songs. Father David (Boettner) played ‘Big Bad John,’ which was Joe’s favorite song. Later that night when I got home, and I was just sitting there thinking about all that had taken place, I thought of that centurion and I wanted to say of Joe, ‘this was a good, innocent man.’”

Father Harvey explained that this goodness came directly from Jesus Christ, who was the good and innocent man who died on the cross for our sins.

He said the priesthood is a great legacy of service to leave to the world. “Joe never took that lightly.”

“Father Joe did his darndest to serve God and the Church and the holy people of God well. He was not perfect; none of us are. But he was faithful, and because of his faithfulness, so many people now know a little bit about the greatness of God. Joe now needs God, desires God, and so is with God. So until we get to be together again, I’m sure he would say something cute, funny, and outdoorsy. But I have nothing. I’ll just say Godspeed, my brother,” Father Harvey concluded, his voice breaking with emotion.

Bishop Stika said Father Campbell had rods placed in his back to help him stand tall again and was proud of that. He said the big and tall priest maintained his sense of humor during his health ordeals, noting that recently he remarked to Father Campbell about orthopedic screws placed in Father Campbell’s neck. “And he told me, ‘Yes, now I really do have a screw loose.’”

Bishop Stika also recalled a recent conversation he had with Father Campbell as the priest convalesced in which the bishop asked Father Campbell to retire due to health concerns.

In this photo from July 2013, Father Campbell celebrates Mass on Norris Lake for boaters who vacation at the lake.

“If I didn’t do that, he would push himself to try to come back because he always wanted to come back sooner. In fact, he would check himself out of hospitals and rehab centers and push himself to return to his pastoral responsibilities, and when he gave me advice on how I should have handled the situation, he told me, ‘Bishop, I’m not a very patient man.’ I said, ‘No kidding, Joe!’”

“When I first met him seven years ago, he said, ‘You know, I love LaFollette and Tazewell; I love the people there.’ He loved that assignment. So all of you from Tazewell and LaFollette, he loved you all. He was beginning to enjoy his relationship with the people from St. Henry in Rogersville. And he loved the people from St. John Neumann,” Bishop Stika said. “In all those assignments, he may have not been a great theologian by academic standards, but he was a true man of God because he incorporated the Scriptures and the teachings of the Church as a true priest. I understand he was a great confessor and a very spiritual pastor. He loved the beauty of nature, and he made things with his hands like St. Joseph did. He would tell stories, like Jesus did.”

Bishop Stika said that while Father Campbell’s immediate family was small in number, his extended family was the Church, reflective of true celibacy in giving himself totally to the Church. He was a man who gave his life to the Church and formed a special bond with fellow priests and deacons. “It’s a special fraternity and a special bond,” the bishop noted as he pointed out all the priests and deacons in attendance at the funeral Mass.

Bishop Stika described Father Campbell as “a man of magnificence” whose heart was big.

Bishop Stika said that as Father Campbell neared death at Parkwest Medical Center in Knoxville, those keeping vigil during his final moments knew Father Campbell could feel their presence.

“It was time. … And Joe passed from this life to the next. Hopefully he heard the words, ‘Hey Big Guy, I have waited for you and now you have come’ just as Pope John Paul II said in his last moments, ‘I have waited for you and you have come.’ To my brother Joseph, I say to you thank you for your life, an interesting life that allowed you to be a good priest of Jesus Christ. We pray that you may now be free of pain, free from illness, with the humility that God taught you in these last years through illness, which is a humility that all of us should believe in and allow ourselves to be cared for by God and our sisters and brothers. Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May his soul and all the souls of the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in peace. Amen.” ■

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