Priests join Bishop Stika in celebrating longtime Chattanooga pastor
By Dan McWilliams
There was no better place for the funeral Mass for Monsignor George Schmidt than the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Chattanooga, “this place that he loved so much,” as Bishop Richard F. Stika called it.
Monsignor Schmidt, a child of Sts. Peter and Paul Parish and a pastor and later rector of the basilica from 1986 to 2013, died peacefully Thursday evening, Dec. 29, after battling illness in his retirement years. He was 72.
Bishop Stika presided at the funeral Mass on Jan. 4 and directed his first homily remarks to Monsignor Schmidt’s family, asking them to look at the assembly that filled nearly every pew in the basilica.
“All you have to do is see behind you, to see how much he was loved and will continue to be loved, for he touched the lives of many,” the bishop said.
Concelebrating the funeral Mass were Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, formerly bishop of Knoxville; Bishop David R. Choby of Nashville; Abbot Cletus Meagher, OSB, of St. Bernard Abbey in Cullman, Ala., a longtime friend of Monsignor Schmidt; Monsignor Owen Campion, retired associate editor of national Catholic publications Our Sunday Visitor and The Priest; Monsignor Xavier Mankel, a vicar general for the Diocese of Knoxville; basilica rector Father David Carter; Father Bertin Glennon, ST, former longtime priest in residence at Sts. Peter and Paul; and Father Charlie Burton, dean of the Chattanooga Deanery and pastor of St. Jude in Chattanooga, where Monsignor Schmidt lived in retirement.
Also present were more than 30 priests, 12 deacons, and women religious and parishioners from throughout the diocese.
Bishop Stika, who arrived in the Diocese of Knoxville in 2009, talked about Monsignor Schmidt telling him, when they first met, about the basilica’s Tiffany stained-glass windows, 3-D Stations of the Cross, and newly renovated organ.
“I thought, ‘This is a wonderful priest, obedient and proud of his assignment,’” Bishop Stika said. “And as I was leaving to go back to Knoxville, he said, with perfect obedience, ‘Bishop, if you decide to move me, I’ll retire.’ So much for obedience,” the bishop added, drawing laughter from his audience.
Monsignor Schmidt was “a simple man, frugal, as we all know,” the bishop said. “But, you know, I think in some ways it’s fitting that he decided to cooperate with God when God reached into his life and said, ‘Good and faithful servant, come home.’”
Bishop Stika said Jesus invites everyone “to believe in and to know the love of God.”
“Monsignor George heard that invitation from Jesus, and this was his parish, the parish of his youth and eventually the parish of his priesthood,” he said.
The “people of God of this parish saw the evolution of Monsignor George or Father George or ‘George,’ if he was your brother,” Bishop Stika said, “and how he carried on the work of the Apostles so many centuries prior, to enter into the lives of people and to bring healing by friendship, to bring healing by sacraments like the anointing of the sick, to enter into family relationships, and to celebrate the goodness of what it meant to be a person of goodness and faith.”
The University of Tennessee football team now has a strong advocate for it in heaven after the passing of Monsignor Schmidt, a longtime Vol fan, who—according to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 2004—often sported an orange blazer over his clerical wear at home games.
“I was going to look under his sleeve to see if he had an orange shirt on for the University of Tennessee,” Bishop Stika said. “I don’t think he ever missed a game until he got to the point where he couldn’t attend.”
Monsignor Schmidt “was so much a part of this community, a man of Chattanooga.”
The bishop referenced the “Chattanooga Strong” phrase that arose after the 2015 fatal shootings at two military installations in the city.
“One of the reasons that Chattanooga is strong is because of people of faith and those who shepherd the people of faith, like Monsignor George,” Bishop Stika said.
The bishop singled out Father Glennon, who lived and worked with Monsignor Schmidt for 27 years. Another good friend of the late priest Bishop Stika mentioned was Monsignor Mankel. The two future monsignors were instrumental at the founding of the Diocese of Knoxville in its early negotiations to separate from the Diocese of Nashville.
Bishop Stika said he always reminds priests, “especially at the funeral of a priest, that his (deceased priest’s) memory will never end in the eyes of the Church.
“For every baptism, every marriage, every sacrament of reconciliation—all those moments of grace continue on in the lives of individuals, generation to generation to generation. O death, where is your sting?” he said. “I’m sure each and every one of us has stories we can share, moments that we can celebrate, minutes in our lives that were touched by his gentle spirit.”
Bishop Stika said it took some doing to nudge Monsignor Schmidt into retirement as his health took a downturn in 2013.
“I remember the conversation when I said, ‘Maybe, George, it’s time to retire.’ I had to convince him a little bit because he didn’t want to let go of the parish because he loved this parish so much,” the bishop said. “But it was obvious his physical limitations were putting him in difficult situations.”
Bishop Stika recalled an early pastor of Sts. Peter and Paul, Servant of God Father Patrick Ryan, whose cause for sainthood was opened last year. Father Ryan did not abandon his people as he ministered to yellow-fever victims, the bishop said, Father Ryan dying of the disease himself in 1878.
“And I think that’s why it was so hard for Monsignor George to let go of being a pastor, because he felt in some ways maybe he was abandoning the people,” the bishop said.
The assembly prayed “in this Mass of Christian burial that (Monsignor Schmidt) might also witness the resurrection,” Bishop Stika said.
The bishop encouraged everyone to “celebrate those stories” of Monsignor Schmidt “and rejoice with him, because we pray now that the bonds of his body that wore him down are now released, that he is free to be in the presence of God, that he is free to embrace all of us as we continue to pray with him.
“We also pray that through his intercession that this parish, this basilica, this diocese may continue to grow and to blossom and to bear great fruit, and if he has a little extra prayer, if he can help Tennessee win the national championship next year. I’m not kidding,” he added.
“May his sins be forgiven, may his acts of kindness be rewarded, and may his gentle demeanor and his gentle smile always remind us of what it means to be a good person, to be a person of faith, and to be a person of joy.”
Monsignor Schmidt’s brother, Warren, delivered a eulogy.
“We celebrate my brother’s life and accomplishments, but we mourn his passing, and we will all miss him,” he said. “There is much I could say, but my brother would have encouraged me to keep these remarks very short.”
Warren Schmidt has not lived in Tennessee since 1975, so “many of you do not know me very well,” he said, “but I believe that I know something very important about you. You cared deeply for my brother, George. When my brother was taken ill in 2013, I was able to come and be with him.
“During that time, I discovered some of the many things that you had given him: books; ornaments for his year-round Christmas tree; photos of your baptisms, confirmations, graduations, weddings; warm hats, so that he would not be too cold on frigid mornings; and of course nearly everything Tennessee orange, since you knew he was a Volunteer football fan. I’m sure he thanked you, but I want to thank you also. You showered him with love, when most of us, his family, were far away.”
Mr. Schmidt quoted Sen. Edward Kennedy from the memorial service for Sen. Kennedy’s brother, Robert, saying that the latter would have wanted “to be remembered simply as a good and decent man.”
“I believe that this is a succinct description of my brother,” Mr. Schmidt said. “He was called in high school to become a priest, and he was faithful to that decision for more than 50 years.”
In his closing remarks, Bishop Stika said there were “three times I really surprised George.
“One was when I phoned him from Rome [in 2011] to tell him that the Holy Father had designated the parish of Sts. Peter and Paul Church as a minor basilica. I wasn’t paying much attention to the time. I think I called him at 5:30 in the morning. He was so proud of that, because he was so proud of this church and of this parish.
“Another time I actually got a bear hug from him when he and a few other priests were at my residence in Knoxville [also in 2011], when I informed him that Pope Benedict had named him a prelate of honor, a monsignor. He had tears in his eyes and gave me a big hug, and I think he whispered something like, ‘Mankel ain’t the only one who’s a monsignor now.’ The other time I really surprised him was when I told him the cost of the symbols of a basilica,” the bishop added, nodding toward Sts. Peter and Paul’s ombrellino and tintinnabulum, “and he said, ‘Can’t we get something cheaper?’”
The late monsignor also had “three great loves, among many,” Bishop Stika said. “He was so proud of the fact that he was a graduate of Notre Dame High School.
“He was also very proud of the fact that he was involved in the Serra Club. For so many years he was their chaplain. He was also proud of the fact that he was a member of the Knights of Columbus.”
The bishop pointed out Father Burton and his “reputation among the priests for loving the retired priests. “He has a long history of doing that. He welcomed George. He even had a room prepared, even before I asked if Monsignor could move to St. Jude.”
Before the prayer of commendation at the end of Mass, Father Mike Nolan sang the “Celtic Hymn of Farewell” for Monsignor Schmidt.
George Edward Schmidt Jr. was born in Palmer, Tenn., on April 12, 1944, a son of George E. Schmidt Sr. and Maude Edna Goodman Schmidt. He was baptized at Good Shepherd Church in Winchester. He attended first grade at Our Lady of Perpetual Help School in Chattanooga in 1950-51 and grades two through 12 at Notre Dame elementary and high school from 1951 to 1962. The future priest was confirmed at Sts. Peter and Paul Church.
After graduating high school, he immediately went into the seminary at St. Pius X in Erlanger, Ky., receiving a degree in philosophy from there in 1966. For his theology studies, he attended St. John’s Seminary in Little Rock, Ark., before it closed in 1967; he would go on to graduate from Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans in 1970 with a master of divinity degree.
He was ordained a priest on Jan. 24, 1970, at Sts. Peter and Paul Church by Bishop Joseph A. Durick of Nashville.
His early assignments included six months as associate pastor of the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Nashville and as a part-time professor there at Father Ryan High School; four years as associate pastor at St. Mary Church in Oak Ridge, during which time he also was the Knoxville Deanery youth director; and six years as pastor of St. Thérèse of Lisieux Parish in Cleveland. He returned to Nashville as associate pastor of Christ the King Church from 1981 to 1986 before his long term as pastor of Sts. Peter and Paul began.
Hundreds of well-wishers, including about 50 priests, filled Sts. Peter and Paul on Jan. 24, 1995, for Father Schmidt’s silver jubilee in the priesthood. The homilist, Father Glennon, said the occasion was more than just celebrating Father Schmidt’s great qualities. “I realized that it is a whole lot more that we are celebrating. It is not just a celebration of one man but a celebration of the sacrament of the priesthood, the story of Christ,” Father Glennon said.
Also in 1995, Father Schmidt was inducted into the Hall of Honors at Notre Dame High School. He served as dean of the Chattanooga Deanery beginning in 2009.
In 2010 the Serra Club of Chattanooga, for which Father Schmidt served as chaplain for 25 years, celebrated his 40th anniversary in the priesthood. At the time, he told The East Tennessee Catholic that he couldn’t say what his favorite part of being a priest would be. “The thing I really enjoy is worshiping with people,” he said.
In that interview, Father Schmidt recalled Father Francis Schilling, who taught him in high school, asking him whether he’d ever thought about going to the seminary. “I said, ‘Yes, I think all young Catholic guys have thought about going,’” and Father Schilling replied, “I think you ought to go.”
Before he was named a monsignor in 2011, the basilica honored Father Schmidt upon his 25th anniversary as pastor.
During his time as pastor, Monsignor Schmidt led several important projects at Sts. Peter and Paul, including the painting and redecorating of the interior and the remodeling of the basement from a storage area into a parish hall.
When the church became a minor basilica in 2011, Monsignor Schmidt became its first rector; he was rector emeritus in retirement.
Hundreds more people, including Bishop Stika and Cardinal Justin Rigali, attended a retirement Mass for Monsignor Schmidt on March 1, 2014, at the basilica.
During that Mass, Monsignor Schmidt, who received a papal blessing upon the occasion, said that he “never intended to retire from Sts. Peter and Paul, but my health issues made that change necessary.
“As many of you know, my brother and I were altar servers in the parish during the ’50s and early ’60s. There were family events in the beautiful church. There was my ordination, my sister’s marriage, baptisms, funerals, and the celebration of my 25th anniversary as a priest. We shared many such events with many of our families, but now I need to take a slower pace as you know.”
Monsignor Schmidt was preceded in death by his parents. His survivors include his brother, Warren, and wife Diane Schmidt of Cincinnati; his sister, Martha, and husband Lawrence Skelly of Lake Ridge, Va.; two nephews; six great-nieces and great-nephews; and many cousins.
Monsignor Schmidt was buried in the Priests’ Mound at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Chattanooga. Memorial contributions may be made to the Monsignor George E. Schmidt Scholarship Fund at Notre Dame High School, to the Priests’ Retirement Fund of the Diocese of Knoxville, or to the Hospice of Chattanooga.
Archbishop Kurtz said he was privileged to serve as bishop with Monsignor Schmidt for eight years. “His deep love of the parishioners of Sts. Peter and Paul and his faithful care of his dear mother were highlights of my impressions of his priestly service,” he said. “He also was the chair of the priest council for my first years as bishop, and he conducted the meetings in a very fair manner. I also came to respect Monsignor George as a friend. We had many enjoyable conversations in my frequent pastoral visits to Chattanooga. It was a privilege for me to be present for the Mass of Christian burial. May he rest in peace.”
Bishop Choby said he “had the pleasure of living with Monsignor Schmidt from 1981-1984 at Christ the King Parish in Nashville.”
“One of the things that impressed me was his sense of responsibility, first for the pastoral concerns for the people in his care. He was always quick to respond to peoples’ needs. I was also impressed with his abilities in business matters. Both the Diocese of Knoxville and the Diocese of Nashville benefited from that knowledge and experience.” ■