By Jim Wogan
Three days before he celebrated his 62nd birthday on July 4, Bishop Stika reached another significant milestone. On July 1, he became the longest-serving bishop in the history of the Diocese of Knoxville.
“I am grateful that Pope Benedict XVI, through the Holy Spirit, placed me here more than 10 years ago to serve, in Christ, the faithful of the Diocese of Knoxville,” Bishop Stika said upon learning of this milestone.
The bishop’s tenure as the spiritual leader of the Catholic Church in East Tennessee has been highlighted with growth and stability.
Before he arrived in 2009, the Diocese of Knoxville had 45 parish churches, 72 priests, 26 deacons, and 36 men and women religious. There were roughly 58,500 registered Catholics in the diocese.
The seat of the bishop was a parish church that had been used as a cathedral since the establishment of the diocese in 1988.
Just over 10 years after Bishop Stika’s appointment, the Diocese of Knoxville now has 50 parishes and two Catholic missions. There are 85 priests, 78 deacons, and 59 men and women religious serving here. The diocese has nearly 73,000 registered Catholics, a new cathedral, and new parish churches where Catholic missions once existed.
At the direction of Bishop Stika, the St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic, a mobile medical clinic serving in mostly rural areas of East Tennessee, began service in 2014.
And the diocese now has 13 men studying for the priesthood.
“The Diocese of Knoxville is very different from where I was ordained as a priest and lived my entire life,” Bishop Stika, a St. Louis native, noted. “It is, at its core, a mission diocese that is vibrant and exudes a spirit that guided the apostles in the early days of the Church. We are still relatively young, and we continue to grow. I am very blessed to be here and I thank God for this gift.”
July 1 marked 3,822 days since Bishop Stika was appointed East Tennessee’s shepherd on Jan. 12, 2009, making him the longest-serving bishop in the history of the diocese.
Bishop Stika highlighted the fact that Catholicism has been rapidly growing in Sunbelt states, and East Tennessee is no exception.
“Since day one, 31 years ago, the diocese has continually grown. We started out at 33,000 Catholics in 1988, and now we’re about 72,000-plus. It has just been ongoing growth. In the 10 years I’ve been here we’ve started three new parishes, opened a retreat center, built a new cathedral,” he said.
The bishop was quick to point out that what the diocese has accomplished since 2009 builds on what happened during his predecessors’ terms as bishop. He not only is looking at the recent past, he is looking ahead, too.
“A lot of what I’ve been doing in these 10 years is built on the foundation of what I inherited. But it is kind of cool to be the longest-serving bishop in the history of the diocese. But we’re a young diocese,” he said.
“As far as my hope for the future for this diocese, we’re looking at how to make our eight grade schools and two high schools even more available to people, especially those in the middle class, in terms of educational opportunity. Also, we’re looking at how to strengthen our Catholic Charities, and we have this mobile medical clinic that has been traveling around the diocese offering totally free medical care, so we want to give that more support,” he added.
Even with a new cathedral, the Christ Prince of Peace Retreat Center in Benton, the St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic, and other advancements, the bishop measures success in terms of the faithful.
“The thing I’m most proud of is getting to know the people, 72,000-plus. Any parish I visit now I see familiar faces. We’ve had a number of successful projects, the retreat center and the cathedral, and I think the people believe in our sense of accomplishment. They trust my leadership and know that I’m doing the best that I can. So I’m most proud of that. The mobile medical clinic is also one of those that I’m very proud of.”
Bishop Stika said he continually works to promote the faith to young people and young adults as a way to help advance the Catholic faith.
“I have a personal commitment to get to know the kids, the college students, and the young adults. I try to use social media, although sometimes it gets me in trouble. I’m on Facebook, I tweet, and I use Instagram. Another way to reach out is by use of the media, and I try to attend a lot of events, especially in the schools. And I try to be approachable.”
As a life-long Midwesterner who was new to the South when he arrived in East Tennessee in 2009, Bishop Stika is grateful that he has always been welcome in the diocese.
“From day one, I have felt at home. The people here, Catholic and non-Catholic, have good hearts and open their lives to other people. Here in East Tennessee we have a great assortment of people from other parts of the country and even parts of the world. I have always felt at home,” he said. “There are a lot of aspects to building up the faith. We’re here to help a lot of people throughout East Tennessee, and we want them to know we’re here to help.”
One shortcoming the bishop admitted to is that in the decade he has served in East Tennessee he has yet to taste grits, a Southern delicacy.
But he has added the color orange to his wardrobe, right behind Cardinals red.