Father Steve Pawelk exits East Tennessee for new Glenmary assignment after building Catholic communities in Union, Grainger counties
By Bill Brewer
As Father Steve Pawelk packed his belongings, mementos, and memories from eight years of ministry in East Tennessee, the Glenmary Home Missioners priest couldn’t help but reflect on the highlights — and maybe a few lowlights — of his most recent assignment.
An addition to the list of highlights was the Dec. 19 release of the Netflix documentary “After the Raid,” which features the pastor of St. Teresa of Kolkata Parish in Maynardville, who leads St. John Paul II Catholic Mission in Rutledge, too. It also features parishioners of Father Pawelk who felt the impact of the April 2018 raid on a Grainger County slaughterhouse by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers.
That raid, which resulted in deportations, holdings, and split families, by far was a lowlight for the Glenmary priest who was sent to the Diocese of Knoxville in August 2011 to help grow the diocese and build parishes where possible.
Father Pawelk and his parishioners watched the documentary Dec. 19. The Glenmary priest said he was gratified that the short film looked at the raid from a spiritual viewpoint instead of a political one.
Besides Father Pawelk, the documentarians interviewed two Spanish-speaking members and two English-speaking members of the Catholic communities Father Pawelk serves.
“The documentary looked at how as a parish we dealt with the raid. I want to change the dialogue away from the political strife to a more spiritual way of looking at it, the love shown by our brothers and sisters in the face of a crisis. I want to get back to the biblical perspective. Politics leads us to division, but Christ leads us to unity,” Father Pawelk said.
Other highlights of Father Pawelk’s time in Grainger and Union counties include the establishment of Catholic communities in those counties.
After a humble beginning in a carport with a small number of faithful, the St. Teresa of Kolkata community expanded into the storefront of a small strip center before building its own church, which was dedicated by Bishop Richard F. Stika last February.
“Both Spanish-speaking and English-speaking parishioners have grown at St. Teresa, and they give more than $12,000 each year to the poor. Local Catholic churches have assisted us as we’ve grown. We’ve been very blessed with outside support,” Father Pawelk said.
As he carried out his ministry over the past eight years, building the St. Teresa of Kolkata and St. John Paul II communities, Father Pawelk also worked to establish goodwill from the Catholic Church in the heavily Protestant area.
His outreach included working with Bishop Stika and Sister Mariana Koonce, RSM, who is the medical director of the St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic, to bring the mobile medical clinic and its free health care to Rutledge and Washburn in Grainger County.
After seeing St. Teresa of Kolkata Parish’s new church dedicated in early 2019, Father Pawelk ended the year having broken ground on a new church for St. John Paul II Catholic Mission in Rutledge.
His ministry to the broader community also has had an impact.
“In Union County and in Grainger County, they say if you need help go to the Catholics. That’s a wonderful reputation to have,” Father Pawelk said.
“We’ve established St. Teresa and St. John Paul II to be an effective witness to Catholics and the broader community,” he added.
Father Neil Pezzulo, a Glenmary priest originally from New York, will succeed Father Pawelk in Rutledge and Maynardville. For the past eight years, Father Pezzulo has served as first vice president of the Glenmary Home Missioners, which is the No. 2 position in the Glenmary Home Missioners leadership.
“He is excited to be coming here. He has built communities in other areas where Glenmary serves. And he is bilingual and can speak Spanish,” said Father Pawelk, who departed for his new assignment on Jan. 3.
Father Pawelk will now be co-director of the novitiate of the Glenmary Home Missioners, leading priests and brothers who are coming into the Cincinnati-based order.
“I feel very humbled and blessed to have served here,” he said of his time in East Tennessee.