By Bill Brewer
That rivals Pope Benedict XVI, whose priesthood is at its 70th year. St. Pope John Paul II’s priesthood was 59 years. Even among secular personalities with long, successful careers, Father Hostettler outpaces Dolly Parton by five years, and is eclipsed only by the likes of Betty White, age 99, who has been entertaining audiences for 82 years, and Angela Lansbury, 95, who has been acting for 78 years.
Father Hostettler isn’t keeping score, though. He gave that up a few years ago when he stopped playing golf, a decades-long pastime of his.
Father Hostettler, who now resides in Nashville, where he was ordained in 1950, marked his 71st year as a priest on June 3. He celebrated his 98th birthday on May 12.
Even in retirement, Father Hostettler has remained busy. He retired from the active priesthood in 1993, with St. Mary Parish in Athens being his last full-time assignment. He continued to serve the Diocese of Knoxville, including as parochial administrator at St. Catherine Labouré Parish in Copperhill. He relocated to his hometown of Nashville in 2007 and served for seven years as chaplain in the chapel of the Mary Queen of Angels Assisted Living facility.
At Mary Queen of Angels, he and friend and fellow priest Father James Norman Miller are the spiritual leaders.
As he looks forward to the 72nd year of his priesthood, Father Hostettler is taking more time to remember his ministry in the dioceses of Nashville and Knoxville.
It never occurred to him that he would still be fulfilling his priestly vows at age 98.
“I don’t think I ever thought about how long I was going to be a priest. I just took it as it came,” he said. “I don’t think about what it’s like (being a priest). I just live it. I don’t know why God chose me to be a priest, but I’m happy that He did. I’ve really been happy being a priest. I had two brothers, both of them married with children. It never occurred to me that I should give up studying to be a priest and get married like they did. I just had the call to be a priest and I lived it.”
Father Hostettler was about 14 and a student at Father Ryan High School in Nashville in the 1940s when he first heard the call to be a priest. Father Ryan was an all-boys school then.
That call would stay with him as he entered college at St. Ambrose in Davenport, Iowa. He then went on to Kenrick Seminary in St. Louis.
“Until I was actually ordained a priest, I didn’t know whether I was going to make it or not. But when they called out the names of those who were going to be ordained, mine was in there,” he said with a gleam in his eye.
In joking about his age, Father Hostettler smiled and said he is one of the few who still remembers when the Diocese of Memphis was formed from the Diocese of Nashville in 1971, recalling that the Diocese of Nashville was just too large for one bishop, extending from the Mississippi River to just east of the Blue Ridge Parkway. He was serving in East Tennessee when the Diocese of Knoxville was formed in 1988.
He could have transferred back into the Diocese of Nashville after a year, “but I was happy where I was.”
And just where was he?
From 1958 to 1969, he was pastor of the Church of the Resurrection in Cleveland. Prior to that and for eight years afterward he served in Memphis, Jackson, McEwen, and Only before being assigned to St. Augustine Parish in Signal Mountain. Then there were assignments in Tullahoma and again in Nashville.
While serving in Cleveland, he also was pastor of St. Catherine Labouré Parish in Copperhill, which proved to be one of his favorite assignments. During his assignment in Cleveland, Father Hostettler was involved in building the parish’s new church, renamed for St. Thérèse of Lisieux.
“I loved the little town of Copperhill, and the people who lived there who were Catholic. That was my favorite place. It was among the smallest towns in the state of Tennessee. I was there twice. I was ordained for the Diocese of Nashville, which covered the entire state of Tennessee at that time,” he said.
While his age, location, and retirement impact any relationships with current Diocese of Knoxville priests, Father Hostettler is fond of the associations he developed while active in the diocesan presbyterate.
He fondly remembers his friendship with Father Albert Henkel, the former longtime pastor of Holy Ghost Parish in Knoxville and unofficial “bishop of Happy Holler.” They played golf together regularly.
He also played golf on occasion with former Bishop James D. Niedergeses of Nashville and former Knoxville Bishop Joseph E. Kurtz, who now is the archbishop of Louisville.
“Every week I played golf for I don’t know how many years. I played golf with all the priests who played golf,” Father Hostettler said, remarking how age has caught up with his generation. “You see, I’ve outlived a lot of priests.”
Father Hostettler served in the Diocese of Knoxville with a priest of similar name and background: Monsignor Bob Hofstetter, who is pastor of Good Shepherd Parish in Newport. Both priests are from Nashville, and Father Hostettler remembers Father Hofstetter’s family while growing up in Nashville.
While Father Hostettler attended college at St. Ambrose, he soon had to transfer to Kenrick Seminary in St. Louis when the U.S. military took over the dormitory at St. Ambrose during World War II, an experience he now shares with very few priests.
The longtime priest still considers himself an animal lover and even taught horseback riding for seven years at a diocesan camp.
As he looks back on his 71-year vocation, Father Paul Altman Hostettler recalls serving in parishes from Memphis to East Tennessee, including an assignment as chaplain at the Turney Center prison rehabilitation facility in Only.
His priesthood is filled with a variety of experiences illustrative of his age that bespeaks wisdom and humility. He has virtually no regrets about the path God laid before him.
“The only regret I have is not being as good a priest as I should have been. I look back and think I should have done this or I should have done that. But I didn’t, so I wasn’t as good as I could have been,” he said.
He is resigned to living in the Diocese of Nashville again, and is even comforted by being “home,” although Copperhill and St. Catherine Labouré Parish still call his name.
“I’ll never live in the Diocese of Knoxville again, but I will belong to it until I die,” Father Hostettler said with an undying sense of loyalty and appreciation.