By Dan McWilliams
Robert Joseph Hofstetter was born Nov. 19, 1927, in Nashville to Oscar B. and Marguerite Sanders Hofstetter.
He was baptized at Holy Name Church in Nashville, where he attended Holy Name Grade School and Father Ryan High School. He went to the University of Notre Dame, where he earned a bachelor of arts in philosophy before enrolling in the Theological College in Washington, D.C. He was ordained to the diaconate on Sept. 30, 1953, at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception by Bishop John M. McNamara, auxiliary bishop of Washington, D.C. He was ordained a priest May 1, 1954, at the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Nashville by Bishop William L. Adrian.
Father Hofstetter’s early assignments included serving as an associate pastor at Holy Name Parish and as director of Camp Marymount. He was also a professor at Father Ryan High School, where he served for many years. In 1956, he became an associate at the Cathedral of the Incarnation, and in 1961 was named diocesan director of Newman clubs. He also became chaplain for the convent of the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia Congregation in Nashville, was appointed to the Commission for Ecumenical Affairs, was named examiner in liturgy for the Junior Clergy Exams, and was named assistant vicar for religious in the Nashville Deanery.
He became pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Madison in 1970 and later served as pastor of St. Mary Parish in Oak Ridge from 1973 to 1981. At that time, he was assigned as pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Knoxville, and in 1982 he became episcopal vicar for the Knoxville Deanery. In 1987, he was appointed pastor of St. Augustine Parish in Signal Mountain before moving to St. Jude as pastor in 1990, where he served until 2005. The Hofstetter Family Life Center at St. Jude was named for him in 2005. In that year, he became pastor of Good Shepherd Parish in Newport, where he served until his death.
While at St. Jude in 1995, he wrote in The East Tennessee Catholic about his vocation:
“Most boys who some 50 years ago attended a parochial school taught by Sisters heard the question: ‘Have you ever thought of becoming a priest?’ I did. In various ways, Sister Veronica, Sister Eileen, and Sister Dominica, St. Cecilia Sisters who taught at Holy Name in Nashville, spoke this question to me.
“I must have listened, because in the second or third grade I made a statement that caught me by surprise. It was at my confirmation. Bishop Adrian always quizzed the children during the ceremony. When he asked the names of the seven sacraments, my hand went up. And when he nodded in my direction, I named the seven as unhesitatingly as I had done in class when Sister prepared us.
“Then the bishop slipped in a question that we hadn’t studied—and directed it at me: ‘And how many have you received?’ With a little thought, I replied, ‘baptism, penance, and Holy Communion.’ But I didn’t stop there. To my surprise, I continued, saying, ‘And I hope to receive holy orders someday!’”
Father Hofstetter wrote that high school at Father Ryan “was fun.” He njoyed playing sports, dated a little, and “graduated without ever consciously wrestling with the question: ‘Should I be a priest?’”
“All went well” until the Sunday after Christmas during his first year in college at Notre Dame, he wrote, saying he had planned to major in physics there.
“I was home for vacation, and Monsignor Joe Siener chose that Sunday to speak on vocations and to ask the young men and boys to pray and give serious thought to the priesthood. After Mass, I went to the sacristy and said, ‘I’d like to study for the priesthood. What do I do?’”
Father Hofstetter said “there is no recollection of Mother or Dad ever saying that they would be pleased if I chose to be a priest, but I knew by their respect for priests and their love for the Church that they would OK my decision. They did. And I returned to Notre Dame to change my major to philosophy and begin my studies for the priesthood.”
He concluded that 1995 column by saying, “It is humbling to feel that God spoke a word in me almost 60 years ago as I stood there answering Bishop Adrian’s question, and that He continues to speak that word.”
Father Hofstetter celebrated his 50th anniversary as a priest April 30, 2004, while serving as pastor of St. Jude. Some 600 of the faithful and more than 30 priests attended a Mass, a dinner, and a reception, including Bishop Joseph E. Kurtz, the principal celebrant of the Mass.
“It was a great gift to see the wonderful spirit the people had in cooperating and putting together a very fine dinner for the priests; the music, the song, and everything at the Mass; and then the wonderful reception afterward,” Father Hofstetter said. “It’s very edifying. I kind of told them I didn’t want all this stuff, but they did it anyway. It was wonderful, and I’m very thankful.”
Father John O’Neill, whose first assignment as a priest was under Father Hofstetter at St. Jude, was the homilist for the 50th-anniversary Mass. He recalled how he found it inspiring to wake up early and discover that Father Hofstetter already had prayed the rosary and placed his beads on the hall table. “It was an inspiration to me about early-morning prayer,” Father O’Neill said.
He added that Father Hofstetter also sat “very quietly” before the Blessed Sacrament in the rectory oratory each day before supper and provided wonderful fellowship to priests at mealtime.
“Father Bob showed us [priests] how to pray and to await in silence just as Jesus Christ the priest did,” Father O’Neill said.
Father Hofstetter called it “a very rich 50 years. It’s been a very rich life, getting to know the wonderful people both in the Diocese of Nashville and now the Diocese of Knoxville. We have a very gifted and wonderful group of people here at St. Jude, and it’s always been a pleasure to serve with the priests in the diocese. We’re blessed in Tennessee to have had such a wonderful group of priests.”
Father Hofstetter was conferred the title of Prelate of Honor to His Holiness on Aug. 11, 2011, and given the title of monsignor.
He was preceded in death by his parents; by his brothers, O.B. Hofstetter Jr., John C. Hofstetter, and William S. Hofstetter; sisters, Sister Adrian Marie, OP, and Sister Margaret Marie, OP; and nephews, John C. Hofstetter Jr. and George B. Hofstetter.
Survivors include his nephews and nieces, O.B. Hofstetter III, Robert B. Hofstetter, James C. Hofstetter, Christian S. Hofstetter, Mary Beth Adgent, Katherine H. Elcan, William S. Hofstetter Jr., Julie H. Fisher, Barbara H. Sneed, David C. Hofstetter, and Holly H. Spell, and numerous great-nephews and great-nieces.