Funeral Masses held for Msgr. Bob Hofstetter, dean of diocesan priests and a ‘priest’s priest’
By Dan McWilliams
Priest, confessor, shepherd, friend, teacher, avid reader, writer, theologian, carpenter, cook—the Diocese of Knoxville lost a multifaceted man with the death of one of its founding fathers in Monsignor Bob Hofstetter.
The pastor of Good Shepherd Parish in Newport and priest of 68 years died July 7 at Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center in Knoxville after a brief illness. The dean of diocesan priests was 94 and believed to be one of the oldest, if not the oldest, Catholic priests in the country who was serving as a pastor.
Two funeral Masses were held for Monsignor Hofstetter, at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus on July 15 and at the Church of the Good Shepherd on July 18, where he was inurned in the parish columbarium. A chalice given to Monsignor Hofstetter by his parents upon his priestly ordination in 1954 was used at each funeral Mass.
Saying goodbye at Sacred Heart
Bishop Richard F. Stika was the principal celebrant of both Masses. Concelebrating the Sacred Heart Mass were Cardinal Justin Rigali; Bishop James V. Johnston Jr., a son of the Diocese of Knoxville and now bishop of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph; Father Augustine Idra, AJ, who formerly served in East Tennessee and is now the regional superior for the Apostles of Jesus; and Fathers Mike Nolan, Michael Cummins, Doug Owens, and Peter Iorio. Deacon Sean Smith, diocesan chancellor, was deacon of the Word, and Deacon Otto Preske of Good Shepherd was deacon of the Eucharist. Deacon Walt Otey was master of ceremonies. More than 25 priests and more than 20 deacons attended altogether.
Bishop Stika looked out at the assembly of family, friends, and others who filled the pews at Sacred Heart and speculated on how Monsignor Hofstetter would view the proceedings.
“I would dare think that Monsignor Bob would say, ‘What’s all the fuss about?’ knowing Monsignor Bob,” the bishop said. “Well, the fuss is, we give to God what He has given to us. We have a holy man, and so we give to the Lord praise and thanksgiving for 94 years and 68 years of priesthood. ‘Thou art a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.’”
Bishop Stika said he chose all of the readings at Mass from the Rite of Ordination, “because I think Monsignor exemplified what a priest should be. He was a man of curiosity. He was a carpenter. He made his own casket. He was a cook. He fed people. . . . By the way, I don’t know if his family knows this, but today I received his recipe for caramels that belonged to your great-grandfather, I guess. And I’m waiting for the recipe for applesauce, which he would share with me.”
Monsignor Hofstetter was a theologian, according to the bishop.
“It’s part of that sense of curiosity. I’m still trying to figure out that one book he sent to me a long time ago, The Cosmic Christ,” he said. “But truly, if you take it all, it’s kind of a reflection of the readings—he was a shepherd. And I guess by an act of God, in his last years he loved so much the people of Newport, Tenn., the Church of the Good Shepherd. But he also loved all those other people that he shared his life as a priest with, for the Spirit of the Lord was indeed upon him, and he shared that grace with the people of St. Augustine [in Signal Mountain], of St. Jude [in Chattanooga], of St. Mary in Oak Ridge, of the cathedral, and of Good Shepherd,” the bishop added, naming the diocesan churches where Monsignor Hofstetter served as pastor.
The late priest “also had other varied ministries,” including serving at Camp Marymount in the Diocese of Nashville, the bishop said.
“He told me he was in charge of making sure that the termites would not win with those wooden buildings,” Bishop Stika said. “He worked at the student center, a relationship with young adults, because he had that Spirit of the Lord upon him. He wanted to share the faith. He wanted to share the love of Jesus. And as he kind of looked into the concept of God Himself, he had many questions, maybe not all the answers, but as the Spirit of the Lord was upon him, there was such a powerful sense that for 68 years he preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And I’m a little disappointed in him because he told me at one time he would retire at the age of 100. But again, ‘thou art a priest forever, in the line of Melchizedek.’
“So often we hear the expression, ‘He was a man’s man.’ He was a priest’s priest. He loved the priests of this diocese and the priests of the Diocese of Nashville. He loved the people that he was called to serve, without any concern, without any bias—he just wanted to teach Jesus, and he did.”
Monsignor Hofstetter wrote two books, Love Pages and Reflections in Gratitude for 88 Years of Life & 61 Years of Priesthood. The bishop quoted from “Parable of a Rose” from the latter publication.
“How do you sum up somebody’s life of 94 years and 68 years of priesthood? How do you sum that up?” Bishop Stika asked. “Well, in some ways, he did. He was a poet. He wrote essays and reflections, and at the age of 88 he published a book. It wasn’t on The New York Times bestseller list; it probably should have been. I read through all of these reflections. I actually picked up some homily hints. But there was one he wrote, and I don’t know when he wrote this, but to me it speaks what he probably would say today. It goes:
“’Who am I. A rose in bud, full bud, rich, dark red, perfectly formed. No camera to capture my beauty, no eye or nose to savor my richness, not even a beetle to taste my petals, but no matter. The very reason I came to be, the very reason I am created is to give glory to the Creator, the God, who created me. And I stand in my beauty, announcing His beauty. I have no intention but to give glory to my Father, the Creator. Standing open to the nourishing warmth of the sun, to the life-giving and thirst-quenching abundance of His soil and of His grace, I grew and grow to full, glorious blossom. I claim nothing for myself, give nothing to a passing admirer. I stand lifting my face in a song of glory to God, who gave me life.’
“And if I could add, ‘who gave me priesthood, who gave me people to serve, to share, to teach, and to be taught, to give glory to God.’”
The bishop talked of his final moments with Monsignor Hofstetter.
“This week I’ve had a long conversation with Monsignor Bob. Tests showed he had lung cancer. But he wasn’t worried about a test at the age of 94. He was calm. He was serene, and he was trusting in God. And as he was put under anesthesia, I wonder if he prayed, as they tell you to count backwards. I’m sure he prayed, because he always trusted in God, and he never awakened. And on that day when it was decided to take him off all that life support, the group that was with him, we prayed with him, we shared stories with him, we chanted the Our Father with him. When I first went into the room, as I always do, I talk to people, even if they’re in a coma. He moved his shoulder and kind of moved his head a little bit. I don’t know if he was trying to run away from me. But he was ever present with us. . . . A few hours later, in a gentle way, the Shepherd called him home.”
Bishop Stika said, “I’m sure we all have stories about Monsignor Bob. He had a subtle sense of humor. . . . He was and is indeed a priest’s priest. And so now he is at peace, but he was at peace before he died, but now he stands before God, we pray. I think he received the apostolic blessing about 10 times, so if there’s anybody that I’m sure might be in the presence of God today, it’s him. I can see him standing before Jesus with all of the angels and all of the saints, and his question will be, ‘Lord, are you the Cosmic Jesus?’”
The bishop concluded his homily by thanking the parishioners of Good Shepherd.
“I’m grateful to all the people of Newport who took such good care of him. . . . I was there this past Sunday, and I could see the love that people had for Monsignor Bob. He told me he loved the people, but I could see the young and the old, they knew he truly was anointed to be their shepherd. So now this day, we commend our brother to almighty God, in thanksgiving for his many years of service, for his many years of life itself. We pray that he be at peace, even a deeper peace than he had when he was alive. Monsignor, thank you for your priesthood.”
In his closing remarks, Bishop Stika referred to a nephew of Monsignor Bob who was watching the livestreamed Mass from Copenhagen. Parishioners from Good Shepherd helped fill the seats in the cathedral.
“There’s a great representation from Good Shepherd in Newport. To the people of Newport, thanks so much for taking such good care of Monsignor Bob,” the bishop continued. “I’m going to do a little research—I think he might be the oldest priest in the United States to continue to serve as a pastor. That’s why we gather. That’s what all the fuss is about today, is to give thanks to almighty God for the spirit of God that will indeed live through his memory. May his memory be eternal.”
Bishop Johnston led the final commendation for Monsignor Hofstetter.
“May our farewell express our affection for him,” he said. “May it ease our sadness and strengthen our hope that we will one day joyfully greet him again when the love of Christ, which conquers all things, destroys even death itself.”
Father Nolan then sang the “Celtic Song of Farewell” as the Mass concluded.
One of Monsignor Hofstetter’s final wishes was to have diocesan priests sprinkle his casket with holy water, and that took place after Mass.
Laying him to rest in Newport
Concelebrating the funeral Mass at a standing-room-only Good Shepherd were cathedral rector Father David Boettner, Father Cummins, Father Gilbert Diaz, and Father Emmanuel Massawe, AJ. Deacon Preske was deacon of the Word, and Deacon Eric Dadey was deacon of the Eucharist. Deacon Smith assisted.
“This is the first time in my life that I’ve ever had a funeral Mass for a priest twice, but it would be incomplete if we did not do a Mass here,” Bishop Stika said. “The cathedral was a grand celebration; it was a diocesan celebration, but this is family.”
As a pall was placed over the handcrafted casket at Sacred Heart, a pall was placed over Monsignor Hofstetter’s cremains at Good Shepherd.
“The pall is a representation of our baptismal gown. With this rosary and his prayer book and his cross and his glasses, it’s just a reminder that even though we have cremains, we also have the presence of his body and the presence of his spirit,” the bishop said.
In his homily at Good Shepherd, the bishop assured the faithful that he will provide them a new shepherd.
“It’s going to take a while . . . but I’ll provide. Don’t worry about that. It may take a little time, but I’ll provide. Maybe I’ll resign as bishop and make myself pastor,” he added, drawing applause.
The bishop announced that Deacon Dadey would be appointed parish administrator until a pastor is named and that priests from Sacred Heart and All Saints in Knoxville and elsewhere would fill in for Masses.
“You’re going to be taken care of,” the bishop said.
Monsignor Hofstetter had two sisters who became Dominican Sisters, Bishop Stika pointed out.
“He had great faith because of family,” he said.
Along with the late Monsignors Xavier Mankel and George Schmidt, Monsignor Hofstetter helped get the Diocese of Knoxville off to a solid start financially when it was founded in 1988, the bishop noted.
“I think that foundation is what allows this diocese to continue to do well with vocations and growth and beauty,” he said.
Monsignor Hofstetter donated a log cabin rectory to Good Shepherd, Bishop Stika shared.
“He gave this rectory to you, maybe because he wanted to sit on the front porch of a log cabin, but that was his gift to you because he loved you,” he said.
The bishop explained why Monsignor Hofstetter was being laid to rest at Good Shepherd.
“In his will, originally he was going to be buried in the cemetery in Knoxville where a lot of our priests are buried, but he scratched that out and said, ‘the columbarium at Good Shepherd,’ because he loved you folks for so many years as a priest.”
Monsignor Hofstetter “fed his people” at each of his stops along the way in his priesthood, Bishop Stika said.
“In every assignment that Monsignor Bob did, whether it was working with college students or high school students, in the various parishes he served, as pastor, as associate, he allowed the Spirit of the Lord to continue to work with him,” he said.
God “gives us a memory of Monsignor Bob,” the bishop added. “His spirit will live on. His spirit will live with the family. Stories will be told. Stories will be shared. He donated his library to the parish. I may take out that book about the Cosmic Jesus. His memory will live on. The Spirit of the Lord will continue to live on in this parish. There will be a different shepherd, but it’s still the Good Shepherd, Jesus. . . . This parish that sits on a hill will continue on.
“What do we say today? We say thank you for the many years that he was here and at his other parishes.”
The bishop spoke of the moments after Monsignor Hofstetter was taken off the ventilator at the hospital during his final illness.
“Two hours later, God reached into his life, and I can imagine the Lord saying this: ‘It’s time, O good and faithful servant, it’s time. Come home to see my Son, Jesus, the Good Shepherd. Come home, Bob, and thank you, O good and faithful servant.’ May he rest in peace.”
Friends and family remember ‘Monsignor Bob’
Bishop Johnston recalled an early assignment as a young priest: serving under the future Monsignor Hofstetter in the early 1990s.
“I went to St. Jude in Chattanooga from ’92 to ’94. It was my second assignment as a priest, and I loved being in the rectory there with Monsignor Hofstetter. We also had a retired priest from the Philippines, Father Pio Palad, so we had a really great house. I learned so much from Monsignor Hofstetter, just about being a good pastor,” he said.
Bishop Johnston remembered the meals the monsignor served.
“I remember he would make so many meals for us priests and make it like a true community, and he was a really good cook. He had this really great bread maker, and so I always looked forward to the evening meal with Father and Father Pio Palad.”
The atmosphere in the St. Jude rectory “was a welcoming place—he just built fraternity among the priests in the house,” Bishop Johnston recalled.
The bishop remembered Monsignor Hofstetter’s penchant for poetry.
“He was fascinating. He was a very intellectually curious man and was fascinated by creation, fascinated by the world, and was just a lifelong student,” he said.
The Mass at Sacred Heart offered a chance for celebration as much as it did for mourning, Bishop Johnston pointed out.
“He lived a real full life and touched so many lives. It is sad, but in a sense you see from so many people here it’s like a reunion of all the parish families that he served in as well as the priests who served with him,” he said.
Aurelia Montgomery attended the funeral Mass at Sacred Heart. She is a former longtime diocesan superintendent of Catholic schools and former school principal who knew Monsignor Hofstetter from the days of her youth.
Monsignor Hofstetter “was very good friends with the family, ran around with all my cousins, took my sister to dances and proms in Nashville when I was growing up,” she said. “But when I came here [to Sacred Heart] and he came here [as pastor], we got to know each other better.”
The two made a pact at the funeral Mass of Monsignor Mankel in 2017.
“When we were at Monsignor Mankel’s funeral, Father Bob said to me, ‘Aurelia, who is going to come to our funeral?” Mrs. Montgomery recalled. “And I said, ‘Well, Monsignor, I don’t know, but if you go before me, I’ll come for you.’ He said, ‘OK, and if you go before me, I’ll come for you.’ So, when I got ready to say the prayer up there, I knelt down and said, ‘Here I am.’”
Deacon Preske’s wife, JoAnn, talked of Monsignor Hofstetter’s 17 years in Newport, which was the longest assignment of his career.
“We’ve been there almost that long,” she said. “He was just the best person who could be there for us. He was always so proud of us being in the school of saints, as he always called us.”
Deacon Preske echoed his wife’s words about Good Shepherd and Monsignor Hofstetter.
“He was the life of the place. He always said this church is a school for saints,” the deacon said. “He had a rapport about him that people just really wanted to do something in that parish, I mean without even asking. He would tell me, ‘I just don’t understand it. I’ve never been in a parish like this before. Everybody here is so helpful. Everybody wants to do something.’ It was because of him, but he would deny that—he would think it was the parish. It was him.”
The monsignor “was a priest who enjoyed his priesthood,” Deacon Preske observed.
“And he really did—it showed. He didn’t let anything bother him. He had a sense of humor. He said, ‘In my family there were three lawyers to keep people out of jail and one priest to keep them out of hell.’ That was Father Bob. We’re all going to miss him.”
Richard Prier, a parishioner of Good Shepherd, remembered his late pastor.
“He’s the only one in the whole parish who has actually been to my house. I’m at the top of nowhere on a goat trail is the way he used to describe it,” Mr. Prier said. “I’d come and I’d paint his house, and we’d mow the grass, and every time he was so helpful and nice. At lunchtime, he’d cook for us and make sandwiches. He was just a blessing to have around.
“I think he was the heart and soul of this place, as far as a leader or a shepherd. I couldn’t imagine how it could be done any better. He’s the only priest I’ve ever really known who I could call a friend. He seems to be on everybody’s level. He could be with the smartest and the not-so-smart, but the gifts of God he could bring out in everybody. He’s an inspiration to us all, I’m sure.”
Tom Tenbrunsel of Weaverville, N.C., attended the funeral Mass at Good Shepherd. He served at Monsignor Hofstetter’s first Mass as a priest at Holy Name Church in Nashville in 1954.
“Bobby was a friend of the family. My father and he grew up on the same street,” Mr. Tenbrunsel said. “Father Bob—we called him Bobby when no one else was around.
“Bobby and I have known each other through the whole time. He was a mentor, a friend, a hiker. He was my professor, a teacher of religion, at Father Ryan High School. I remember the one class we all gathered around his old wooden radio, and we listened to Sputnik. He was always technologically oriented. We did a lot of hiking in the Smokies. He loved the Appalachians and so did I. My sisters here, they’ve hiked with him to LeConte seven or eight times. He took a group up there.”
Monsignor Hofstetter “was one of the most caring, compassionate, genius persons that ever led souls to heaven,” Mr. Tenbrunsel said.
“He was a shepherd, for sure—ended up at Good Shepherd and is buried here,” he said. “He was a shepherd of souls to heaven. There’s nobody else who has been like him. I would call him St. Robert Hofstetter, even though the bishop might chase me out of here over that. He was that type of person, loved by everybody. I shall miss him. My last visit to him was two months ago in the log cabin, right up the hill from the church. He and I would sit and chat for hours.
“All the times I’ve been with him, I’ve never asked him for his blessing. He was just Father Bob to me. He always had his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘Hey, how are you doing?’ I turned as I walked out the front door two months ago and said, ‘Bobby, can I get your blessing?’ He gave me his blessing. Wow—there are some things that just happen. There are coincidences that are driven by heaven, and he’s one of them.”
Father John O’Neill, whose first assignment was under Monsignor Hofstetter at St. Jude, was among the many priests attending the funeral Mass at the cathedral.
“Father Bob was my first pastor, and God couldn’t have given me a better pastor and a better parish,” he said. “He was a wonderful brother, father, and fellow priest. He had a great emphasis on sitting down every single day and having supper together, and we chatted. We shared the rectory together. I look back now and realize 22, 23 years later how patient he was with me as a junior priest.”
“Father Bob” always had his back, said Father O’Neill, who visited with Monsignor Hofstetter when in East Tennessee.
“Whatever we tried, starting the Legion of Mary, going to visit the jails, preaching about Humanae Vitae, whatever happened, I always felt I had a companion and an enormous supporter at St. Jude Parish in Chattanooga,” he said. “He was so interested in other people. He was so interested in where their minds and hearts were going, and what moved them along. When he listened to you, he put both of his forearms on the table and leaned forward. Nobody except my mother gave me the same undivided attention. When I was speaking to him, it was always very dear. He was never too tired to listen to you, and he always wanted to hear what adventures you were having in the parish.”
Father O’Neill formerly was a priest in the Diocese of Knoxville and is now serving in the Diocese of Nashville. He is pastor of Holy Trinity, St. Cecilia, and Christ the Redeemer churches in Waynesboro, Hohenwald, and Centerville.
“Monsignor Bob accepted people very much as they were,” he said. “He taught me, and I’m learning now all these years later—almost a quarter of a century later—how important it is to try and accept people and receive them and understand them and realize that we don’t know everything, and we don’t have access to their souls. Only God has that.”
Monsignor Hofstetter’s niece, Mary Beth Adgent of Nashville, attended both funeral Masses.
“He’s just always been there for all of us, from when we were little and we would go to Camp Marymount, when he would offer Mass at my grandparents’ house when he could, when that was finally permissible,” she said following the Good Shepherd funeral Mass. “My aunts, who are nuns, would be there. He kind of kept us together. There were six siblings, and all had special gifts, but they all revered him. All I could think about is him getting to see my grandma. She is waiting.”
Monsignor Hofstetter’s mother died around 1975; his father died about three years before that, according to Ms. Adgent. The Nashville house that Monsignor Hofstetter grew up in stayed in the family for many years. Ms. Adgent said having Mass celebrated in the Hofstetter home was frowned on because Mr. and Mrs. Hofstetter were strict Catholic traditionalists and believed Mass should only be celebrated in a church. The parents were the soul of that family, she said.
Ms. Adgent was not surprised that Monsignor Hofstetter was an active parish pastor at age 94.
“That was just him,” she said. “He kept going. He never stopped. It was his gift to be here. He did so much hard work through many parishes, with schools, large churches, fundraising, and all that. This was his gift from the bishop to himself to be in that little house (Good Shepherd rectory). It was all he wanted. He was a hiker. He was where he needed to be.”
Ms. Adgent said all the siblings and their children attended Father Ryan High School in Nashville. Her brothers, her cousins, and her husband were all taught by then-Father Hofstetter at Father Ryan, where Monsignor Hofstetter attended school as a youth. Her daughters also attended Father Ryan after it converted from an all-boys school to co-ed.
Her father was John Hofstetter, the second oldest of Monsignor Hofstetter’s siblings. Oscar Hofstetter was the oldest sibling. Sister Adrian Marie Hofstetter, a Dominican Sister, was next, followed by Sister Margaret Marie Hofstetter, also a Dominican Sister, then Bill Hofstetter, and Monsignor Hofstetter.
Briana Harricharan Singh has been attending the Church of the Good Shepherd since 2015.
“Monsignor Bob married my husband and I in 2012. He just had such a down-to-earth personality. I appreciated that he combined religion and science and made it relatable for me. I always enjoyed his homilies,” she said.
She said his generous personality made him accessible to his parishioners. “The Church of the Good Shepherd is like family, and he made everybody feel like family and everybody reciprocated that, and we really just felt like he was a special person. He made this church special because of that.”
I got to know Monsignor Hofstetter when I was just a kid whose family were congregants at Holy Name Church and we attended Holy Name School. He said the Mass for the celebration of his parents’ and my grandparents’s 50th wedding anniversaries at Holy Name. He also taught me first year algebra at Father Ryan, and I can still see him and hear him making sure that I understood his lesson and offering any additional support he could. He was down to earth and deeply cared about the young men he taught. More than many, I think he realized just how much impact he could have on these teenagers. I guess what I remember most is his kindness and gentleness in dealing with us. That has stuck with me all these years. May he rest in peace and let perpetual light shine upon him.