Bishop Stika cites successes and challenges for the Church in East Tennessee
By Jim Wogan
In his 14 years guiding the Diocese of Knoxville, Bishop Richard F. Stika says he remains motivated by something he spoke about during his episcopal ordination at the Knoxville Convention Center on March 19, 2009.
“I proclaimed it then, and it remains my motivation even after all these years,” Bishop Stika said. “Teach Jesus; that is what I said we would do. And together we have done that since I arrived here almost 14 years ago.”
Those who have observed his work say that when Bishop Stika arrived in East Tennessee it seemed obvious that his other goal was to lead the diocese from infancy into adolescence.
“I have heard that,” Bishop Stika said. “Anyone who has raised a child would probably agree that moving them along in life can be a test. It requires love, and sometimes there are challenges. Parents know this, and they understand that tough love is also an essential part of being a good parent.”
“Sometimes parents don’t have all the answers,” the bishop continued. “Books are nice, but most parents will probably tell you that nothing prepares you for parenthood more than experience. You learn as you go, and you make decisions based on what is right for your child. Sometimes, it’s the same for a bishop. But instead of books, we pray…a lot.
“A lot has happened in the diocese since I arrived here, and it has been good for those we serve—Catholics and also non-Catholics. We have grown, we have been faithful and charitable, and we continue to teach Jesus with our words and through our actions. Sometimes we need to be reminded of that.”
The Diocese of Knoxville turns 35 years old in 2023. The “new” cathedral will celebrate its fifth birthday in March. Bishop Stika, the longest serving bishop of the diocese, will mark 14 years as its shepherd next month. Other anniversaries and milestones are approaching. The bishop took time recently to update readers of The East Tennessee Catholic on the state of the diocese.
In January, the diocese posted its independently audited financial report for the 2021-22 fiscal year. The report is placed on the diocesan website and in The East Tennessee Catholic newspaper.
Bishop Stika called it “a very good year” for the diocese. Parish offertory was up nearly 10 percent, and the Bishop’s Appeal for ministries, something the bishop refers to as “the lifeblood of all that we do with our social programs,” is expected to top $3 million for the first time in diocesan history.
“Your commitment and generosity have allowed our diocese to prudently reduce debt, educate seminarians, feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, provide medical care for the uninsured, form our young people in the Catholic faith, and helped our diocese grow in many other ways that fulfill Jesus’ call to evangelize,” Bishop Stika said in a letter that accompanied the report’s publication.
“People in this diocese are extremely generous,” he said during the recent interview. “When COVID hit, there was uncertainty in every diocese in the United States. With that uncertainty, we had to ask, should we cut back, should we trim budgets? But we have been pretty good with the predictability of our budgets. This fiscal year we should be under budget again; I think that’s two years in a row.”
The bishop said the diocese extended tangible financial rewards to employees by providing significant direct contributions to health savings accounts in 2022 and by providing health-care premium holidays for two months.
Parishioners dug deep to help people and causes outside of East Tennessee. Through special parish collections, the diocese raised more than $340,000 to help victims of the Russian war in Ukraine.
The bishop believes, despite its status as a mission diocese, that the Catholic Church in East Tennessee has shown it is capable of great things as it moves ahead in 2023.
“We must make sure we are able to stand on our own two feet. We can’t always think that we’re a small diocese that nobody pays attention to,” he said. “People have helped us along the way, organizations like Catholic Extension, … but we also have to stand on our own feet to be available to help other people.”The Diocese of Knoxville supports its parishes and ministries in different, yet very impactful ways. That support grew in 2022.
- The St. Mary’s Legacy Foundation designated nearly $1.5 million in combined grant distributions in 2022 and 2023. More than $733,000 went to support diocesan Catholic schools and tuition assistance, and $354,500 assisted parish St. Vincent de Paul conferences and Catholic Charities of East Tennessee programs.
- The Pope Francis Charitable Trust Fund distributed more than $106,000 in 2022. The matching grants assist parish charitable efforts. Those efforts include direct, grassroots services to assist the poor in the form of food, shelter, and clothing.
- The Catholic Foundation of East Tennessee distributed more than $125,000 in 2022. Since its inception, the fund has given almost $3.9 million in support of seminarian education and property purchases for building churches.
- The Catholic Education Trust Fund provided more than $550,000 for education at 10 Catholic schools in 2021-22. It will distribute more than $560,000 this fiscal year.
When the COVID pandemic struck, Bishop Stika gave parishes an opportunity to expand technical capabilities, including the development of new websites and the purchase and installation of video streaming equipment. Nearly $200,000 was distributed to parishes between 2020 and 2022 for this effort.
- The Bishop’s Appeal for Ministries is “the lifeblood” of diocesan charity, Bishop Stika said. In 2022, the appeal is expected to raise more than $3 million for the first time in history.
It distributed $578,000 for Christian formation, $500,000 for clergy and seminarian education, $500,000 for Catholic Charities of East Tennessee, and $465,000 for youth, young adult, and college campus ministries. Additional funds were used to support the Office of Justice and Peace and the St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic.
“I think the numbers we’re seeing are barometers that indicate people believe in what we are doing. If people don’t trust you or they don’t like your vision, they will not give,” Bishop Stika said. “A gift to the Church isn’t because of my personality; a gift to the Church is to help people on their journey in life and faith.”
The Church is built in various ways, and the Diocese of Knoxville is no different. Spiritual growth was measured by the number of sacraments offered, Masses celebrated, and a few shovels of God’s good earth being turned.
Major work started on building a new St. Alphonsus Church in Crossville. Father Mark Schuster, recently installed as pastor there is now leading the effort that began under Father Jim Harvey.
“They have a really nice facility for classrooms and a parish hall, and they have been worshiping on Sunday at the parish hall, which means after Mass on Sunday they have had to pick up all the chairs and move them back and forth all these years,” the bishop said.
“I visited Crossville a few weeks ago to bless a bell that was gifted to the parish and will be placed in the new bell tower there. I am going back in March to dedicate the church,” the bishop added. “It is going gangbusters. It will be a beautiful, beautiful church.”
In Chattanooga, a strong Vietnamese community recently established as a Public Association of the Faithful is raising enough money to purchase a building for its own church.
“This will give us two vibrant Vietnamese worship communities, our parish in Knoxville, and God willing, someday a full parish in Chattanooga. The diocese already celebrates Masses in English, Spanish, Korean, Tagalog (Philippine) Swahili, and Polish. For a small diocese in a region perceived as not being very diverse, we truly reflect the global Catholic Church here,” Bishop Stika said.
The bishop traveled to Rutledge to dedicate the new St. John Paul II Church in May.
“Thanks to the presence of the Glenmary priests, we have three Catholic churches in remote communities where once there were none,” Bishop Stika noted. “In recent years, I was able to dedicate new churches in Maynardville (St. Teresa of Kolkata) and in Erwin (St. Michael the Archangel), and now the community in Rutledge is growing and I was able to dedicate their new church in 2022.
“It was a blessing seeing the members of this parish work hard to move from their rented space in a strip mall to a new church they built and can call their own.”
In May, Bishop Stika ordained Joseph Austin, Neil Blatchford, and Andrew Crabtree to the transitional diaconate. All three men are scheduled to be elevated to the priesthood this year. Bishop Stika also ordained 23 new permanent deacons in June. In December, he incardinated Father Valentin Iurochkin, a priest from Russia, into the Diocese of Knoxville.
“Father Valentin has been a gift. He serves faithfully and with enthusiasm at both the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul and as the chaplain at the Catholic Center on the campus of the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga,” Bishop Stika pointed out.
Last month, Bishop Stika traveled to Mexico City to ordain Renzo Alvarado Suarez as a transitional deacon for the Diocese of Knoxville.
“Our vocations are strong, but we can’t rest on our laurels. We can’t just say we’re fine, we are getting enough priests. No, because we have guys who are retiring and guys who deservedly maybe don’t want the responsibility to be a pastor anymore, but they still want to function as a priest. We have lost several good priests who passed away lately: Father (Joe) Brando, Monsignor (Bob) Hofstetter, Father (Christopher) Riehl, and Monsignor (Bill) Gahagan,” Bishop Stika said.
“Three of them were retired, but they all meant so much to our diocese. We still need a sense of purpose in terms of vocational recruitment,” he added.
In 2021, more than 1,200 children and adults received the sacrament of confirmation. The numbers for 2022 and 2023 are expected to be similar. In one vivid example of the growth in the diocese, more than 160 children are expected to be confirmed during three Masses this year in the newly renovated sanctuary at St. Patrick Church in Morristown.
Each of the 10 Catholic schools in the diocese saw an increase in enrollment for the 2022-23 academic year.
“We’re tremendously excited about this,” Bishop Stika said. “Our school leadership has done an outstanding job highlighting the benefits of a Catholic education to their communities and delivering on those promises.
“While we are stronger in all regions of the diocese, I am especially pleased with the efforts in Chattanooga. Leadership there has Notre Dame moving in the right direction. Very happy.”
In 2009, before Bishop Stika arrived in Knoxville, the diocese had three religious communities serving in East Tennessee. Today, there are 10. In December, the Benedictine Daughters of Divine Will and the Benedictines of Divine Will women’s and men’s communities were approved to move from Italy to the Diocese of Knoxville. Bishop Stika signed the decree establishing them as a Public Association of the Faithful on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Dec. 12.
Thanks to the gift of a donor, two separate monasteries are being built on a 125-acre site near Knoxville. The communities hope to occupy their respective monasteries this summer. Four Benedictine priests and six to seven Benedictine nuns are expected to be part of the orders’ beginning in East Tennessee.
Bishop Stika said that he expects to ordain three new priests and two new deacons from the Benedictine community.
In March, the diocese welcomed nearly 200 new Catholics into the Church during Easter Vigil. Christian formation, religious education, and a path to full communion with the Church remain priorities.
“Deacon Jim Bello now heads our Christian Formation office, and he’s moving it in a great direction,” Bishop Stika said. “We want to continue giving families resources to grow in our faith and receive the sacraments of baptism, first Communion, and confirmation, and to continue bringing new people fully into the faith if they’ve missed any of those steps.”
Roe v. Wade decision
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that abortion is not constitutionally protected, reversing almost a half-century of legalized abortion in the country. Bishop Stika said that the diocese won’t change its pro-life efforts.
“Tennessee and other states have moved to make abortion illegal, and I support this,” Bishop Stika said. “But we know that other states and activist groups are pushing to overturn or block our right to protect innocent lives, and we need to remain steadfast in what we’re doing. Our voices need to be heard and our work needs to continue.
“In August, Catholic Charities of East Tennessee opened its new adoption services office. This is a significant step for our diocese in that we can now give women an option that protects the life of their unborn child and gives couples struggling to have children an opportunity to build a loving family. What a joy this is for everyone.”
Lawsuits, media backlash, and other challenges
The year did not pass without its share of challenges. The diocese was named as a defendant in two separate and unrelated civil lawsuits—one involving allegations of sexual abuse by a priest serving in Gatlinburg and the other focused on abuse allegations against a former seminarian. The priest, not currently serving in ministry, also faces criminal charges.
“These cases, on a number of levels, have been difficult,” Bishop Stika said. “We have been pressed to answer questions from the media, and I respect their interest, but all of these are accusations, and we will answer relevant questions in the proper way, under oath, and at the proper time, in a court of law, if it comes to that.”
“It’s been difficult to endure some of the one-sidedness of the reporting. The media is doing what it does, and they’ve given us an opportunity to respond,” he added. “There are some details being reported, based on allegations, that are just flat-out incorrect. We will respond to those and the other allegations in court when necessary.
“It’s disappointing that those criticizing us for utilizing the rights we’re afforded under the law would expect their rights to be protected if it were them being accused of something.”
In December, the diocese announced a unique, new partnership with the McNabb Center to serve as the new Victims Assistance Coordinator for anyone who feels they’ve been the target of sexual abuse in the Church.
“This partnership is a good, positive step for the diocese and the Catholic Church,” Bishop Stika said. “We had an excellent coordinator, but she passed away in March 2022 after a courageous battle with cancer. When discussing options, it was mentioned that while we know we were doing things the right way before, perhaps it would be an even stronger move if we offered this position to someone completely outside the diocese and the Catholic Church. It was a huge, positive move and might serve as a model for other dioceses. Unfortunately, all that gets lost in the sensationalism and innuendo.”