Father Dowling marks 40th priestly anniversary

The pastor of St. Augustine in Signal Mountain reflects on ‘serving people by God’s grace’  

By Dan McWilliams

After morning Mass on June 18, the parishioners of St. Augustine in Signal Mountain honored pastor Father John Dowling with a reception as he marked the 40th anniversary of his priestly ordination.

Father Dowling commented on his milestone in his typical self-effacing manner.

Father Dowling celebrates Mass on June 18, one day after his 40th anniversary of priestly ordination.

“I think some people might think I’m more like Moses, basically after 40 years of wondering if we’re ever going to get to the Promised Land with this leader,” he said. “But it’s been a joy, and, yes, I did think I’d make it 40 years with all of the support and the prayer and the love that people have and the energy that you gain from being a priest and the variety of ways that you’re able to serve people by God’s grace and in His name.”

The reception, the only anniversary-related event during the weekend, was not the only way parishioners recognized their pastor’s milestone.

“They honored me by their presence at Mass,” Father Dowling said. “I didn’t want to be honored in any particular way, and I’ve been here only four years, and they probably think that’s way too long already. They have been so welcoming, and I know they’ve had a lot of priests over the years and a variety of priests with various gifts.”

Father Dowling has served several parishes in his four decades as a priest, with some assignments lasting many years, including those at Holy Ghost in Knoxville, St. John Neumann in Farragut, and Holy Family in Seymour. He has also served at St. Jude in Chattanooga, where he was ordained a priest, at St. Francis of Assisi in Fairfield Glade, and Christ the King in Tazewell.

“I had 15 years at Holy Ghost, 12 years at St. John Neumann, and nine years at Holy Family. Those were the longer stays, but every single parish I’ve been privileged to serve at indeed was a pleasure,” he said. “They all have special moments. I wouldn’t say special trials because . . . I know there are difficult times for people, but the Lord’s grace has seen us through it. I just think that from the larger parishes you get to develop more friendships and longer-lasting friendships, and also I think people are more willing to tell you what they think after you’ve been there a while. I appreciate people being upfront and feeling comfortable to be able to know that I am a person who’s open to information and insights, because I certainly don’t have all the answers.”

The 40-year priest did not want to thank any individual person upon his anniversary but mentioned the Knights of Columbus and the ladies who have served in his parish offices over the years.

“The Knights of Columbus have been a real support to me, not just in this parish but all throughout the diocese,” Father Dowling said. “The Knights have really helped me develop as a priest. One of the reasons I’ve been a Knight for almost 50 years now is because of the many ways they serve people. I think they’re an arm of the Catholic Church in a very beautiful way because they take every issue that has the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, and they take them seriously and take it to heart. They are a way of reaching out in Christ’s name in a very powerful way, and I think they allow men to find their center in a parish. I think the biggest surprise I’ve had is how helpful the Knights of Columbus have been.”

Father Dowling talks with Mike St. Charles at the priest’s anniversary reception.

Regarding parish office workers, Father Dowling said, “I’ve depended on the staff down over the years, including the ones today who serve the Lord in St. Augustine’s name and of course in Jesus’ name here at St. Augustine Parish but all the way back to my first parish in this diocese, at St. Jude, Holy Ghost, Holy Family, St. Francis, and the six schools I’ve been affiliated with—that’s been a real joy. Really, the secretaries and the DREs and the people in the day-to-day who you see, that’s really key, because if you have tension there it’s going to show to the parish. We’ve had primarily women who are working in the office down through the years, and they show the Lord’s best face and best foot forward and help a priest, and they’re invaluable. I’d say the Knights of Columbus on the one hand and then all of the staff who are there day in and day out and basically holding down the fort while the priest is doing what he needs to do.”

Being a priest has allowed Father Dowling to literally see the world.

“I feel like there’s no way I would have had the same privilege of meeting the numbers of people and the places I’ve been, including the Holy Land three times, no way I would have been able to afford that or even thought about or dreamed of doing that. That has been a real blessing. That has been a real benefit for me, eye-opening experiences, to see the universal Church active in Europe, in Canada, and throughout the United States.”

Father Dowling has seen much of the United States on hiking trips with his younger brother Father Kevin Dowling and with longtime friend Bishop James Vann Johnston Jr. of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, a son of the Diocese of Knoxville who served as a priest alongside Father John Dowling for many years. The latter thanked those fellow clergy and also Father John Orr and Father David Carter for their friendship.

“Bishop Vann Johnston and my brother Kevin, we hiked for about 30 years together, until recently,” Father John Dowling said. “Just about every year we hiked together. Besides my own family, too, those two priests have been special to me. Of course, I know many priests throughout the diocese, too numerous to name. Those two have been really, really special, Father Orr and Father Carter and others as well. The deacons who serve in the parish have been a blessing and accommodating and working for nothing except for God’s glory. I don’t want to forget about those deacons.”

Father Dowling said he misses the hiking trips, “but I know Bishop Vann has got a lot more things on his mind, and my brother Kevin is nestled down in Middle Tennessee. He’s serving in kind of a semi-retirement way, serving for those priests who are able to get a vacation and take off three or four weeks at a time, especially the ones who are from India, Africa, Ireland, or South America—he’s able to cover for them. He’s been a big help, even though he’s not a pastor anywhere.”

Father Dowling holds an anniversary gift and shows Maggie and William Robbins a cellphone photo. Maggie and William are grandchildren of St. Augustine parishioner Genie Robbins (far right).

Father Kevin Dowling is one of Father John Dowling’s three younger brothers but has been ordained two and a half years longer than his older sibling.

The hiking trio earned national recognition from the U.S. Department of the Interior after they rescued a father and two of his children from going over a waterfall in August 2002 at Glacier National Park in Montana. The man’s son had fallen into a creek near Ptarmigan Falls, and the man—with an infant daughter in a carrier on his back—went into the water to try and save his son. The priests formed a human chain with then-Father Johnston on shore and the sibling priests in the water. Despite slick rocks in the creek bed and nothing to hang on to on the shore, the three priests with the help of the boy’s father passed the youngster along the line until he reached his mother on the bank. The priests then rescued the father and daughter. The boy ended up 20 feet short of the waterfall.

The Department of the Interior held its 62nd Department Honor Awards Convocation in February 2005 in Washington, D.C., and Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton presented the priests with the Citizen’s Award for Bravery.

John R. Dowling was born in Savannah, Ga., the eldest of seven children. The future priest attended Catholic elementary schools in Savannah and Cincinnati before his family moved to Chattanooga in 1964. There he attended Notre Dame High School, graduating in 1968. He graduated from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with a bachelor’s degree in business administration in 1973.

After college, he worked for five years in the marketing and sales department of the Chattanooga Coca-Cola Bottling Co., doing price forecasting and acting as the firm’s convenience-store representative.

His priestly vocation began to take root in those days.

“It was certainly by the grace of God. It started by going to St. Jude and reflecting on and thinking about becoming a priest of the diocese,” Father Dowling said. “Then I went and tested the waters out in California, didn’t stay there long at all. It was before I got to seminary—I thought about going to a religious order out in California. I was going to stay there a week, and I thought, ‘Yep, that’s for me.’ When I finally got there, I was out there 36 hours, and I said, ‘Nope.’ I don’t know what I was thinking, so I came back and got my old job back at Coca-Cola, and then I worked another two years there and I decided, ‘You know, the Lord wants me to be a priest. He just doesn’t want me to be in a religious order.’”

Father Dowling went to Borromeo Seminary in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1978 for a year of pre-theology, then to Mount St. Mary’s in Cincinnati. He was ordained a deacon on April 3, 1982, by Archbishop Joseph L. Bernardin of Cincinnati, a future cardinal. He was ordained a priest on June 17, 1983, at St. Jude by Bishop James D. Niedergeses.

“I was ordained as a priest of the Diocese of Nashville, and then five years later in 1988 I was part of the new Diocese of Knoxville,” Father Dowling said.

The priest of 40 years stands with (from left) Deacon Tom Tidwell, Tate Tidwell III, Shannon Tidwell, Tate Tidwell IV, Mary Tidwell, and Katie Tidwell.

After a brief assignment as associate pastor of the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Nashville, the young Father Dowling was named associate pastor of St. Jude in July 1983. He spent four years there before being named associate pastor of Holy Ghost in Knoxville and pastor of Holy Family in Seymour. His assignment at Holy Family ended in 1996 when he was named pastor of Christ the King in Tazewell while also remaining at Holy Ghost. When longtime Holy Ghost pastor Father Albert Henkel died in 1996, Father Dowling became parochial administrator there.

In 1997, Father Dowling became pastor of St. John Neumann in Farragut. He was leading the West Knox County parish in 2006 when it began construction on the impressive Romanesque church it now calls home. In 2010, Father Dowling was assigned as pastor of St. Francis of Assisi in Fairfield Glade, where he served until his return to Holy Ghost in 2014. Father Dowling became pastor of St. Augustine in 2019.

At Holy Ghost, Father Dowling hosted a weekly radio program, “Let There Be Light,” on WITA-AM. During his years at St. Jude, Father Dowling taught at Notre Dame High School, and he later taught at Knoxville Catholic High School.

Father Dowling has published pamphlets for Liguori Publications that include “Have You Been Saved? A Catholic Perspective,” “The Truth About the Eucharist,” and “Why Confess Your Sins to a Priest?”

Karlin Baker, a parishioner at St. Augustine for 15 years and the parish’s secretary/bookkeeper, reflected on her pastor’s 40th anniversary.

“He came to St. Augustine right after I started the position,” she said. “We’re so blessed to have him here. He’s so joyful, and he’s so passionate about his vocation and just really inspires a lot of people and gets that fire burning for God.”

Heather Chapman, director of religious education for St. Augustine, said it’s “great” working for Father Dowling.

“He’s very supportive of the religious-ed program and always available to teach when we need him. He’s very good with the kids and very supportive of whatever we need to do. He wants to encourage people to come to Mass and receive the Eucharist and the sacraments. He’s very hands-on.”

In 2010, Father Dowling told The East Tennessee Catholic what aspect of the priesthood gave him the most joy.

“Working with people, day in and day out, in the many ways you can serve the people of God. Probably the highlight for me is the diversity in the priesthood, which enables you to use your God-given gifts in so many ways that it’s always exciting. You meet people of all walks of life in every imaginable situation, in the good times and bad, in sickness and in health, and in death. You represent Christ’s face to the world and especially to the parish, to the young and the old and people who are suffering greatly, emotionally, physically, and spiritually. You see people who are at the top of their game who certainly can minister to you.

“We priests are so blessed by so many people who are ministering to us, and I feel guilty at times. Sometimes it’s difficult to minister to people because they are so busy taking care of you. I meet so many people whose spirituality far surpasses mine, and they give me an opportunity to reflect on whether I’m really measuring up. They challenge me but in very positive ways. Not in-your-face challenges but by their very presence. They reveal God’s love through their sacrificial giving and their willingness to help and reach out.”

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