Longtime priest Father Hostettler dies at 100

He led parishes statewide for 73 years, including his beloved St. Catherine Labouré in Copperhill 

By Dan McWilliams

Father Paul Hostettler, a priest for 73 years who celebrated his 100th birthday in May and dearly loved his time at St. Catherine Labouré Parish in Copperhill in East Tennessee, passed away peacefully on Oct. 18 at The Waters of Cheatham Nursing Home in Ashland City, Tenn.

A Nashville native, Father Hostettler served throughout East, Middle, and West Tennessee, overseeing church building projects at St. Thérèse of Lisieux in Cleveland and St. Mary in Athens, both in the 1960s. Ordained for service in the Diocese of Nashville at a time when it covered the entire state, he became incardinated in the Diocese of Knoxville upon its creation in 1988.

Father Hostettler was a Golden Gloves high school champion as well as boxing champion of Kenrick Seminary, and he was an avid horseman and trainer. He relished hiking in his much-loved East Tennessee mountains and enjoyed many rounds of golf in his life, even earning a hole-in-one. He was a talented artist, portrait painter, and cartoonist.

Diocese of Knoxville chancellor Deacon Sean Smith proclaims the Gospel at Father Hostettler’s funeral Mass on Oct. 24 at the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Nashville.

On May 12, Bishop J. Mark Spalding of Nashville, along with family and friends, helped Father Hostettler celebrate his 100th birthday that day.

In 2021, Father Hostettler told The East Tennessee Catholic that 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.

“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.

Paul Altman Hostettler was born May 12, 1923, in Nashville, a son of George Frederick and Mary Griffith Hostettler. He attended Cathedral Elementary School and Father Ryan High School. He studied for the priesthood at St. Ambrose College in Davenport, Iowa, and Kenrick Seminary in St. Louis. While Father Hostettler attended college at St. Ambrose, he had to transfer after one year to Kenrick when the U.S. Navy took over the dormitories at St. Ambrose during World War II.

He was ordained to the transitional diaconate by St. Louis Archbishop (and future cardinal) Joseph E. Ritter on Sept. 24, 1949, at Kenrick.

Father Hostettler was the founding pastor of St. Mary, serving there from 1967-69, before returning to Athens again as pastor from 1987-93.

Bishop William L. Adrian of Nashville ordained him a priest with six others on June 3, 1950, at the Cathedral of the Incarnation.

As he was kneeling before the altar, Bishop Adrian laid his hands on Father Hostettler’s head.

“When he did that, I thought he was going to push me through the step I was kneeling on,” the priest recalled for the Tennessee Register in 2015. “And when he let go, I thought I was going to fly through the ceiling. I may have been in ecstasy for about a half-hour.”

Father Hostettler’s first assignment was as an assistant at Sacred Heart Parish in Memphis. He became pastor of St. Joseph in Jackson in 1956 and chaplain of the Knights of Columbus in Jackson in 1958.

That same year, he received a new assignment to be pastor of the Church of the Resurrection in Cleveland, which was looking to build a new worship space. Under Father Hostettler’s leadership, land was purchased on Clingan Ridge Road in 1960, and the newly built church—now named for St. Thérèse of Lisieux—was dedicated in April 1962.

The Cleveland priest was the founding pastor of St. Mary Parish in Athens. In 1965, Bishop Adrian received a request about the possibility of establishing a parish in Athens. He suggested that those interested should contact Father Hostettler to help determine the number of Catholics in the area and the prospects for erecting a chapel or renting a building. In 1967, Bishop Joseph A. Durick, coadjutor bishop of Nashville, asked Father Hostettler and Monsignor Francis Pack of Chattanooga to come to Athens and explore locations for the celebration of Mass. They recommended to the bishop the use of the Quisenberry-Laycock funeral parlor, where the first-ever Mass in Athens took place on June 11, 1967, celebrated by Father Hostettler.

Monsignor Pack and Father Hostettler continued to scout locations and found an abandoned restaurant on four and a half acres of tall weeds on a road that eventually became Congress Parkway. The Diocese of Nashville purchased the property, and the restaurant was converted into a church by spring 1968. The Athens parish was a mission of St. Thérèse of Lisieux and was called the Athens Catholic Mission at first. On May 12, 1968, Bishop Durick celebrated the dedication Mass and chose the name of St. Mary for the mission.

During his years in Cleveland, Father Hostettler also served for the first time in his priestly career at St. Catherine Labouré in Copperhill.

Father Hostettler remained with the Cleveland Catholic community until 1969. At that time, he became pastor of St. Edward in Nashville, where he served until 1971, when he was reassigned to the cathedral in Nashville as assistant to the pastor. In 1972, he started a new assignment as pastor of St. Patrick Parish in McEwen. During his time there, he also served as chaplain of the Turney Center, a prison-rehabilitation center in Only, and oversaw the construction of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Tennessee Ridge.

Father Paul Hostettler inspects a baked Alaska prepared for his 70th birthday on May 12, 1993, a day when St. Mary Parish in Athens celebrated its 25th anniversary

In 1977, Father Hostettler became pastor of St. Augustine in Signal Mountain. Four years later, he was assigned as administrator of St. Paul the Apostle in Tullahoma and then as pastor of St. Matthew in Franklin. He returned to St. Mary in Athens in 1987 as the first diocesan priest to serve the parish, which previously had been under the care of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate.

Father Hostettler was present for the Mass at St. Mary in Athens on May 12, 1993, celebrating the 25th anniversary of the parish. The Mass fell on his 70th birthday. Father Hostettler, who while serving in Athens also was pastor of St. Catherine Labouré in Copperhill, retired in 1993 but continued to serve the Copperhill parish in the state’s southeastern corner.

In 2007, Father Hostettler retired again and moved to Nashville.

“I wish to thank Father Paul for his outstanding and generous priestly service, most recently in Copperhill but also over many years throughout our diocese,” Bishop Joseph E. Kurtz, Knoxville’s second shepherd, wrote at the time. “Our presbyterate has been blessed by his love for the priesthood and his fidelity and joy in his vocation.”

Father Hostettler moved back to his hometown to be closer to family. For several years, he served as chaplain at Mary, Queen of Angels assisted-living facility, celebrating Mass and later becoming a resident there.

Father Hostettler told The East Tennessee Catholic in 2015 that he was most thankful for “the fact that God chose me out of all the infinite number of people He could have chosen. I can’t understand why He did, but I’m thankful that He did.”

He had no plans to celebrate his 65th anniversary as a priest, which occurred a few days after he made those comments.

“Every day is a celebration,” he said. “I don’t need to have a great big one. I’m going to thank God again on that day in a special way and just keep going.”

He credited Bishop Adrian for inspiring him to become a priest.

As he told the Tennessee Register in 2015, he attended Father Ryan High School’s annual Mothers and Sons Banquet while a student there. During his talk, Bishop Adrian said, “Someday, one of you boys might be sitting over there,” pointing to the table where the priests were sitting, Father Hostettler recalled. “I didn’t think any more about it.”

About three months later, he was caught in a summer storm and sought refuge under a tree. While standing there in the dark, Bishop Adrian’s comments popped into his head, and he realized what he meant. In that instant, Father Hostettler’s call to the priesthood was clear, he said.

“I decided I was going to be a priest, and nothing could stop me but God, and I’ve never changed my mind,” Father Hostettler said.

He made no bones about the parish closest to his heart.

“My favorite place was Copperhill,” he told the Register in 2015. “It’s a very small town. When I was living there, there were only about 400 people living in the town, and I got to know a whole bunch of them. I loved that part of the state. Something about it got into my blood.”

Father Paul Hostettler delivers the homily April 15, 2000, at St. Catherine Labouré Church in Copperhill during the celebration of the parish’s 50th anniversary.

“I loved the little town of Copperhill, and the people who lived there who were Catholic,” Father Hostettler told The East Tennessee Catholic in 2021. “It was among the smallest towns in the state of Tennessee. I was there twice.”

Celebrating Mass and administering the sacraments for people is the most fulfilling aspect of being a priest, Father Hostettler told the Register.

“That’s when you’re another Christ. When you say, ‘This is my Body, this is my Blood’ … that’s a great privilege to do that for the people.”

Father Hostettler was serving in Copperhill when he marked his 50th anniversary as a priest in 2000.

“On May 12, I turned 77, exceeding my expectations by 12 years,” he told The East Tennessee Catholic then. “I didn’t think I’d live to collect Social Security.”

Father Hostettler was living at Mary, Queen of Angels in 2020 when he celebrated his 70th anniversary in the priesthood.

“It’s the greatest thing that’s happened to me, to become a priest,” he told the Register on that occasion. “What I have enjoyed as a priest is being able to offer the Mass and change the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ and give it to other people. It’s almost the same privilege to say to people, I forgive you your sins, and if they’re sorry, they’re forgiven. …

“I’ve never done anything in my life that gave me more pleasure than fulfilling my duties as a priest. I think any Catholic should realize that they have a vocation in the Church, and they should try to fulfill the duties of that vocation to the best of their abilities. A priest has the duty of teaching the faith and administering the sacraments. They should try to love that work and do the best you can.”

In the 2021 interview with The East Tennessee Catholic, Father Hostettler fondly remembered his friendship with Father Albert Henkel, the former longtime pastor of Holy Ghost Parish in Knoxville. They played golf together regularly. He also played golf on occasion with former Bishop James D. Niedergeses of Nashville and Bishop Kurtz.

Father Paul Hostettler (left) stands with his friend (and one of his golfing buddies) Bishop James D. Niedergeses of the Diocese of Nashville.

“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.

Father Hostettler was preceded in death by his parents; stepmother, Delia Eileen (Flynn) Hostettler; brothers, George F. Hostettler Jr. and Phillip Joseph Hostettler Sr.; and niece Barbara (Hostettler) Rowland.

He is survived by his niece and nephews, Connie (Hostettler) Radford of Louisville, Ky.; Phillip Hostettler Jr. of Joelton, Tenn.; Paul A. Hostettler of Bethpage, Tenn.; John L. Hostettler of Murfreesboro; George F. Hostettler III of Ashland City; and Jeff Hostettler of Springfield, Tenn., along with 16 great-nieces and great-nephews and six great-great-nieces and great-great-nephews.

Visitations for Father Hostettler were held Oct. 23 at Marshall-Donnelly-Combs Funeral Home in Nashville and Oct. 24 at the Cathedral of the Incarnation. His funeral Mass was celebrated by Bishop Spalding on Oct. 24 at the Cathedral of the Incarnation. Several priests of the Diocese of Nashville concelebrated, including the homilist, Father Dan Steiner, associate pastor of the Nashville cathedral. Diocese of Knoxville chancellor Deacon Sean Smith was deacon of the Word. Deacon Joe Holzmer was deacon of the altar.

Father Steiner noted Father Hostettler’s lifelong devotion to the Blessed Mother, which he said he believed stemmed from the latter’s early loss of his own mother. Father Steiner even shared Father Hostettler’s own words about Mary, found in his many writings while a resident at Mary, Queen of Angels.

“Our Blessed Mother. If we had known Eve before the fall, we would have loved her because she was beautiful and good, but especially because she is our mother,” Father Hostettler wrote. “How much more should we love Mary! She is more beautiful, she is holier, too. And she is not only our mother. She is the Mother of God. O most beautiful, O most holy, O most wonderful mother!”

In his homily, Father Steiner read what Father Hostettler wrote about true friends: “A true friend is one, as our Lord said, who will lay down his life for you. You are his true friend only if you are ready to lay down your life for Him. One wonders if there are many true friends. Christians know one thing: Christ died for them. He is their true friend.”

“Father Paul’s priesthood has led thousands and thousands of souls to Christ, and he brought Christ to thousands and thousands of souls,” Father Steiner said.

“As a priest, how many sins has he absolved in 73 years? How many Masses did he offer? How many baptisms? How many souls has he brought into the Church? How many funerals? How many times has he prepared souls for that final journey?” Father Steiner asked. “He … truly loved going on sick calls and being there with the sick. How many times did he perform the sacrament of the last rites or even marriages and first Communions?

“He continues to show each of us how we should be centered on Christ at all times, knowing that, whatever the Lord is going to ask you and I to do, just as he asked Father Paul, if we trust the Lord and receive what He gives us, we will be able to do it only by His grace,” Father Steiner concluded, before quoting Father Hostettler one more time.

“‘Faith is what we believe, how we believe, and why we believe. There is a crisis in the faith today,’” Father Hostettler wrote in 1973. “‘Many no longer believe the old truths taught by the Church (the what and the why), and the reason has to be either because they never had the gift of faith (the how), or because they lost it.

“‘In either case, the crisis in faith will not be ended until those who have the name Catholic believe all that the Catholic Church teaches, professes, and believes herself.’

“We love you, Father Paul, and entrust you into Our Blessed Mother’s tender loving hands,” Father Steiner said, “so that she may intercede for your salvation now, and as she did at the hour of his death.”

Father Hostettler was buried after the funeral Mass in the Priests Circle at Calvary Cemetery in Nashville. To view the full funeral Mass, visit the Diocese of Nashville Facebook page.

Donations in Father Hostettler’s name may be made to assisted-living facility Mary, Queen of Angels, 34 White Bridge Pike, Nashville, TN 37205, or to the St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic, 805 S. Northshore Drive, Knoxville, TN 37919.

Father Hostettler’s priesthood was filled with a variety of experiences illustrative of his age that bespoke wisdom and humility, he told The East Tennessee Catholic in 2019. He said he had 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.

At the time of that interview, he said he was resigned to living in the Diocese of Nashville again and was even comforted by being “home,” although Copperhill and St. Catherine Labouré Parish still called 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.


Portions of this article were obtained from the Tennessee Register.

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