Father Wil Steinbacher, a Glenmary priest who has served in the Diocese of Nashville for 20 years as a missionary, retreat leader, prison minister and environmental advocate, is, at age 84, finally ready to slow down.
He is retiring at the end of the year and moving to the Community of Glenmary Missioners in Cincinnati, his order’s headquarters.
“We are all missionaries, born out of the water and fire of the Spirit in baptism,” Father Wil said. “I just happen to be a full-time missionary.
“The grace of being a missionary full-time is a great gift I treasure,” he said. It’s “not something I do, it’s something I am.”
Father Wil, who grew up in Pennsylvania, joined the Glenmary Home Missioners more than 60 years ago, after feeling the call to serve those on the margins. Glenmary priests and sisters are dedicated to serving in areas of the U.S. characterized by high poverty rates and low to no presence of a Catholic priest.
He originally came to Nashville to work as the associate director of the Glenmary Research Center, formerly based in Nashville, which studied and mapped demographic trends in American religious life. During that time Father Wil began attending Mass and assisting at Holy Name Church in East Nashville, a parish he remains strongly connected with today and which will host his retirement party on Nov. 17.
After the Glenmary Research Center closed up shop in Nashville, Father Wil stayed in the diocese, filling in at Masses, helping with penance services, leading spiritual retreats, especially for catechumens and candidates, hosting workshops on mission, and working in prison ministry.
Father Wil regularly celebrates Mass and ministers to prisoners at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution, the Lois M. DeBerry Special Needs Facility, and the Tennessee Prison for Women.
“As part of my missionary life I try to connect with the poor and needy,” he said. Prison ministry is “a huge need and not many priests can do this,” mainly because they’re stretched thin with their own parish obligations, he said.
Prison ministry has been a thread that has run throughout Father Wil’s life in ministry. His first assignment was at a tiny parish in South Georgia, where he also served as the Catholic chaplain at the Georgia State Prison. “It was the most difficult time,” he said. “Racism was rampant. It was dangerous for many reasons.”
At that time, in the early 1960s, prisoners were still segregated by race. Father Wil celebrated Mass for the black inmates on Wednesday and the white inmates on Saturday. Three times he accompanied men to die in the electric chair. He really had no training to work in a prison or be with men as they were about to be executed. “It was just me and Jesus and the inmates,” Father Wil said.
His work inside the prisons has taught him “how to treat people,” he said, and energized his ministry. “I find the women and men to be receptive to hearing the Word and discussing it with energy.”
Earlier in his ministry, Father Wil served as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ representative to the Southern Baptist Convention for several years. As part of that experience, “I learned to appreciate other Christians’ approach to things … how to pray spontaneously there,” he said.
He also worked in parishes in Mississippi, establishing two different churches, planning, building and painting the new churches alongside his parishioners. His work as a missionary in Mississippi and elsewhere has always been bolstered by laypeople, “who, every day and everywhere are called to witness the love, joy and peace of God,” he said.
As a member of the Glenmary leadership team in the early 1990s, Father Wil traveled throughout his order’s mission territory, which stretched across the Southeast and into Appalachia, visiting and offering support to Glenmary priests serving in these areas.
As missionaries, Glenmary priests are typically the only priest in rural or remote areas, and in need of support to navigate their parish’s challenges, including cultural and political divides. “It’s a struggle to bring different kinds of people together,” Father Wil said.
Glenmary priests have served in the Diocese of Nashville for many years. Currently, Father Vic Subb is the only Glenmary pastor in the diocese, at Holy Family Church in Lafayette, near the Kentucky border, which recently dedicated a new church. He also serves Divine Savior Church in Celina.
In recent years, Father Wil has been involved with Tennessee Interfaith Power and Light (TIPL), “a spiritual response to climate change.”
“I’m just heartsick at what’s happening. … I see it as a tragedy that could be stopped,” he said. “It’s God’s Earth, and I see it as a rejection of God’s presence” when resources are misused or solutions ignored, he said.
With an active and growing membership, TIPL represents a “movement of the Spirit” in the world today, Father Wil said.
As the Church and society continue to struggle with issues like the priest sex abuse crisis, climate change, women’s equality, and racism, “I see seeds of light in the darkness,” he said. “The work of the Spirit is bringing forth change.”