Father Ed Steiner, pastor of St. Philip the Apostle Church in Franklin, had no idea his parishioners were about to pull off a major feat when he walked into Bucca di Beppo for dinner Saturday, May 27.
What was meant to be a nice Italian dinner out with Father Philip Halladay, pastor of St. Luke Church in Smyrna, and St. Philip parishioners Lloyd and Woo Crockett, turned into a surprise celebration of the 40th anniversary of his priestly ordination with more than 60 people in attendance.
“Pulling off a surprise is hard to do with me,” Father Steiner said. “I kept telling the ones that put it together, ‘I’m so proud of you.’ People haven’t gotten one over on me in a long time.”
“I never suspected a thing,” he added. “I’m not a big one to celebrate birthdays or anniversaries. Normally, I like to have a quiet, peaceful alone day.”
“He had said many times that he didn’t want anything … but this was a special day, and we couldn’t let the day go past without a celebration,” said Ana Zarraga, pastoral associate for St. Philip. “It’s important because this is a man who has dedicated 40 plus years to a vocation of priesthood, and we were blessed to have him now and be able to give back to him for what he has done for us as his flock, so to me it was very important to honor him … and we were able to … just enjoy an evening with a priest, a pastor and a friend.”
“It was wonderful to be a part of (the celebration), and it was wonderful to see him so surprised,” said Carole Guthrie, a St. Philip parishioner. “He’s so approachable for parishioners who need to talk to him about something and seems to really enjoy being a priest. We’re enjoying him, and his sense of humor also is very enjoyable.
“He can capture in a homily so much information, but it is given to us in the pews so understandably,” she said. “He has this way historically, as well as spiritually, of giving that message. He’s a terrific homilist.”
“He has been very highly accepted at St. Philip, and (the party) was a wonderful compliment to him,” added Lloyd Crockett. “I can’t say enough great things about him. We are very appreciative to Bishop Spalding for sending him to us.”
During the evening, Father Steiner was presented with a framed Papal Blessing from Pope Francis as well as a framed letter of thanks for his service to the diocese from Bishop J. Mark Spalding. Additionally, staff members read letters sent by his mother and sisters, before all in attendance stood up to read “A Toast to Father Ed” also written by Father Steiner’s mother.
“I was just stunned, and I couldn’t have been happier,” Father Steiner said. “It was great.”
“We are thankful for Father Ed and his service to the diocese and our parish,” said Kim Leisinger, director of administration at St. Philip. “We appreciate his ‘yes’ to the Holy Spirit and to Bishop Spalding.”
Father Steiner said his journey to the priesthood began while he was a senior in high school at Notre Dame High School in Chattanooga. At the time, he was set on either going to law school or medical school, that is until Father Mike Johnston, who was a teacher at the school, called him into his office one day to talk.
“He got me to lay out all the different things in my life that I was involved in,” Father Steiner explained, as Father Johnston asked him what things made him think he was interested in law and medicine respectively.
“He took me through a discussion and then asked, ‘What do you spend all of your time doing?’” Father Steiner said. “As I talked, it was church, church, church. He said, ‘I think you ought to think a little bit about priesthood,’ and then he left it at that.”
Father Steiner said he did start to consider it. Then, one evening, he received a call from Father James Mallett, former vocations director for the Diocese of Nashville.
“He was going up to St. Meinrad to visit our seminarians that were up there, and he asked me if I wanted to go. I said sure,” Father Steiner recalled. “I loved Father Mallett. He and my father were great friends.”
During that trip, Father Steiner stayed in a room with two of the diocese’s seminarians, and before he knew it, “I hung a U-turn and, all of a sudden, I’m going to St. Meinrad,” he said. “I told Father Mallett I wanted to go, and he started the process.”
“What Father Johnston did (in that first meeting) was to get me to reflect on my activities and what they suggested,” he said. “It suggested that I ought to at least consider this seminarian thing.”
Following his seven years of study at St. Meinrad, Father Steiner was ordained a priest on May 28, 1982, in his home parish of St. Jude Church in Chattanooga.
“At the time, Bishop (James) Niedergeses really wanted to see guys be ordained in their home parishes,” Father Steiner explained. “So many of our seminarians, they weren’t from Nashville, so getting all your friends and families to Nashville would’ve been hard.”
40 years of ministry
Following his ordination, Father Steiner began his priesthood as associate pastor of the Church of the Holy Rosary in Nashville for seven years, while concurrently serving as a junior religion teacher at Father Ryan High School, as well as interim principal for one year and associate principal for one year.
His next assignment was pastor of St. Joseph Church in Madison for 12 years, where he became heavily involved with volunteer chaplaincy for both the Metro police and the local fire department as several of their families attended the church.
“That is a big piece of the pie at St. Joseph that I loved,” Father Steiner said.
After St. Joseph, he was assigned as pastor of Immaculate Conception Church in Clarksville. While there, he became heavily involved with military families at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.
“Most of the time I was in Clarksville, the 101st Airborne (Division) … was deployed downrange. All the chaplains went with the Division, so they didn’t really have a priest on the post to speak of,” Father Steiner explained. “Then-Archbishop Edwin Frederick O’Brien, now Cardinal O’Brien, whom I knew through a friend, had come to do a visitation as he was over the Archdiocese for Military Services at the time.
“We went to dinner one night, and he asked me, ‘Do you have any ideas on what we can do to get all these families served that are here?’” Father Steiner recalled. “I said, ‘Archbishop, the way I look at it, that’s a parish down the road. I’ll take care of them just like I would if a pastor down the road was going to be gone for an extended period of time.’ And that’s what I did.”
“One of my favorite parts of being up there was actually being a pastor to the military families while their husbands or wives were deployed,” he continued. “I learned real quick that soldiers have chaplains, but the families need a pastor. They’re two different skillsets, so I thoroughly enjoyed that.”
After six years at Immaculate Conception, Father Steiner then became pastor of the Cathedral of the Incarnation for the next 11 years. That was his first taste of not also having a school to take care of, too, which, at first, he thought he’d enjoy.
“You love the kids, but in terms of all the finances and planning, schools were really tough, so for a while, I really liked not having a school,” he said. “Then, I did really start to miss it.
“I could have easily spent my whole life in education, which I would’ve absolutely loved,” he added.
Finally, after 11 years at the Cathedral, he became pastor of St. Philip in 2020.
Promise of obedience
Through each new assignment, even though it meant saying goodbye to ministries that he loved being part of, he always remembered one specific promise made at his ordination.
“One of my promises that I take very, very seriously is when I knelt in front of Bishop Niedergeses, and he said, ‘Do you promise to me and my successors obedience and respect,’ and I said, ‘yes,’” Father Steiner said. “Whenever I’ve been asked about a move, there is that little piece of you that always wants to say, ‘no,’ and you might go back and forth, but in the final analysis, when it is all over and done with, I made a promise.
“And when the bishop says, ‘Ed, I appreciate all your concerns, but I need you to do this,’ then it’s, ‘Yes sir. No problem. I’ll do it,’” he said.
“There is a lot of freedom in having that attitude because it makes it easy to let go and be present where you are. You don’t feel like you’re looking back over your shoulder all the time,” he continued. “Whenever you feel like your life is coming to an end, if you just say, ‘yes sir’ and move on, you very quickly move on to the next thing.”
And although “you do miss the people,” he said he knows there are always well wishes, and birthday cards and Christmas cards for years to come as well as growth in the families he has served.
“I’ve gotten to the age where now I’m dealing with several generations of both former students at Father Ryan and people from various parishes constantly either in your life or reappearing in your life,” Father Steiner said. “It is awesome to be continually asked to do the baptisms, do the weddings, unfortunately, occasionally do the funerals … and just have that generational connection with families.”
Teaching love for scripture
Upon reflection of his last 40 years as a priest and all the people that he’s known, he said if he only passed along one thing, he hopes it is “a much deeper appreciation and love for scripture,” he said.
“I want people to understand who those people are in the Bible and to understand what their lives were really like. If I can do anything to humanize the people that are in the Bible and help people to see them as real, live, breathing human beings … then maybe they can see themselves in the stories,” Father Steiner said. “If they can start to identify, say with Joseph or Mary, and connect pieces of their lives to the pieces of the lives of people in scripture, it just takes on so much meaning for them, and they remember it more and they believe deeper.
“That’s the biggest thing I hope I’ve had an impact on,” he said. “The preaching will deepen people’s faith and the believability of what they read in scripture.”