July 1, 2021

Last of a breed

Last of a breed

Retirement of Father Hoppenjans caps storied ministry to Eastern Kentucky

STORY BY MARGARET GABRIEL

One uncontested fact about Father Terrance Hoppenjans, according to many people from throughout the Catholic Diocese of Lexington, is that people don’t work for Father Hoppenjans. They work with him.“I don’t micromanage,” Father Hoppenjans says. He tells folks to find what needs to be done and then do it. “That’s the philosophy I have always used and it’s worked well.”

Ordained in 1955 for the Diocese of Covington, Father Hoppenjans was assigned five years later as associate pastor in Lancaster and its mission parishes in Mt. Vernon, Berea and McKee, where he worked with Father Ralph Beiting.

“Father Beiting and I worked well together,” Father Hoppenjans says. “Two stubborn Dutchmen!”

Subsequent assignments included parishes and missions in Beattyville, Ravenna, Jackson, Pikeville, Elkhorn City and Phelps. On July 1, Father Hoppenjans retires from St. Michael Church, where he began serving in 1997.

At each of these places, Father Hoppenjans reached out to all the people of the county, not just the Catholic people, serving their physical, emotional and spiritual needs.

Deep roots

When Father Hoppenjans was a boy, a priest asked his third-grade class: “Does anyone think he might want to be a priest?” Terry Hoppenjans raised his hand that day. Then, as a senior in high school, he asked Bishop William Mulloy if he could begin to study for the priesthood.

Father Hoppenjans recalls that, as he was vesting for his ordination in 1955, one of the priests who had taught him at Covington Catholic entered the room and called out, “‘How did you make it through?’ He had kicked me out of high school twice,” Father Hoppenjans admits. “People say I haven’t changed.”

Although he began his ministry in Northern Kentucky parishes and in classrooms, he now considers Eastern Kentucky his home.

“This is as much my home as Covington ever was or Lexington will be. The people accepted me and, like a lot of people who have come to Eastern Kentucky, I’ve put roots down here.”

Upon arriving in 2015, Bishop John Stowe, OFM Conv. received a wealth of information about his new diocese from Father Hoppenjans.

“Father Hop taught me plenty about the Church’s mission in Eastern Kentucky and the missionary spirit that was needed to get the Church established there,” Bishop Stowe said. 

“He provided details about the origins of several churches and which priests have served in which missions,” Bishop Stowe says. “He shared the success stories and the lessons from ideas that didn’t turn out all that well. He was able to talk about the relationship to the Covington diocese and how the Lexington Diocese came into being. I have been edified by his willingness to continue to work and help people well beyond his retirement years and even after some serious health setbacks.”

Truly a giant

Sister of St. Joseph Nancy Edwards has worked with Father Hoppenjans for 47 years, starting in Beattyville, moving with him each time he was reassigned, always finding and responding to the needs of the parish and the entire county.

“She’s kept track of parishes and parishioners better than I did!” Father Hoppenjans says.

In July, Sister Edwards also will retire and move to Brooklyn. She describes the “triangle” he rode every week when they worked in Pike County — a total of about 60 miles between Pikeville, Elkhorn City and Phelps.

“His gift to us is the Mass,” Sister Edwards said. “Anything I know about mission, I learned from him.”

Carolyn Cochran, a lifelong resident of Johnson County, entered RCIA in Paintsville in 2016 at the invitation of Father Hoppenjans.

“I’ve never been this happy, spiritually,” Cochran says. “Father Hoppenjans is so gentle and patient. If you’re confused or need help, he has the answers. You don’t come across an individual like him very often.”

Mission Sister of the Precious Blood Pat Cataldi lives in Louisa and met Father Hoppenjans when she played the organ at St. Michael.

“He always prioritizes Mass and the sacraments, even at the end of a long day,” she says. “People come day and night, knock on the door to ask for help.”

Father Marc Bentley, parochial vicar at Holy Family Parish in Ashland, worked for a year with Father Hoppenjans, his first assignment after ordination in 2019.

“He’s given his life to this part of the diocese, a place where some people never wanted to minister. In my year with him, he was ever-vigilant, always ready to help people — Catholic, Protestant, unbaptized.”

Nora Harmon-Bayer,the current organist at St. Michael, notes that Father Hoppenjans “has the ability to be a friend as well as a priest. He never leaves until the last person is out of church, and we always chat before Mass.”

Whenever Father Hoppenjans moved to a new county, he saw all the people of the county as parishioners, not just the Catholics. It’s a view he shared with Father Mike Ramler, pastor of St. Jude Parish, Louisa, who recalls using it throughout his years of ministry.

Father Ramler credits Father Hoppenjans with helping to eliminate the prejudice against Catholics present in the region in the 1960s and beyond.

“He was the last of a breed,” Father Ramler said. “He experienced the War on Poverty and the dynamic changes that have taken place since then. He’s a very private person, and just goes about doing his thing, to do something for the poor, as best he can. He’s truly one of the giants of our diocese.”