March 28, 2015
A teacher, coach, military chaplain, friend, and a beloved priest for nearly seven decades who came out of retirement numerous times, Msgr. Philip Thoni was known by many titles.
The Diocese of Knoxville’s senior priest died peacefully Thursday, March 19, at the HealthCare Center at West Meade Place in his native Nashville. He was 91.
“Msgr. Thoni lived a life of great faith and goodness,” Diocese of Knoxville Bishop Richard F. Stika said. “He was a man of God, and he bravely served our country as a military chaplain in two different war zones.
“As a teacher and coach, Msgr. Thoni displayed a sense of character, social justice, and awareness – by allowing an all-black high school basketball team to scrimmage a team of players from (Knoxville) Catholic High School, years before racial equality became a national focus.
“Msgr. Thoni served the Catholic Church and the Diocese of Knoxville for more than 60 years with great humor, passion, and faith. He was a native Tennessean and a very good friend. Our prayers go out to his family and for the repose of his soul to its resting place in heaven.”
Philip Fenn Thoni was born Jan. 24, 1924, in Nashville to Edward Arnold Thoni and Aileen Esther Mayers Thoni. He was baptized at St. Patrick Church in Nashville and confirmed May 25, 1930, at the Cathedral of the Incarnation.
He attended Cathedral grade school and Father Ryan High School. He was also educated at St. Ambrose College in Davenport, Iowa; St. Charles College in Catonsville, Maryland; and St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore.
Msgr. Thoni was one of seven members of the Father Ryan class of 1942 who went on to be ordained priests. A fellow Ryan classmate, Father Paul Hostettler, attended several years of seminary with Msgr. Thoni, and remembered him as an accomplished scholar and serious athlete, and later, “a very zealous priest – anything he had to do, he would do it.”
Msgr. Thoni was ordained to the diaconate Sept. 30, 1948, at St. Mary’s Chapel by Bishop Lawrence J. Shehan. His priestly ordination for the Diocese of Nashville took place June 4, 1949, at the Cathedral of the Incarnation with Bishop William L. Adrian presiding. He did graduate work at the University of Notre Dame and Immaculate Conception Seminary in Huntington, N.Y.
Msgr. Thoni’s first assignment was to serve as an associate pastor at the Cathedral in Nashville. In 1950, he began teaching at Father Ryan and served as an associate pastor at St. Patrick Church in Nashville. In 1952 he began teaching at Knoxville Catholic High School and serving as an associate pastor at Immaculate Conception Parish in downtown Knoxville. While at Knoxville Catholic High School, he taught senior religion, physical education, and sociology and coached the Fighting Irish basketball team. In 1956 he began teaching at Christian Brothers High School in Memphis while serving as an associate pastor at St. John Parish.
Msgr. Thoni became a pastor for the first time at St. Rose of Lima Church in Murfreesboro in 1958.
In July 1967, Msgr. Thoni entered the military service as a chaplain. He served in Okinawa, Korea, Vietnam, Germany, and at several posts in the United States before returning to East Tennessee to serve as pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Morristown in 1989.
“There was such a great shortage of priests in the military then,” Msgr. Thoni told the East Tennessee Catholic newspaper in 1994, speaking of his entrance into the chaplaincy during the height of the escalation of troops in Vietnam. “And as it turned out, Vietnam was probably my best experience as a priest. There was a real need then. The soldiers really wanted to have priests there for them.
“I remember that at one point having a priest was almost a superstition,” he said, adding that the soldiers thought that having a priest with them was lucky. “I finally had to tell the soldiers, ‘Hey, look, priests get killed too.’ And priests did get killed, and I had many close calls. We lost 12 priests in Vietnam because as a priest we took the sacraments out in the field to where the soldiers were.”
A full colonel who received numerous honors in the military, including the Bronze Star, the Army Commendation Medal, and the Legion of Merit, Msgr. Thoni was called back to duty temporarily during the Desert Storm War in Kuwait and Iraq in 1991.
He first retired from active ministry in 1992 while pastor at St. Patrick, where he was also in charge of the mission church in Jefferson City. He often filled in for other priests—and served again as a chaplain in Germany—until he accepted a temporary assignment in 1995 to serve at parishes in Springfield and Cedar Hill in the Diocese of Nashville. He later served as pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Fairfield Glade and of St. Thérèse of Lisieux Parish in Cleveland in the Diocese of Knoxville.
In 2001 Msgr. Thoni was appointed pastor of St. Mary Parish in Gatlinburg. While he was there, the parish became known for its generosity, contributing hundreds of thousands of dollars to Knoxville Catholic High School, St. Joseph School in Knoxville, Good Shepherd Parish in Newport, the future St. Christopher Parish in Jamestown, Catholic Charities of East Tennessee, and other beneficiaries.
Father Hostettler, who served in the Diocese of Knoxville while Msgr. Thoni was there, said the two priests used to meet up on a weekly basis to play golf. “I couldn’t count how many golf games we played together,” Father Hostettler said, speaking from his home at St. Mary Villa in Nashville. He even witnessed one of Msgr. Thoni’s hole-in-ones on the golf course. “He was the better athlete all round,” Father Hostettler said of his friend.
Msgr. Thoni was also known for his sense of humor. He often wore a shirt with his initials, PFT, on the collar – he said the initials stood for “pray for Thoni.”
Msgr. Thoni celebrated his 50th anniversary as a priest June 4, 1999, at St. Francis in Fairfield Glade. “I remember waking up on the morning of my ordination and saying, ‘Boy, this is what I’ve been working for,’ and I wasn’t uneasy or nervous,” Msgr. Thoni told the East Tennessee Catholic at the time of his golden jubilee. “I think I’ve been blessed in that I love being a priest.”
In 2006, Msgr. Thoni and his good friend and former student at Knoxville Catholic, Father Xavier Mankel, were named Prelates of Honor to His Holiness and awarded the title monsignor.
On June 8, 2009, in Gatlinburg Msgr. Thoni celebrated his 60th anniversary in the priesthood. Later in 2009, Msgr. Thoni retired and became a priest in residence at St. Francis in Fairfield Glade.
As the Tennessee Register went to press, a rosary for Msgr. Thoni was scheduled for Friday, March 27, at the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Nashville. The funeral Mass was set for Saturday, March 28, at the Cathedral with Bishop Stika as the principal celebrant and Nashville Bishop David Choby concelebrating; Father John Dowling was to be the homilist.
Burial was scheduled to follow in Nashville’s Mount Olivet Cemetery in the Thoni family plot.
In lieu of flowers, please make a donation to Father Ryan High School, Knoxville Catholic High School or a charity of your choice.
Theresa Laurence of the Tennessee Register contributed to this report.