|Fr. Mike Johnston, pastor of St. Henry Church for nearly 25 years, will retire this summer. Above, he chats with St. Henry office staff members Michelle Strebel, left, and Lynn Womack. Photo by Theresa Laurence
During Father Mike Johnston’s nearly 25 years as pastor of St. Henry Parish, he has overseen a major expansion of the Diocese of Nashville’s largest elementary school and the building of a new church and parish fellowship hall, where thousands of men, women and children worship and gather every week.
These improvements to the St. Henry campus are not just about the buildings, of course; “they engender community participation and involvement in the parish,” said Father Johnston, who will retire, effective Aug. 1.
With more than 2,400 registered households, St. Henry is one of the largest parishes in the diocese, and offers dozens of ministries for parishioners to find their niche. To keep everything running smoothly, the parish relies on a robust combination of deacons, staff members and volunteers, all overseen by Father Johnston.
“He truly is a CEO of the parish,” said Everett Holzapfel, parish council president. “He’s great at delegation. He trusts his employees and volunteers. He’s not micromanaging, but he’s there when you need him.”
For the past quarter century that Father Johnston has been at the helm of St. Henry, he has seen the parish grow and change, relishing the opportunity “to be involved in people’s lives in a lot of ways. It can be overwhelming, in a good sense,” he said, to be with people as they mark the milestones of life from baptisms to funerals.
Now, as Father Johnston prepares to retire and step away from such close involvement with parishioners, “it’s bittersweet,” he said. “I’m excited about a new way of living, but it’s tough to leave this community.”
|Father Mike Johnston, left, spent many summers at Camp Marymount as a camper and counselor. When he was a camper, almost all of the staff members were seminarians, and has a positive influence on his vocation to the priesthood.
Father Johnston has helped foster a strong sense of community during his time at St. Henry. “Everyone feels like Father Mike is their friend in addition to being their spiritual leader,” said Dan Sprouse, a St. Henry parishioner for nearly 40 years. “He has so much kindness about him, you want to help him out with anything he asks of you. He inspires everyone to want to do something for the parish.”
“He’s willing to welcome anybody in,” Holzapfel added.
After serving the Diocese of Nashville as a priest for 45 years, Father Johnston doesn’t have a set plan for his retirement, except for the possibility of more travel and reading. “I want to remain present in the diocese as a priest and continue to offer spiritual direction,” he said.
As he moves into retirement, Father Johnston said he will look to Father Pat Connor as “a model of how to retire.” There’s no real roadmap for retired priests, he said, but Father Connor “does it right,” by taking time for himself, but also staying involved and filling in for other priests who need a break.
‘So much joy and happiness’
Father Connor is just one of the many priests from the Diocese of Nashville who have influenced Father Johnston over the years. He grew up in Christ the King Parish, attended Camp Marymount in the summers, and remembers that almost all of the counselors at that time were seminarians. “They seemed to have so much joy and happiness,” Father Johnston said.
His first counselor was Father Charley Giacosa, who would later serve the final years of his life alongside Father Johnston at St. Henry.
Msgr. George Rohling, Father Johnston’s predecessor as pastor of St. Henry, was also an example to him. “There was a great depth of spirituality and involvement in parish life” at St. Henry under Msgr. Rohling’s leadership, he said.
In addition to model priests and seminarians, Father Johnston’s path to the priesthood was also inspired by his parents, “good, solid, involved parishioners at Christ the King,” and his three older brothers, who all offered “tremendous support” for his vocation over the years.
After graduating from Father Ryan High School in 1963, Father Johnston entered St. John’s Seminary in Little Rock, Arkansas, then went on to spend four years at the North American College in Rome.
In a 2012 interview with the Tennessee Register, Father Johnston described his years in the seminary, from 1963-1970, as a “dynamic period both in the church and the country. There was a real sense of excitement about the church and the future,” just as the church was beginning to grapple with the changes of Vatican II.
“I had a lot of enthusiasm for Vatican II and I still do,” he said. “I always found appealing Pope John XXIII’s vision of opening the windows of the church, engaging the world, not in any way hiding from it,” Father Johnston said.
After he was ordained in late 1970, Father Johnston was assigned to teach at Notre Dame High School in Chattanooga and serve as associate pastor at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish, alongside Father James Niedergeses, who would later become bishop of Nashville.
Father Johnston was then named principal at Knoxville Catholic High School, and after that, pastor of St. Stephen Catholic Community in Hermitage. While at St. Stephen, he also served as the vocations director for the diocese.
Father Johnston remained at St. Stephen until he began his tenure at St. Henry in 1991. Since then, he’s witnessed changes in both the global and local church.
Over the last quarter of a century, the Diocese of Nashville has become much more international, with priests and parishioners from Mexico, India, Nigeria and many more countries now living and worshiping here. When Father Anthony Mutuku, originally from Kenya, was assigned to St. Henry as associate pastor last year, he was welcomed with open arms, Father Johnston said. “Fifty years ago, having an associate pastor from Kenya would never have been a thought. … There’s a more global mentality in the church today.”
As Pope Francis continues John XXIII’s vision of “engaging the world,” traveling the globe and meeting with prisoners and homeless people in addition to world leaders, Father Johnston is feeling positive about the direction of the Church as he heads into retirement. “I’m thrilled with Pope Francis,” Father Johnston said, “with the tone and excitement he’s bringing to the Church.”