Retirement of eastern Kentucky priest caps storied seven-decade ministry

Father Terence Hoppenjans calls forth the elect of St. Michael Catholic Church in Paintsville, Ky., during the Rite of Election at the Cathedral of Christ the King in Lexington, Ky., March 5, 2017. Ordained in 1955, he retired July 1, 2021, only weeks before his 90th birthday. His retirement capped a storied seven-decade ministry in eastern Kentucky. (CNS photo/courtesy Deacon Skip Olson via Cross Roads)

LEXINGTON, Ky. (CNS) — One uncontested fact about Father Terance Hoppenjans, according to many people from throughout the 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, Kentucky, Father Hoppenjans was assigned five years later as associate pastor in Lancaster, Kentucky, and its mission parishes in Mount Vernon, Berea and McKee, where he worked with the late Msgr. Ralph Beiting, who served the poor in central Appalachia for most of his 63 years as a priest.

“Father Beiting and I worked well together,” Father Hoppenjans told Cross Roads, Lexington’s diocesan magazine. “Two stubborn Dutchmen!”

Subsequent assignments included parishes and missions in Beattyville, Ravenna, Jackson, Pikeville, Elkhorn City and Phelps. On July 1, only weeks before his 90th birthday, Father Hoppenjans retired 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.

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 T. Mulloy if he could begin to study for the priesthood. Bishop Mulloy was Covington’s sixth bishop, serving from 1945 until his death in 1959.

Father Hoppenjans recalled 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 admitted. “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, Lexington Bishop John E. Stowe 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,” the bishop said. “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.”

Sister Nancy Edwards, a Sister of St. Joseph, 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 said.

In July, Sister Edwards also retired and move to Brooklyn, N.Y. She described the “triangle” the priest 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 the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults process in Paintsville in 2016 at the invitation of Father Hoppenjans.

“I’ve never been this happy, spiritually,” Cochran said. “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.”

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,” Father Bentley said.

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 in Louisa, who recalled using this approach throughout his years of ministry.

Father Ramler credited 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.”

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Gabriel writes for Cross Roads, the magazine of the Diocese of Lexington.