Facing death, priest turns his farewell into teachable moment

By Liz Chandler, Catholic News Service

MOUNT HOLLY, N.C. — As dusk fell April 29, nurses pushed Father Michael Kottar in his wheelchair just outside a North Carolina rehabilitation center where 27 young men studying to become priests stood preparing to say goodbye.

At 53, Father Kottar, a priest from the Diocese of Charlotte, has been diagnosed with Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, an extremely rare and aggressive brain disease for which there is no effective treatment or cure. The next day, the priest of 27 years boarded a medical flight to Ohio, to be with his family and get the end-of-life care he needs.

But on this evening, Father Kottar felt unsettled about leaving the parish families where he had been pastor at St. Mary Help of Christians Parish in Shelby and Christ the King Mission in Kings Mountain. He was pleased, though, to spend a moment with the future priests of the Diocese of Charlotte, since becoming a priest is his most treasured achievement.

The students from St. Joseph College Seminary in Charlotte had come to sing, pray and provide comfort to Father Kottar, but he also had a gift for them.

Father Michael Kottar, a priest from the Diocese of Charlotte, N.C., is seen in this undated photo. He was diagnosed with Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease in 2021, an extremely rare and aggressive brain disease for which there is no effective treatment or cure. (CNS photo/courtesy Kottar family via Diocese of Charlotte)

Born and raised in Youngstown, Ohio, Father Kottar is the oldest of three children, the big brother of twin girls he simply called “sista” because he couldn’t tell them apart.

Their mother worked as a Catholic school secretary and library tech and their father coordinated an assembly line for General Motors. Father Kottar was a bookworm who graduated at the top of his high school class and shocked his sisters when he announced he wanted to become a priest.

He dived into his studies — first at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Ohio, then earning a philosophy degree from St. Alphonsus Redemptorist Seminary in Connecticut and finally getting a master of divinity degree from Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Maryland, in 1994. He was ordained a priest that year for the Diocese of Metuchen, New Jersey, where he served five years before joining the Charlotte Diocese in 1999.

Father Kottar has served at several parishes throughout the diocese. A fitness buff, he loves to hike and cruise the Caribbean with his compatriot Father Herbert Burke, who leads the neighboring Immaculate Conception Parish in Forest City. He also is known for his slapstick, British-style sense of humor and for his way with words, especially in moving homilies, which made pilgrimages he led particularly meaningful.

He became pastor of St. Mary in Shelby in 2007, which was his longest-running assignment. He said he loved the mix of people and cultures there and the parishioners in turn have appreciated him for his counseling, running the parish Bible study program, overseeing an expansion of the narthex and getting the parking lot paved.

But last December, Father Kottar began feeling dizzy, and at times had to cancel Mass. After what seemed like endless testing, in April he received the terminal diagnosis.

“It was hard to hear. I thought I’d have a few more years. But if God wants me now, then that’s what will be. I just can’t understand how anyone could get through something like this without faith,” Father Kottar said, just before meeting the seminarians.

Sitting in his wheelchair with a calm demeanor, he listened as fellow priests blessed him, gave him Communion and sprinkled holy water. He smiled as the gathered seminarians and women religious chanted the “Regina Coeli.”

Then, Father Kottar, who had been incapacitated with infection for days, perked up to speak.

“It’s wonderful to see such a growing Diocese of Charlotte,” he said. “In case I die, I have a few words for the future: It’s a good future.”

“There have been some bad times in the church,” he said, noting that the seminarians have work to do and that even if they don’t know what this entails yet: “God has a plan for each one of you.”

The priest encouraged them to pray the rosary, to revere the Eucharist and to rise above divisions. Struggling to find the words, he continued, “I wish I could stay a little longer, and maybe I will, but you are going to be the future, and I think liberal, conservative, it’s not that so much. It’s about having faith. Having faith in God.

“So keep the faith,” he added.

Through tears, his sister Renee Selby said she hopes his words and example inspire any young person who is exploring their purpose in life.

On May 2, Charlotte Bishop Peter J. Jugis joined St. Mary’s parishioners to share the news of their pastor’s departure and announce that Father Fidel Melo will serve as parish administrator until a permanent pastor can be appointed.

“Father Kottar has previously said he saw bringing Christ to the world as one of the most important roles of a priest and he became a priest in order to share the love of Christ with everyone,” Bishop Jugis said. “Now it is important for us to carry on doing the same,” he added, quoting the parish motto: “that in all things God may be glorified.”

Before leaving North Carolina, Father Kottar said if he could, he would tell his parish simply: “Adios.” A farewell that translates “To God.”

Father Kottar will return to his parish family, his sister said, when he is buried at nearby Belmont Abbey. He said he’s looking forward to what comes after that: “It will be good to see God, the Lord,” he said.

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