‘Keep the faith’
MOUNT HOLLY — As dusk fell late last week, nurses rolled Father Michael Kottar outside Atrium Health’s Carolinas Rehabilitation in a wheelchair where 27 young men studying to become priests stood preparing to say goodbye.
At 53, Father Kottar 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 would board a medical flight bound for Ohio, where he will be with his family and get the end-of-life care he needs.
But on this evening, Father Kottar felt unsettled about leaving the diverse flock of 300 families he has pastored 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 these future priests of the Diocese of Charlotte, since becoming a priest is his most treasured achievement.
The students from St. Joseph College Seminary had come to sing and pray and provide comfort to Father Kottar. Nobody knew Father Kottar also had a gift for them.
Born and raised in Youngstown, Ohio, Michael 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. He was a bookworm who graduated top of his high school class, and “shocked” his sisters when he announced he wanted to become a priest.
He dove into studies – first at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Ohio, then earning a philosophy degree from St. Alphonsus Redemptorist Seminary in Connecticut, and finally attaining a Master of Divinity from Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Maryland, in 1994. He was ordained a priest that year for the Diocese of Metuchen, N.J., where he served five years before joining the Charlotte diocese in 1999.
Father Kottar has served from Charlotte to North Wilkesboro to Andrews in the Nantahala National Forest, to St. Mary in Shelby. 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: He delivers moving homilies, which made pilgrimages he led particularly meaningful.
Father Kottar became pastor of St. Mary in 2007. His longest-running assignment, he loves the mix of people and cultures there, and is widely appreciated for his counseling, Great Adventure Bible study, and for 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 college seminarians.
‘It’s about having faith’
In his wheelchair, his demeanor calm, Father Kottar sat and listened as fellow priests blessed him, gave him Holy Communion, and sprinkled holy water. He smiled as the seminarians – harmonizing with the Daughters of the Virgin Mother – chanted “Regina Caeli” in melodic tenor, bass and baritones.
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 noted, citing the clergy sex abuse crisis and political divisions within the Church. “So, you’ve got your jobs ahead of you.
"You might not know what they are yet, but God has a plan for each one of you.”
He encouraged them to teach using the rosary, to revere the Eucharist – and to rise above division.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.”
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, Bishop Peter 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 noted. “Now it is important for us to carry on doing the same,” he said, quoting the parish’s motto: “that in all things God may be glorified.”
Then Monsignor Patrick Winslow said Mass, and in his homily he drew a parallel between Father Kottar’s deeds and his words that “I’m taking one day at a time.”
“ ‘As I have lived, so will I die – one day at a time.’ That is his message,” Monsignor Winslow said.
Asked directly, 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.”
— Liz Chandler, Diocese of Charlotte communications director