Priest, former addict lived on the periphery

An alcoholic and drug addict for more than 20 years of his life, Father Bill Kottenstette’s experience with recovering sobriety and returning to God gave him a unique gift for ministering to college students.

Chaplain for 19 years of the Catholic Newman Center at Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri, Father Bill passed away in April not long after receiving a diagnosis of esophageal cancer.

For the college students he ministered to, he will be missed for his great ability to just be with them, many said, spending many hours listening and talking each week. “What I miss about him the most is getting to talk to him about all the good things in my life,” said Sam Walk, a recent graduate and close friend of Father Bill. He always “wanted to hear about the good news, like a really good grade, getting into grad school, falling in love.”

He really had “heard everything” by that point in his life, said Michelle Ehrhard, another recent graduate — both from his own experiences and struggles and from listening to the experiences of others. “He was friends with people you would never expect,” she said. But that was Father Bill.

Onset of addiction

Born in Denver in 1941, Father Bill entered the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) in August 1959 after graduating from high school. He started to have a problem with drinking right before entering.

Fr Bill
The students and friends of the late Father Bill Kottenstette were drawn to the priest’s sense of humor. Courtesy photo

Throughout his teaching assignments at high schools and during his time in the seminary, Father Bill’s alcoholism grew worse. During his third year of seminary, he recalled waking up in jail after having too much to drink and then driving away in his car — although he had no recollection of the incident.

He began seeing a psychiatrist who prescribed him Valium, with the object of helping him to stop drinking. Instead, he became addicted to the Valium as well as alcohol. Constantly trying to hide his addictions from his students, Father Bill was ordained a priest in 1973.

After attempting various treatments, it was eventually decided that Father Bill should be released from the Jesuits in order to focus on his recovery. He didn’t stick with treatment, however, and ended up away from the Church, working odds-and-ends jobs where he was paid at the end of every day. He would take the money he earned and spend it all on alcohol that same night.

“There was an emptiness in me; an incompleteness in me; an idea that I was not enough,” Father Bill said in one of his mission talks years later. “It was a feeling that I chased for all my drinking years: trying to be enough, trying to belong.”

Finding a home

Eventually, it was his rotting teeth that brought him to Kirksville. His oldest brother left him the money to have a pair of dentures made, but there was a wait of two years. His sister was married to a dentist who agreed to build Father Bill a pair of dentures, but first he had to get sober. At age 47, Father Bill took a bus to Kirksville with everything he owned packed into his one suitcase.

He joined Alcoholics Anonymous and started working full-time at a drug and alcohol rehab center. The pastor at the local parish, Mary Immaculate, also invited him to live in the rectory. It was at this point, Father Bill said, that he began to ask for and to accept the help of others.

He was hired to teach at the Mary Immaculate grade school, later referring to those children as his “12-step kids.” After eight years away, he returned to the Catholic Church and to the priesthood, celebrating what he called his “second first Mass.” As Chris Koch, his best friend of 25 years, described, “He helped the kids to see that a priest was a human being. He was himself with them. He was funny.”

He continued his involvement with Alcoholics Anonymous for the rest of his life, believing that the 12 steps could apply to anything, Koch said. In 1996, he became chaplain of the Catholic Newman Center.

Mentor and friend

His goofy sense of humor was something that connected him with many of the students at the Newman Center. “This is a guy who would get a kick out of having blue teeth after eating a Popsicle,” Walk said.

Anna Cychowski’s friendship with Father Bill was indicative of his close relationship with many of the students. She characterized it as being like “drinking buddies that never shared a drink.” He always wanted to know about everyday life. He was very interested in living the Faith in the present moment, always asking, “What are you going to do today?” she said.

Poor health related to his longtime addictions forced Father Bill to give up being pastor to two additional parishes, something he loved. According to Ehrhard, however, this gave him an even greater ability to give the gift of his time to students and the many other people in the community he mentored.

“He was a wonderful pastor to them,” Koch said. “I think the fact that he was older really helped. Yes, he was their friend, but he also had been through a lot. You tend to look up to somebody a little bit more when they’ve walked the walk.”

Ehrhard said that with Father Bill, people could talk, just as they are. She found this to be really important, especially on the campus of a university where academics are held in high esteem and students hold themselves to very high standards, often resulting in feelings of inadequacy or shame — feelings Father Bill knew well from his own life.

He would tell students that in the eyes of Jesus, “you are loved, you are good enough,” and that you must first love yourself in order to be able to love others. Walk went to breakfast with Father Bill every week for more than 2 1/2 years. “That guy really loved people,” he said.

Lessons passed on

Father Bill always preached that “God has done for me what I could not do for myself,” and referred to God as the “Hound of Heaven” in his life (from the poem by Francis Thompson), and how the hound tracked him down. “Obedience, by definition, is to hear and to respond,” he said, in reference to his alcoholism. “I became obedient.”

Believing that there was no such thing as good news or bad news — it was all just news — Father Bill lived out the Ignatian spirituality of detachment, Walk said. “Whatever happens to my life — the good things we take for granted — I’m letting go of that for whatever God has in store for me.”

For Father Bill, this extended into every part of his life, even his health and diagnosis with cancer.

Witnessing his surrender to death was the most humble thing, Cychowski said.

“Across the board, little kids, parishioners, Newman kids, his goal was for them to understand they were loved — how much God loved them,” Koch said. “And they, in turn, helped him see.”

Hannah M. Brockhaus writes from Missouri.

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