IRONDALE, Ala. — Deacon R. William Steltemeier Jr. died on Feb. 15 at age 83 after an extended illness. Familiar to Eternal Word Television Network’s international family of viewers, for three decades he had been a faithful servant for Mother Angelica and the mission of EWTN.
He is survived by Ramona, his wife of 59 years. He was preceded in death by his son, Rudy Steltemeier III, and daughter-in-law, Debra Steltemeier.
Vespers and the Divine Mercy Chaplet were prayed on Feb. 18 at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville, Ala., followed by a public visitation. A prayer vigil and Rosary were also prayed that day. The funeral Mass was celebrated Feb. 19 at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament. (The prayer vigil, Rosary and funeral Mass were broadcast live on EWTN.) Burial took place Feb. 19 at Calvary Cemetery in Nashville, Tenn.
Born in Nashville on June 6, 1929, to the late Rudolph William Steltemeier and Mary Ione (Phippen) Steltemeier, Deacon Bill attended Chaminade College Preparatory School in St. Louis and then received his college education in his native city before serving both the Church and the extended community there.
He married Ramona (Schnupp) Steltemeier on Aug. 22, 1953, and the following year received his law degree from Vanderbilt University School of Law in Nashville. He then served two years in the U.S. Army in France.
By 1960, attorney Steltemeier had become a co-founder of Steltemeier & Westbrook, a Nashville law practice that ultimately became one of the nation’s leading firms specializing in reorganization, bankruptcy and commercial law.
Deacon Bill’s longtime association with Mother Mary Angelica, EWTN’s foundress, began when he met her on March 9, 1978. Soon after, he became the founding president and a board member of Eternal Word Television Network when it was formed in 1980 and began commuting weekly from his Nashville home to EWTN’s base in Irondale, Ala., outside of Birmingham.
In 1985, he resigned from his law firm to devote himself full time to EWTN, serving as friend, adviser and attorney for the many apostolic works of Our Lady of the Angels Monastery and EWTN.
Already in the 1960s, Deacon Bill had joined his commitment as a Catholic with his legal expertise, especially with major roles in helping rehabilitate prisoners both spiritually and socially. Among his accomplishments, he co-founded the Junior Chamber of Commerce for the Tennessee Prison System, was a board member of the 7-Step Foundation and Operation Comeback, then was appointed to the Commissioner’s Review Board on prison reform in 1975 by the governor of Tennessee.
At the same time, for the Diocese of Nashville he was highly active in the rehabilitation of prisoners as a board member of Dismas House, a halfway program. He was ordained to the permanent diaconate in the Diocese of Nashville on April 26, 1975, by Bishop Joseph Durick and was among the first men in the nation to be ordained to the recently reinstated permanent diaconate.
Shortly after Bill’s ordination to the diaconate, he was appointed Catholic chaplain for the Tennessee State Prison for Men. Deacon Bill was also lay director of the diocesan Catholic Cursillo movement.
Mother Angelica’s Call
Three years later, while attending a legal convention in Chicago, Deacon Bill decided to hear Mother Angelica speak at a church outside the city.
"He was just mesmerized by Angelica," said Raymond Arroyo, host of The World Over and biographer of Mother Angelica. Deacon Bill told him that, as he listened, "she looked over and locked eyes with him, and he heard a voice interiorly, ‘Until the day you die.’ I knew my life belonged to her from that first instant, no question."
Hearing the same words interiorly for over a month prompted Deacon Bill to visit Birmingham. Arroyo explained, "Mother Angelica shows up at the doorway and said to him, ‘I wondered when you were coming.’"
From then on, Deacon Bill became Mother Angelica’s faithful servant and friend. In 2000, when Mother Angelica retired from active leadership of EWTN, he succeeded her as chairman and chief executive officer. He continued serving as chairman of the network’s board of governors until he died, after having retired as CEO in 2009, the same year Pope Benedict XVI awarded him the pontifical medal Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice in recognition of his lifetime of extraordinary service to the Church.
In July 2002, Deacon Bill and Ramona left Nashville for Hanceville, Ala., relocating to a home on the grounds of the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament at Our Lady of the Angels Monastery.
"Mother Angelica’s vision and dedication inspired the founding of Eternal Word Television Network, but the man who more than anyone turned her vision into practical reality was Deacon Bill Steltemeier," said Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia. With Deacon Bill’s passing, Archbishop Chaput is now the longest-serving member of EWTN’s board of governors.
"As Mother’s co-worker, right hand and friend for many years, Bill lived out a tremendous commitment to bringing the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the world through the modern media," Archbishop Chaput said. "He was an extraordinary man, and millions of EWTN viewers will remember him with gratitude and respect. May God console his family and grant him eternal light and joy."
A Lifetime of Service
Those who knew and worked with Deacon Bill remember the exceptional qualities that were hallmarks during that lifetime of service.
"In the formative years of EWTN, he was central to the launch," noted Arroyo. "He was Mother’s primary cheerleader and negotiator. And he not only supported her with his talent, but also supported her financially. I often say Mother Angelica was like a locomotive, and there were a lot of boxcars attached to her. Bill was there shoveling the coal."
Deacon Bill’s loyalty to Mother Angelica and the network was unshakable. "Bill was her Sancho Panza in so many ways," Arroyo said. "Even when Bill wasn’t sure about something, when she would go in a direction, he followed."
Jesuit Father Mitch Pacwa saw these same and other great qualities stand out during the more than 34 years that he knew Deacon Bill.
"Bill was absolutely devoted to Mother," he recalled. "He trusted her discernment totally, through all kinds of situations, and he would have walked into the fire for her. He was that convinced she was on the right path doing God’s will. He wouldn’t tolerate any nonsense when it came to what she said needed to be done. He was going to be totally committed to what needed to be accomplished."
"He would definitely describe working with her as a major adventure," Father Pacwa well remembers. "When Mother Angelica would have an intuition or inspiration to do something new, Bill would be quite aware they would not always have the money or other things for it, but he was willing to undertake the adventure because of that implicit trust in her."
Arroyo points out the time Mother had an inspiration to start a shortwave radio station. Deacon Bill later said that he didn’t know what she was talking about, but he accompanied her to Rome because he felt God was leading her, so he supported her throughout. She got the station.
Corralling a Cardinal
An excellent attorney, Deacon Bill would do all the legal work and make sure the details were handled properly.
"He had a reputation as a lawyer of being extremely good at what he did," Father Pacwa affirmed. "People would warn that you did not want to be on the other side of the courtroom from Bill Steltemeier. The kind of tenacity that he showed in Tennessee courtrooms always rose to the front whenever it came to a point of protecting the network."
Arroyo noted just one of countless examples of this tenacity. In 1981, as problems greatly imperiled the launch of the new network, "Bill hopped a plane and made it his business to corral a Vatican cardinal and bring him to EWTN," Arroyo said.
Arriving in New York, praying the Rosary and utilizing his Southern charm, Deacon Bill convinced Cardinal Silvio Oddi, the prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Clergy, to fly right back to Birmingham with him, bless the efforts and help Mother Angelica receive the necessary ecclesial permissions practically immediately.
Deacon Bill was well known to the EWTN family because he was a constant presence on the televised Mass. Father Pacwa shared that Deacon Bill frequently looked for guests and definitely had a good grasp of what Mother Angelica wanted.
One of Deacon Bill’s greatest "finds" was Father Pacwa. They first met in 1979, when the young Jesuit was immersed in graduate studies at Vanderbilt, and celebrated Mass and attended the weekly charismatic prayer group at St. Henry Church, where Bill was a deacon and also a regular attendee at the prayer meetings.
After hearing Father Pacwa on local Christian radio, Deacon Bill invited him to appear on Mother Angelica’s show on Feb. 29, 1984. She hit it off so well with Father Pacwa that he received an immediate invitation to do a series.
"Bill landed on his feet that time," Father Pacwa said.
Over the years, he landed on his feet regularly. In 2005, at EWTN’s 25th Anniversary Family Celebration in Denver, Archbishop Charles Chaput, then archbishop of Denver, singled out Deacon Bill in his homily.
"Behind every great man stands a great woman, we’re told. But in this case, behind a great woman stands a very great man, Deacon Bill Steltemeier," noted Archbishop Chaput.
"Bill, of course, has been with Mother from the beginning, and his courage and his enthusiasm have led them through difficult times, some very, very difficult times, to this moment of celebration and rejoicing, so we’re grateful to him and his courage."
Deacon Bill Remembered
Loyalty and fidelity were the essence of his character in every respect.
"Other than Mother Angelica herself, there is no one who has been more closely associated with the mission of EWTN throughout its history than Deacon Bill Steltemeier," said Michael Warsaw, president and CEO of EWTN. "In all respects, he was a man of incredible faithfulness. As a husband, a father, an attorney and in his vocation as a permanent deacon, Bill always remained focused on serving God and serving others.
"He devoted himself totally to Mother Angelica’s mission and sacrificed all he had to help her build EWTN into the tremendous vehicle for evangelization that it has become. I was privileged to know and work alongside Bill for 25 years and to succeed him as president and chief executive of the network he loved so much. While we mourn his passing, we take comfort from his own example of faith and are confident he has heard those words from the Gospel of Matthew, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant … enter into the joy of your master.’"
For Deacon Bill Steltemeier, the opportunities were countless, and he carried them out for Christ with nobility of soul, conviction and joy.
Joseph Pronechen is the Register’s staff writer.