Remembering Father Joe

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It is likely that you never met Father Joe Hassell. Joe was, he thought, destined to be a minister. His grandfather, after all, spent his life as a Methodist minister in south Alabama. According to Joe, “… from my earliest memories there was an acceptance that I would go into the ministry.” Joe always thought he would follow in his grandfather’s footsteps.

When Joe was in high school he was sent for a summer to the Sewanee Military Academy in Sewanee, Tennessee. There, at the Episcopal Church, he was made an acolyte and became very close to God and to the priest. At the end of that summer he felt he faced a choice: he said, “I can remember standing on a bluff overlooking the direction of Chattanooga and making the decision to choose my girlfriend in Columbus instead of following a path into the Episcopal Church; I (wrongly) thought, as a youth, that I could only participate in one or the other.”

Joe married and began to raise a family in Columbus, Ga., and entered the world of business. Joe found time to serve his country as a member of the Georgia Army National Guard.

In 1978, his sister-in-law was found with a growth in her spinal cord that threatened her ability to walk and her very life itself. Here’s what Joe recounted: “On the night she was having the operation in Bloomington, Ind., I was home in Columbus with my brother-in-law babysitting Maria’s child. I asked God to please heal Maria and a flash of golden light flashed through our den and touched Tony, my brother-in-law, on the cheek and then was gone. Although Tony didn’t see the light, he touched his cheek and said, ‘I think everything is going to be all right.’ A few minutes later a call came in from Indiana saying that there had been a miracle — that when the doctors had operated, they couldn’t find the growth at all and that they were coming back home in the morning.”

During these days, Joe attended the Catholic Church and felt a kinship with the priests. In 1983 on the Friday before Easter, Joe was at work and felt terribly frustrated. He prayed, “God put your hands on my shoulders and guide me because I can’t take it any more.” That night he had a profound experience of the Presence of God.

Joe found an old paperback Bible and began to read. Months later, he would look back upon that time as his call to the ministry. There would be a price to pay. Joe’s wife didn’t sign on to marry a pastor, especially one who got moved around by the denomination. The divorce came in 1985.

Joe went to Columbus College and received a Bachelor of Arts degree, majoring in Fine Arts. He enrolled in Candler School of Theology at Emory University and graduated with a Master of Divinity degree. Joe also completed five units of Clinical Pastoral Education. He was ordained in 1993 at the age of 46.

One day, Pastor Joe visited a lady who had also grown up Methodist. She began attending church where Joe was the pastor and, four years later, Joe and Paula were wed. Who says pastoral visitation doesn’t bear fruit?

Joe was appointed to many churches over the span of about 20 years and also served as a hospital chaplain and ministered as a counselor for Anchor Drug and Alcohol Hospital in Atlanta. He retired from the United Methodist Church in 2010.

Believing that his ministry was not yet over, he went to work as a hospice chaplain, first in Macon and then in Thomaston. Joe and Paula began attending St. Michael and All-Angels Church in Thomaston, Ga. On April 1, 2012, Palm Sunday, Joe was ordained into the priesthood of the Charismatic Episcopal Church and became “Father Joe” to those who knew him.

During his last five years, Father Joe served as a priest-in-residence at St. Michael’s. He led the Parish Council and assisted Father Mike Birdsong, the pastor, and faithfully served the congregation. He was appointed to the Commission on Chaplains of the Diocese of the Mid-South and served on the diocesan Council on Ordained Ministry.

As recognition of his many years of service in the ministry of the Greater Church and the community, as his bishop, I posthumously awarded him the rank of Honorary Canon in the Church. This recognition was in process before his death.

He was, at the time of his home-going, employed with Homestead Hospice where he worked as a chaplain. Joe enjoyed the work even though it was difficult. He felt he had something to offer to those who were gravely ill. He was gentle, loving, patient, kind, and full of mercy and grace. In fact, it was Father Joe’s first response to extend grace.

On Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018, Father Joe died in Thomaston at the age of 70 as a result of cancer. The boy on that bluff overlooking Chattanooga did, indeed, eventually walk the path God had for him. The pastor’s wife said, “Everything he did, he did joyfully.” That was Father Joe.

[David Epps is the pastor of the Cathedral of Christ the King, Sharpsburg, GA between Newnan and Peachtree City (www.ctkcec.org). He is the bishop of the Mid-South Diocese which consists of Georgia and Tennessee (www.midsouthdiocese.org) and the Associate Endorser for the Department of the Armed Forces, U.S. Military Chaplains, ICCEC. He may contacted at frepps@ctkcec.org.]