Fr. Joseph W. Koterski, SJ, was born in Ohio and raised in Pittsburgh, where he attended Bishop’s Latin School. He attended Xavier University in Cincinnati, where he received an honors B.A. in classics (1976). He took up graduate study in philosophy at Saint Louis University, where he received an M.A. (1980) with a thesis on Aristotle’s ethics and a Ph.D. (1982) with a dissertation on Karl Jaspers. Later, as a Jesuit, he received the M.Div. (1991) and S.T.L. (1993) degrees in theology.
After receiving his Ph.D., he taught at the University of St. Thomas in Houston for two years (1982–84). On August 15, 1984, he entered the Society of Jesus at the Novitiate of St. Isaac Jogues in Wernersville, PA. After two years of novitiate and further seminary studies, and two years of teaching philosophy at Loyola College in Baltimore (1986–88), he was ordained a priest on June 13, 1992.
In 1992, Fr. Koterski began the most stable period of his life — nearly 30 years at Fordham University in the Bronx, NY. At Fordham, where he held the rank of associate professor, he served as chair of the department (2002–5), and director of the Master of Arts in Philosophical Resources program (1996–2001) for Jesuit seminarians. From 1994 on, Fr. Koterski lived at Queen’s Court, a residential college for freshmen, where he served as chaplain and then as master.
Fr. Koterski’s work and ministry spread out from three central points: his priesthood, his life as a philosopher, and his sympathy for those in need.
Fr. Koterski taught standard courses in philosophy, but he also developed his special interests — natural law in philosophy, Dante and Shakespeare in literature. Fordham remained the focus of his teaching, but he also taught in seminaries: St. Joseph’s Seminary Dunwoodie in the Archdiocese of New York and several others.
Fr. Koterski was, through and through, a priest. He celebrated Mass every Sunday he could in a parish in Manhattan.
A particular dimension of Fr. Koterski’s life was his ministry to women religious, especially the Sisters of Life and the Missionaries of Charity. He provided these sisters with sacraments, retreats, days of recollection, and direction. One memorable part of this ministry was several trips to Haiti to give retreats to the Missionaries of Charity there. Fr. Koterski was an austere man, but the squalor and wretchedness of Haiti unsettled even him.
Fr. Koterski was deeply committed to the pro-life cause. Almost from its beginning, he was active in University Faculty for Life and served as editor of the annual volume of proceedings for 26 years. This last task was typical of Fr. Koterski: he was always willing to serve rather than to shine.
One aspect of contemporary academic life was not part of Fr. Koterski’s own life: the role of research scholar. His CV lists only one book, and that one is intended as a help to students. This, however, does not mean that Fr. Koterski did not publish. published more than 100 articles and far more book reviews.
Fr. Koterski was a man who worked hard, very hard. He could rarely say no, whether it meant celebrating Mass, giving a talk, or driving someone to the airport. Yet he lived out the teaching of Josef Pieper’s Leisure the Basis of Culture: we are most human when we are doing what is most humane; and the final and perfect act of leisure is the celebration of the Eucharist.
Fr. Koterski passed away on Aug. 9, 2021, while directing a retreat at Enders Island, Conn. He was 67.