HANCEVILLE, Ala. — Deacon Bill Steltemeier, founding president of the Eternal Word Television Network and its longtime board chairman, died Feb. 15 following a lengthy illness. He was 83.Deacon Bill Steltemeier (CNS)

The deacon, who died at his home in Hanceville, was known to EWTN viewers around the world as a close associate of Mother Angelica, the network's foundress.

Vespers and the Divine Mercy chaplet will be Feb. 18 at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville, followed by public visitation. A prayer vigil and rosary will follow.

The funeral Mass will be celebrated the morning of Feb. 19 at the shrine, followed by burial that afternoon at Calvary Cemetery in Nashville, Tenn.

"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 P. Warsaw, EWTN's president and CEO.

"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," Warsaw said in a statement.

"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," he added.

"Mother Angelica's vision and dedication inspired" EWTN's founding, but Deacon Steltemeier "more than anyone" turned that vision "in practical reality," said Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, 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," the archbishop said in a statement. "He was an extraordinary man, and millions of EWTN viewers will remember him with gratitude and respect."

Born in 1929 in Nashville, William Steltemeier Jr., attended Chaminade College Preparatory School in St. Louis and Vanderbilt University. He married Ramona Schnupp Aug. 22, 1953.

A year later, after graduating from Vanderbilt Law School, he entered the U.S. Army and served for two years in France. In 1960, he co-founded the Nashville law firm of Steltemeier & Westbrook specializing in bankruptcy and commercial law.

Both as a lawyer and as a lay committed Catholic, Steltemeier served his community in many ways. For more than three decades, he was engaged in assisting prisoners in both their civil and spiritual rehabilitation.

He co-founded a prison Junior Chamber of Commerce program, and served on the boards of the 7-Step Foundation, Operation Comeback and the Dismas House, organizations dedicated to helping former prisoners transform their lives. In 1975, he was appointed by Tennessee's governor to the state's review board for prison reform.

On April 26, 1975, he was ordained a permanent deacon for the Diocese of Nashville by Bishop Joseph A. Durick. Deacon Steltemeier was among the first men in the United States to be ordained to the permanent diaconate, following its restoration in 1967 by Pope Paul VI.

Following his ordination, he was appointed Catholic chaplain to the Tennessee State Prison for Men.

According to an EWTN news release, the deacon first met Mother Angelica March 9, 1978, while attending a legal convention in Chicago. He often recalled that while she was speaking, he heard an interior voice tell him: "Until the day you die." He said he knew from that moment that his life would be devoted to serving Mother Angelica.

When EWTN was formed in 1980, Deacon Steltemeier became its first president and a founding board member. In 1985, he resigned from his law firm to work full-time for Mother Angelica and EWTN.

For 22 years, the deacon would commute each week from his home in Nashville to the network's headquarters in Irondale, Ala.

When Mother Angelica's retired from active leadership of EWTN in March 2000, Deacon Steltemeier became chairman of the board and CEO.

Though he retired as CEO in 2009, he continued to serve as chairman of the board of governors until his death.

In May 2008, Ave Maria University presented Deacon Steltemeier with an honorary doctorate of law in recognition of his accomplishments and service to the Catholic Church.

In October 2009, he was awarded the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice Cross by Pope Benedict XVI in recognition of his lifetime of extraordinary service to the church.

Deacon Steltemeier is survived by his wife of 59 years, Ramona, who lives in Hanceville, where they moved in 2002, and his brother, Fred Steltemeier of Nashville; several nieces and their families. He was preceded in death by his son, Rudy Steltemeier III and daughter-in-law, Debra Steltemeier.