50 Years in Knoxville

50 Years in Knoxville
Back when I was a pastor in Tennessee in the 2010s, an elderly monsignor once recalled how, at the beginning of the summer of 1973, there had been a total of four priests in the entire city of Knoxville, but then in September the Paulists came and the number of priests in the city doubled! 
Actually, the Paulist Fathers have been serving the Church somewhere in Tennessee continuously since 1900 – that is, for 123 of 165 years of existence as a Catholic Religious Community.  For the first 54 of those years, the Paulists were missionaries in Middle Tennessee. In 1900, at the invitation of the Bishop of Nashville, the Paulists purchased a farm and a large house, known as Hundred Oaks, in Winchester TN. The Winchester mission house was dedicated to Saint Francis de Sales and its chapel to Saint Michael the Archangel (in memory of which the small house chapel in the current Knoxville Paulist residence is also dedicated to Saint Michael the Archangel). Hundred Oaks became the home base for an extensive missionary effort. Several Middle Tennessee parishes, nurtured from their beginning by the Paulists Father, are still thriving today. The mission to Middle Tennessee ended in 1954, when the Paulists sold Hundred Oaks and transferred their Tennessee foundation to West Tennessee, to Saint Patrick’s Parish, Memphis, where they served until 2013.
Meanwhile, in 1973, the Bishop of Nashville invited the Paulists to East Tennessee to assume pastoral responsibility for the oldest Catholic parish in the city of Knoxville, Immaculate Conception, founded in 1855. The current Victorian Gothic structure, the second church on the site, was dedicated on September 19, 1886. In a famous photograph taken one week after that church’s dedication, Immaculate Conception parishioners posed in front of the parish’s original 1855 stone church with the new church in the background. Of the parishioners in the photo, I believe that in my time 24 were still able to be identified by name. I love that picture, which (as a major scene from Knoxville’s urban history) can also be seen in certain secular settings as well as at Immaculate Conception Church. That photo powerfully portrays the Knoxville Catholic community of the time and shows their strong sense of identification with their parish church – built by their efforts and commitment. The familiar photo highlights their justifiable joy in their accomplishment and their sense of responsibility for its future. In 2011, 125 years later, Immaculate Conception parishioners were invited to repeat that 1886 experience. A new photograph (above) was taken in front of the main entrance of the church on West Vine Avenue, immediately after the Solemn Anniversary Mass of Thanksgiving. Since then, both photos have been prominently displayed in gratitude for Immaculate Conception parish’s past, in celebration of its present, and as an expression of hope for its future.
In 1973, the Paulists also assumed pastoral responsibility for the campus ministry at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, at what is now Saint John XXIII parish. With one pastor and one parochial vicar at each parish, the Paulists became a major addition to the Catholic clergy in the city of Knoxville, which became the seat of a third Tennessee diocese in 1988. Over the years, various Paulist priests have served the city as police chaplains and a chaplain to the 1983 World’s Fair, and have served the diocese as Dean of the Smoky Mountain Deanery, Diocesan Consultor, and Chair of the Presbyteral Council.
From 2010 through 2020, it was my privilege to serve as Immaculate Conception’s 24th pastor. Though small in size, the beautiful « Church on Summit Hill » has had a long and distinguished history of pastoral service in the city of Knoxville, where it was the only Catholic Church for its first 20 years. An important presence in Knoxville’s urban skyline and a vital resource for faith and community in the city’s again growing and busy downtown, Immaculate Conception parish continues to thrive now as a multi-cultural, multi-faceted Catholic community and the center of Paulist mission and outreach in East Tennessee. As such, it embodies Servant of God Isaac Hecker’s grand vision to extend Christ’s life and mission in our time and place and so serves as a vital and vibrant sign of the Church’s reach to all who live or work or visit within sight of its spire.