Tennessee, Catholic Church in
TENNESSEE, CATHOLIC CHURCH IN
A south central state bordered by Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Arkansas and Missouri. Tennessee is regionally divided into eastern, western and central areas, with Nashville as its capital and Memphis as its largest city. The state comprises three dioceses: Nashville, Memphis and Knoxville, all suffragans of the Metropolitan See of Louisville, KY. Catholics comprise approximately 4% of the total state population.
History. Catholics came to Tennessee not too long after Europeans began to settle in North America, but they were few, and they left no enduring impressions. The Final Report of the United States De Soto Commission, prepared in behalf of the U.S. Government in 1939, concluded that Spaniard Hernando De Soto and his party entered what became Tennessee on June 1, 1540, during their exploration of much of the Southeast. Although the 1540 route cannot be determined with any certainty, the Final Report situates the Spanish in the area that was later to be Polk, Bradley, Hamilton, and Marion counties, the extreme southeastern corner of present-day Tennessee. Later, the Spanish moved into what is now Alabama before again entering Tennessee in its far southwestern corner. In this corner, near the site of present-day Memphis, they discovered what they called El Rio del Santo Espiritu, the "River of the Holy Spirit," now known as the Mississippi River. Accompanying De Soto were twelve priests. Presumably one of these priests celebrated Mass for the first time on Tennessee soil when the band was in southeastern Tennessee. They founded no missions, coming and going without leaving a trace in the region.
Over a century and a third passed before Catholics again were recorded as being in the Tennessee area. In 1673, the French expedition including Louis Joliet and the Jesuit, Père Jacques marquette, travelled southward on the river that they dedicated to the Immaculate Conception (the Mississippi). Marquette's journal recalls the group's pause at Chickasaw Bluffs, where Memphis later was located. He met natives of the area who told him that they had encountered other Europeans, and that these Europeans gave them what must have been rosaries and pictures of the saints. Once more, no missions or continuing Catholic presence was established.
Other French explorers, including priests, passed along the Mississippi River. The French founded Fort Prud'homme on the site of present-day Memphis in 1682. It later was called Fort Assumption, but it was not a missionary center. French fur traders from time to time were in Middle Tennessee at Salt Lick, a place on the Cumberland River where Nashville now stands. Generally, they too came and went, except Timothe De Monbreun, a Catholic and one of the founders of the city. He built a permanent home where Nashville is today, and he lived there for many years. His son, William, was the first Caucasian born in what now is Middle Tennessee.
Nashville, at first "Nashborough," was formed as a community on Dec. 25, 1780, when two groups, one coming overland, the other on the Cumberland River, arrived from North Carolina and Virginia. At least one Catholic, Hugh Rogan, who had fled British domination of Ireland, was in these expeditions. Rogan eventually settled in Sumner County, where he and his wife remained faithful Catholics.
The American Revolution eventually led to statehood for Tennessee on June 1, 1796, following a long and and bloody struggle. When Tennessee became the 16th state, it elected John Sevier as its first governor. Sevier was a great-grand-nephew of St. Francis xavier, although the new governor himself was born in North America and descended from the Huguenot branch of the saint's family. In 1799, Sevier offered Father Stephen Badin, whom he had met, enough land to settle 100 Catholic families, but Bishop John carroll declined the offer.
The first report of Catholics in any number in Tennessee came in a letter, dated 1800, from Father Badin to Archbishop John Carroll. It said that 100 Catholic families were in Hawkins County, in the northeastern corner of the state. The letter also noted that in the household of U.S. Senator William Blount, whose home still stands as a historical shrine in downtown Knoxville, there lived James Dardis, a Catholic Frenchman. While these Catholics had been found, and possibly there were others since Irish names appear in old records here and there, the Catholic population of Tennessee was tiny. But, it gradually grew, served by visiting priests. Father Badin was again in Knoxville in 1808 and preached four times in the State House. He returned in 1810 and spoke in the Court House about the Catholic belief in the Resurrection of Jesus.
The Catholic population of Nashville swelled when a sizeable group of Irish laborers came to the city to build a bridge across the Cumberland River. Their exact number is unknown, but they were large enough in size and determination to appeal to Bishop Benedict Joseph Flaget, S.S., in Bardstown, KY for a priest to serve them. The priest who came in 1820 was Father Robert Abell. He eventually built the first Catholic church in Tennessee, named in honor of the Holy Rosary, and situated about 100 yards from the site where the state capitol now stands, on land donated by the Grand Master of Nashville's Masons. In 1821, Bishop Flaget visited Nashville. Timothe De Monbreun received him. He also was entertained
by Felix Grundy, later a U.S. senator and attorney general, and by a Presbyterian minister. Other Catholics in Tennessee seldom saw a priest, however, and the Church had no presence outside Nashville.
On July 28, 1837, in response to an appeal by the American bishops, Pope gregory xvi founded three new dioceses in the United States: Dubuque, IA; Natchez, MS; and Nashville. The new See of Nashville received jurisdiction over the entire State of Tennessee. At the same time, gregory xvi named Father Richard Pius Miles, the Dominican provincial-general in America, as the first bishop. Ordained a bishop in Bardstown, KY, on Sept. 16, 1838, Miles was installed in Father Abell's little church in Nashville on the following October 15. He faced a daunting challenge. The Nashville cathedral was the only Catholic church in Tennessee, and the bishop himself was the only priest.
During the next 22 years, Bishop Miles met the challenge and finally created a Catholic presence, which in some instances still exists. Soon after arriving in Nashville, he began a tour of the state, looking for Catholics. He estimated that only 300 Catholics were among the population, enumerated in the 1830 U.S. Census at 682,000. On one trip to Jonesborough, in Washington County, in upper East Tennessee, he met the Aiken family. A son of this family, John F. Aiken, later entered the Jesuits in Maryland and was ordained a priest in 1844. He was the first Tennessean to be ordained. The bishop's first concern was to secure priests. He recruited priests from elsewhere in the United States, but he relied heavily on priests of his own order. At one time, most priests in Tennessee were Dominicans. These Dominicans founded the first parish in Memphis, St. Peter's, in 1840. Among the parishes founded by Miles, active parishes continue to exist in Chapel Hill, Chattanooga, Clarksville, Gallatin, McEwen, Memphis and Nashville.
In 1843, the State General Assembly finally and permanently fixed the capital in Nashville. Seated on the Cumberland River, and already incorporated for 63 years, Nashville was also the largest city in Tennessee. Wishing to make a mark in the city, as well as to serve its increasing numbers of Catholics, Bishop Miles dedicated a new cathedral on Oct. 31, 1844 in honor of the Seven Dolors of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It came to be known simply as "St. Mary's." Historians dispute as to who drew the plans, although most think it was Adolphus Heiman, a Prussian immigrant. In any case, the new cathedral, imposing in size for its time, and chaste and simple in its Grecian lines, instantly won the city's attention and admiration.
The Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, KY arrived in Nashville in 1841 and opened a school for girls, a hospital and an orphanage. These Sisters soon formed themselves as a new, independent congregation, the Sisters of Charity of Nashville. Into their number in 1852 came Julia Voorvoart, from a Nashville family, the first woman in Tennessee to profess vows as a nun. In 1851, Dominican Sisters from St. Catherine, KY, a community Miles had helped to found, along with other Dominican Sisters from St. Mary's Convent, Somerset, OH, arrived in Memphis. At the beginning of the new millennium, the Kentucky Dominican presence continues in Memphis.
Bishop Miles founded St. Joseph's Seminary and established a congregation of male religious, the Brothers of St. Patrick, though neither endeavor survived. When Miles first came to Tennessee, Catholics were more often a curiosity than the object of derision. Andrew Jackson even attended Mass in Nashville. Things changed somewhat with the development of the know-nothing movement. When the Know-Nothings mounted a campaign for governor in 1854, the Catholics found for themselves a champion they had not expected, Andrew Johnson, former mayor of Greeneville and a congressman. In blistering language, he attacked the Know-Nothings' bigotry against Catholics. Johnson won. He went on to become a U.S. senator, military governor of Tennessee, vice president, president and finally a U.S. senator, again. He sent his children to Catholic schools, his daughter and daughter-in-law became Catholics, and he attended Mass regularly, giving generously to build the first Catholic church in Greeneville.
In 1850, Nashville was the scene of a convention of delegates from the 15 slave-holding states to discuss slavery. Tempers already were high. No action was taken, but clouds were gathering. Like most dioceses where slavery was considerable, the Diocese of Nashville paid virtually no attention to African Americans. However, old records show that slaves at times were baptized. Still, it must be assumed that Bishop Miles had no strong feelings against slavery. In fact, when the Civil War came at last, the diocese itself owned four slaves. Bishop Miles did not live to see the war. His health began to break as the 1850s ended. He asked the Holy See for a coadjutor, and on March 15, 1859, Pope pius ix named another Dominican, Father James Whelan, a native of Ireland, as the coadjutor bishop of Nashville. Whelan succeeded Miles when the elder bishop died on Feb. 20, 1860.
At about the same time, the Sisters of Charity of Nashville moved to Leavenworth, KS to form a new community. But, their absence was filled by more Dominican sisters from Ohio, who opened St. Cecilia Academy in Nashville. It was the only school the Federal authorities allowed to remain open during the wartime occupation of Nashville. Though long since in other buildings, the academy, the parent of Aquinas College, still exists, and the sisters formed their own congregation, the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia.
As events climaxed in the spring of 1861, Tennessee at first voted to remain in the Union. Later, Abraham Lincoln's call for troops to suppress the rebellion begun at Fort Sumter in the Charleston harbor turned the tables. Before formally receiving a request, the Confederate Congress admitted Tennessee to the Confederacy. In June 1861, the people voted overwhelmingly to secede, though the vote varied from region to region. In East Tennessee, secession failed, and some there even tried to form a new state, as occurred in the case of West Virginia when it was split from Virginia. But in Middle and West Tennessee, the vote to secede was heavy. The war was hard on Tennessee. More battles were fought on its soil than in any other state except Virginia. Thousands died. Many fought for the Union, though the majority fought for the Confederacy.
Among the dead was Father Emmeran Bliemel, a Confederate, once pastor of Assumption Church in Nashville, the only chaplain on either side to be killed in action. St. Mary's Cathedral was taken by the U.S. Army and used as a hospital and then a stable. Sts. Peter and Paul's Church in Chattanooga also was seized for military use. For reasons still unknown, Bishop Whelan resigned in 1863, before the war ended. Whether true or not, he had been thought to be a Union sympathizer, and in Nashville, where secession had carried seven to one, this made him very unpopular. When the war ended, men loyal to the Union, generally from East Tennessee, quickly took control of the state government. Under their direction, and with dispatch, they moved Tennessee back into the Union. Reconstruction, therefore, did not have all the earmarks it was to acquire elsewhere in the South, but it was still a difficult period.
Father Patrick Augustine feehan, a native of Ireland who was then a pastor in St. Louis, was named the third bishop of Nashville in 1865. Bishop Feehan soon faced a much more insidious problem than a depressed, postwar economy. It was physical disease. Cholera struck Chattanooga, Memphis and Nashville, but it was yellow fever in Chattanooga and especially Memphis that were particularly devastating. By this time, Memphis had a considerable Catholic population with several churches and schools. Thousands died in the epidemics. The city suffered a mighty blow. But, Catholic nuns, many of whom died in caring for the stricken, won a respect for the Church that endured. For generations, the City of Memphis allowed Catholic nuns to ride its streetcars and buses free of charge, as a gesture of appreciation.
The loss of nuns and priests to these diseases was great, but Bishop Feehan found replacements. The diocese grew, in numbers and in institutional presence. In 1871, the Christian Brothers opened a school for boys in Memphis, which eventually became Christian Brothers University. Four years later, the Sisters of the Good Shepherd established a refuge for troubled girls in Memphis. The Sisters of Mercy also came, and they became a major source of teachers and, later, nurses in Tennessee's Catholic schools and hospitals. Despite reconstruction and the epidemics, the Church made strides.
The see of Nashville again fell vacant when on Sept. 10, 1880, Pope leo xiii named Bishop Feehan the First Archbishop of Chicago. His replacement, Joseph Rademacher, a priest from the Diocese of Fort Wayne, IN, was appointed on April 3, 1883. Bishop Rademacher was in Nashville only ten years, returning to Fort Wayne in 1893 as its bishop. Still, the number of Catholic people and institutions grew during his tenure. Succeeding Bishop Rademacher was Father Thomas S. Byrne, a seminary rector in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Named on July 15, 1893, Bishop Byrne was to leave a deep mark on Tennessee Catholicity.
Byrne was an innovator. He had a vision, and he could press his vision through to reality. He encouraged Mother (Saint) Katharine drexel in founding facilities for African Americans in Jackson, Memphis, and Nashville. He invited Little Sisters of the Poor to open a home for the elderly in Nashville. He asked the Daughters of Charity to establish a Catholic hospital in Nashville. He formed mission centers in Harriman, Winchester and Johnson City. He built parishes and schools across the state. The Franciscan Sisters of Lafayette, IN opened St. Joseph's Hospital in Memphis in 1899. He mingled with the great and influential, making friends for the Church. He stressed native vocations, and the response was considerable. Four of his priests became bishops, including the future Samuel Cardinal Stritch. He always regarded as the crown of his tenure the Cathedral of the Incarnation, completed in 1914. Of strict Romanesque basilica style, the cathedral is one of the city's largest and most imposing churches. When he died in 1923, negotiations were in progress with the Jesuits to build a college and with the Brothers of Mary to open a high school in Nashville. Neither project developed, but high hopes were typical of the Byrne era.
Alphonse J. Smith, a priest of Indianapolis, was appointed the next ordinary on Dec. 24, 1923, by Pope pius xi. Bishop Smith suffered from two disadvantages, his poor health, and the Great Depression. Nevertheless under his leadership the Church of Tennessee grew. In 1929, he opened Father Ryan High School for boys in Nashville. The school was named in honor of Father Abram Ryan, the unofficial poet laureate of the South during and after the Civil War. In 1931, the Sisters of Mercy founded St. Mary's Hospital in Knoxville, and the Poor Clares established a monastery in Memphis. After only a relatively short time in office, Bishop Smith died suddenly on Dec. 16, 1935.
His successor, William L. Adrian, a priest of Davenport, IA, was to serve the diocese an unprecedented 30 years (1936–1966). Bishop Adrian founded a weekly diocesan newspaper, the Tennessee Register, and organized lay groups. In the years following World War II, he led the largest Catholic building campaign in Tennessee history, opening 65 churches, five secondary schools and 33 elementary schools across the state. At his behest, Sisters of Charity of Nazareth opened a hospital in Chattanooga, and the Sisters of Notre Dame of Cleveland, OH, founded St. Mary's Hospital in Humboldt. Over 100 priests, almost all of them native Tennesseans, were ordained.
Changing Times. By the time Pope paul vi accepted Bishop Adrian's resignation in 1966, the full impact of the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Topeka Board of Education, that ended school desegregation had reverberated throughout Tennessee. It fell to Bishop Joseph A. Durick to deal with these momentous, and at times violent changes. Auxiliary bishop of Mobile-Birmingham, AL, Durick was named Bishop Adrian's coadjutor on Dec. 5, 1963. Not only did he help to implement the decisions of the second vatican council and forcefully ended racial separation throughout the diocese, but he made himself, and the Church, the most obvious moral voices in an area still only minimally Catholic. Durick was able to undertake this role in great measure because of the strong institutional presence of the Church in the Tennessee cities, and because he took full advantage of a new day in communications, ecumenism, mobility, and outlook in America.
The Catholic Church in Tennessee reached a milestone on Jan. 6, 1971, when the Diocese of Memphis formally came into being. A new diocese for West Tennessee had been discussed for many years. Created by Pope Paul VI, the new diocese had a Virginia priest, Msgr. Carroll T. Dozier, as its first bishop. Bishop Dozier, who served until his retirement in 1978, in general continued the Durick policies, but in his own special style. He spoke against the Vietnam War and reiterated opposition to racism. As with Durick, admirers saw in him a prophet; others were less delighted.
Following the retirement of Bishop Dozier, Auxiliary Bishop (later Cardinal) J. Francis Stafford of Baltimore was appointed to Memphis by the Holy See. Although in Memphis for only a short time (1982–1986) before going to Denver as its archbishop, Stafford himself kept the spotlight on the Church's position on racism. john paul ii named Benedictine Daniel M. Buechlein, the rector of St. Meinrad Archabbey's seminary in Indiana to succeed Stafford in 1986. Like Stafford, Buechlein too did not stay long in Memphis, moving to Indianapolis as archbishop in 1992. Terry J. Stieb, S.V.D., an auxiliary bishop of St. Louis was appointed to Memphis in 1993.
In Nashville, Bishop Durick retired in March 1975, and Pope Paul VI appointed Msgr. James D. Niedergeses, a native of Lawrenceburg, TN, the ninth bishop of Nashville. Bishop Niedergeses attempted to steady the diocese after the turmoil of the preceding decade, and he built facilities to serve the growing Catholic population, especially in the small cities. This growth significantly contributed to Pope John Paul II's establishment on Sept. 8, 1988, of the new Diocese of Knoxville. A priest of the Diocese of Jefferson City, MO, and a native of County Clare, Ireland, Anthony J. O'Connell, was named its first bishop in 1988. Bishop O'Connell not only formed a diocesan structure, but his personality proved to be the adhesive holding together a vibrant Catholic community. When O'Connell was appointed bishop of Palm Beach in 1999, he was succeeded by Msgr. Joseph E. Kurtz of the Diocese of Allentown, and a native of Pennsylvania, as the second bishop of Knoxville.
In 1992, Pope John Paul II accepted the resignation of Bishop Niedergeses of Nashville, who had reached the retirement age, and Auxiliary Bishop Edward U. Kmiec of Trenton, and a native of New Jersey, became the tenth bishop of Nashville. Bishop Kmiec's achievements included the development of a long-range diocesan strategic plan, a development plan for the diocesan system, a reinstitution of the permanent diaconate and a program of nurturing vocations to the priesthood.
Post-World War II population growth in the state was significant and caused an increase in the Catholic population as well. Before 1980, 99% of the Catholics were white Americans. In the late 1970s, a significant number of Hispanics began to immigrate to Tennessee, and by the turn of the new century have constituted more than one-third of the state's total Catholic population. The Catholic demographic growth in Tennessee from 1970 to 2000 was greatest in the Nashville diocese, to a lesser degree in Knoxville, and mostly unchanged in Memphis. The number of Hispanic Catholics in the Nashville diocese alone in 2000 was reported as more than 50,000. African Americans comprise about 1% of the Catholic population. There is also a small but growing Vietnamese Catholic presence in the state.
Bibliography: v. f. o'daniel, The Father of the Church in Tennessee, or the Life, Times and Character of the Right Reverend Richard Pius Miles, O.P. (New York 1926). t. stritch, The Catholic Church in Tennessee (Nashville 1987). m. loyola fox, A Return of Love (Milwaukee 1966). r. masserano, The Nashville Dominicans (Roslyn Heights, NY 1985). g. j. flanigen, Catholicity in Tennessee (Nashville 1937). j. w. mcgraw, Between the Rivers: The Catholic Heritage of West Tennessee (Memphis 1996). h. a. norton, Religion in Tennessee: 1777–1945 (Knoxville 1981). m. d. gohman, Political Nativism in Tennessee (Washington, DC 1938). a. b. mcgill, The Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, Kentucky (New York 1917). d. a. quinn, Heroes and Heroines of Memphis (Providence 1887). j. gilmore, Come North! (New York 1951). o. f. campion, A History of the Diocese of Nashville, unpublished thesis, 1962, in collection of the Tennessee State Library and Archives (Nashville, TN).
[o. f. campion]