As Easter nears, more than 200 believers prepare to enter the Church in East Tennessee.
By Dan McWilliams
Candy Chandler, looking to join a new faith community, visited the Our Lady of Fatima Church parking lot in Alcoa numerous times in 2015 without ever going in to Mass.
Then she met parishioner Mary Ann Edmundson.
“I had been in that parking lot 10 times, but I just didn’t have the courage to get out and approach anybody because I didn’t really know, I had never been to a Catholic service, but the Lord was leading me that way,” Mrs. Chandler said. “I needed to get my life on track. I was raised a Baptist, but I just didn’t get anything from the services anymore where I’d been going. I would go get groceries and then I’d go up there in the [OLOF] parking lot, and I kept thinking, ‘I’m going to talk to someone when they come out.’ I guess I did this 10 times, and I was just too chicken to get out of my car.
“One day I stopped and I thought, ‘I’m really going to do it this time.’ I stepped out of my car, and [Mrs. Edmundson] saw me, and she came walking to me and I went walking to her, and I explained to her that I was interested in learning about the Catholic faith and that I wanted to get a Catholic Bible. She said we could go to Knoxville together and pick one out, but she said, ‘How about signing up for RCIA?’ So I signed up with her, and she became my sponsor.”
That started a path for Mrs. Chandler to enter the Catholic Church.
“[Mrs. Edmundson] went with me every time,” Mrs. Chandler said. “I just knew that this was God’s calling for me to do this and to meet her. And she was like the light in my path. She walked me through everything and answered all my questions. She was just so nice and easy to talk to. Anything I questioned, she was able to talk to me and show me in the Bible. I signed up for the class, and eight months later I graduated and became a Catholic.”
That was in 2016, and now Mrs. Chandler’s husband, David, is going through RCIA and is poised to enter the Church at this year’s Easter Vigil. Ron Edmundson, Mary Ann’s husband, is David Chandler’s sponsor.
David Chandler was among 222 newcomers to the Catholic Church in East Tennessee who took a major step toward their membership by participating in Rite of Election ceremonies March 4 and 5 at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
“And now my husband is going through it,” Mrs. Chandler said.
The Chandlers have gotten together with the Edmundsons “and discussed things about the Bible,” Mrs. Chandler said, adding that “when I go to Mass and I leave, I feel so peaceful. They are such loving and caring people [at OLOF]. Everybody is so open and so glad to see you. I just needed a reboot, and that’s what it took, and I love the Catholic faith. They really believe from the first to the end in the Bible, and they teach it that way.
“It’s not throwing off on any other [faith tradition], it’s just that I was kind of in a rut with my faith, and I just wasn’t going anywhere. Since I joined the Catholic Church, I can’t wait to go to Mass. I love it; everybody is so nice. It just really did something for my soul.”
Mrs. Chandler is 64 and is retired banker. Mr. Chandler is 65 and is retired from retail sales.
The Chandlers have three sons, two of whom live locally and are going to church with them, and they have five grandchildren.
Mr. Chandler said his wife’s enthusiasm about the Church led him to join.
“It sure did. The change that I saw in her and the strength of her faith, it was just miraculous. I fed off of that a lot,” he said. “I started going to Mass with her. I’m just going to echo what she said about the parish community. They just opened their arms to us, and we felt like members right from the start. It was probably the third or fourth time when we went to Mass when people started recognizing our faces. They had us carry the gifts up.
“They asked us to start being ushers. We put that off for a little bit, but we signed up with the usher ministry three or four months ago. I’m not even confirmed yet, but they tell me that that’s OK, ‘you’re part of us.’ I’m looking forward to my confirmation at Easter.”
Mr. Chandler said his Rite of Election experience was “impressive” and “inspiring.”
“Bishop [Richard F.] Stika is a wonderful speaker,” he said. “Personality- wise, he’s very relaxing. I was afraid he’d be stiff and formal, but he’s just not that way. He’s a pretty funny guy. He tells pretty good jokes.”
Mr. Chandler said he is glad to join the Church at this time.
“It’s been very meaningful to us,” he said. “I had been away from the church. I was raised a Methodist. I had not been attending church for many, many years. I was one of those who didn’t have time; it just wasn’t important to me. Now I am seeing what I really missed, and I’m trying to make up for it. We really look forward to it now.”
The Chandlers and the Edmundsons are very good friends now.
“Candy and Mary Ann developed that relationship, and then Ron and I, our relationship grew from that,” Mr. Chandler said.
“They’re wonderful people. The parish at Our Lady of Fatima is just full of wonderful people. It’s a great place.”
Bishop Stika presided at both Rites of Election, Saturday, March 4, for the Chattanooga and Five Rivers deaneries and Sunday, March 5, for the Cumberland Mountain and Smoky Mountain deaneries. Deacon Butch Feldhaus assisted Saturday and Deacon Gordy Lowery on Sunday.
“It is with great joy that I welcome all of you here to the cathedral as we celebrate this Rite of Election,” the bishop said Sunday.
The diocese will receive 166 candidates and 56 catechumens at Easter Vigil services at parishes in the four deaneries Saturday, April 15.
The March 4-5 event’s full name is the Rite of Election of Catechumens and the Call to Continuing Conversion of Candidates. Catechumens have never been baptized and will receive the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, and Eucharist at the Easter Vigil. Candidates have been baptized and will be confirmed and receive the Eucharist at the Easter Vigil.
Bishop Stika said that the newcomers shouldn’t be looking to join a perfect Church.
“As members of the Church, we can mess up,” he said. “That’s why at the beginning of Mass we ask for the Lord’s mercy. Pope Francis talks about how the Church is really like a hospital for sinners. It is where we seek out the Lord and we seek out His forgiveness. We gather together around His table, the altar, to celebrate the great miracle of when we hear ‘this is my body, this is my blood, given for you’ as sinners, so that we might know God in a deeper way, in a more special way. . . .
“That is why it’s important to pray for one another. That’s what we do at Mass. When we have the intercessions, we pray for the world and individuals. You know, we do together what we can’t do by ourselves.”
During his eight years as bishop of the Diocese of Knoxville, Bishop Stika said he has reminded people “again and again that their ambition should be to be the face of Jesus, to be the face of kindness and charity; to be hands of Jesus, to reach out to others; to be the feet of Jesus, not to run the other way when he invites us to help build His kingdom; but especially to be the heart of Jesus, to be the heart of love.”
The bishop asked, “How do we reach out to another person?
“In Genesis, it says we are all created in the image and likeness of God. Pope Francis asks, ‘Do you want to be a saint? Pray for the person who hates you’; a conversion of heart. Many times we can’t control what comes at us; most of the time all we can do is control our response.
“And you know, Pope Francis tells the bishops that we are supposed to smell like the sheep. What does that mean? It means that I am one of you. The pope is just like us, he is human; a sinner who is trying to be a saint.
“That is my challenge for all of you. I hope you never take this for granted. I hope your prayer life increases, your understanding of your relationship with God and others increases, and that you really strive to be the image of Jesus in the world in which we live.”
Bishop Stika said that “I welcome you with everything I have to this community called the Catholic Church.
“We are privileged daily to witness the miracle of hearing the priest say, ‘this is my body, this is my blood, given for you.’ We have the sacrament of reconciliation that reminds us that we are sinners. Now you might say, ‘why do I have to go to a priest?’ Because when we sin, we sin against our self. When we sin, we sin against God. And when we sin, we also sin against the community. We tear at the fabric of who we are as the Church. And because of what Jesus said to Peter, ‘priests, hear confessions.’
“In these next weeks, as you celebrate the scrutinies leading up to that great night — the holiest night of the Church, the Easter Vigil — which reminds us that Jesus triumphed over death. It’s a reminder to us that we can triumph over sin.
After the readings and homily, the Rite of Election each day began with Sister Anna Marie McGuan, RSM, presenting the catechumens to Bishop Stika, saying that “they ask that . . . they be allowed to participate in the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, and the Eucharist.”
Sister Anna Marie is the director of the diocesan Office of Christian Formation.
RCIA leaders from deanery parishes then introduced their catechumens, and the bishop asked godparents whether the catechumens had listened and responded to the Word “proclaimed by the Church” and “shared the company of their Christian sisters and brothers and joined with them in prayer.”
The catechumens then pledged “to enter fully into the life of the Church” through the three sacraments of initiation. Each RCIA leader brought forward his or her parish’s Book of the Elect for Bishop Stika to sign, after which the bishop greeted the catechumens and godparents.
Sister Anna Marie then presented to the bishop “the candidates who seek to complete their Christian initiation.” RCIA leaders introduced their candidates, after which the bishop said “the Christian life and the demands that flow from the sacraments cannot be taken lightly. Therefore, before granting these candidates their request, it is important that the Church hear the testimony of their sponsors about their readiness.”
Sponsors affirmed that the candidates “have come to a deeper appreciation about their baptism,” “reflected sufficiently on the tradition of the Church,” and “advanced in a life of love and service.” The candidates also echoed the catechumens’ desire “to enter fully into the life of the Church.”
The bishop signed the Book of the Elect for the candidates and greeted them along with their sponsors.