St. Boniface, Jellico, Tenn./Ky.: Tennesseans attending Mass in Kentucky

Part of the Faith on the Border series

By Dan McWilliams

St. Boniface sits on the Kentucky side of the state line, but the Tennessee border runs directly behind the church and its adjacent Catholic cemetery.

The church is part of the Diocese of Lexington, and, on the Diocese of Lexington website, the church’s mailing address is 76 W. Sycamore, Williamsburg, Ky., where the priest resides. But the street address is Catholic Street, Jellico, Tenn.

Father Jesuraj Mariasalethu, a Herald of Good News priest, is pastor of the parish of about 25 families. The little church is filled to overflowing with visitors from all over at least once a year: at the annual All Saints’ Day celebration.

Pianist Linda Vore says St. Boniface’s border location “keeps people from having to travel quite so far.”

Parishioner Bill Cuel, 74, remembers another near-the-border church in the area from many years ago.

“We had a church in Newcomb, Sacred Heart. Father Albert Henkel from Harriman came over for years and years. He taught me Latin,” he said. “I served Mass for him one week, and then he’d only come once every two weeks. The next week we’d come to Kentucky — [St. Boniface] is in Kentucky, and I’d serve Mass.”

After an Air Force career and a job at General Motors, Mr. Cuel returned to the area 17 years ago. He and wife Anna enjoy coming to St. Boniface.

“We come every time,” he said. “She was a Methodist when I met her, but now she’s a big-time Catholic.”

St. Boniface was once a bigger parish, but “we don’t have a lot of them left,” Mr. Cuel said. “They all moved away. A lot of them died, and the younger generation has either left the Church or moved away to other parts of the country.”

Joe McMullen has been a parishioner of St. Boniface since 1988, when the parish’s original 1886 church still stood, before a 1993 arson fire destroyed it. The new St. Boniface Church opened in 1996 and still uses the original crucifix from the old church, with Jesus on the cross showing signs of blackening from the fire.

“Unfortunately, the original church burned down,” Mr. McMullen said. “We were part of a series of churches in eastern Tennessee and Kentucky that were torched by arsonists. We had one of the oldest structures in what is now the Diocese of Lexington.”

St. Boniface’s border location “is really convenient,” Mr. McMullen said. “Surprisingly, the majority of the members here are from Tennessee,” he said, “because right out the back window of the church here, beyond the organ, six feet, that’s the state line. So we’re just into Whitley County in Kentucky, but the majority of the members are from Tennessee.”

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