Once upon a time: Events have ‘wonderful effect on our lives’

A 1913 expo and the Eucharistic Congress both celebrated the past while looking ahead to the future

A once-in-a-lifetime experience is usually good for us. Our recent Eucharistic Congress is an example of a quite rare event that can have a wonderful effect on our lives. Such exhibitions help us to expand our appreciation of God’s gifts to us.

The overwhelming success of our Eucharistic Congress, marking the Diocese of Knoxville’s 25th anniversary, brings to mind other major events that have attracted thousands of people to our fair region of the world.

The Congress, and its impressive lineup of speakers led by his eminence, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, drew people from as far as California, Oregon, the Midwest, Northeast, throughout the South and even Canada.

It isn’t too difficult to remember another much larger event only six years before we became a diocese that also drew visitors to East Tennessee from around the country and other countries.

The 1982 International Energy Exposition held in downtown Knoxville was a major undertaking that required the cooperation of many people working for a common goal, similar in some ways to the Eucharistic Congress.

The ’82 World’s Fair, held in downtown Knoxville where World’s Fair Park is now, recorded more than 11 million visitors during its six-month run. World’s Fairs weren’t new, and Knoxville’s was modeled after one in Spokane, Wash., in 1974. In fact, there had been more than 300 world’s fairs prior to the Knoxville event, beginning in 1756. And there have been 25 since.

Nashville even got in on the act, holding the Tennessee Centennial and International Exposition in 1897. This fair celebrated the 100th anniversary of Tennessee’s entry into the union in 1796, although it was a year late.

But many people may not realize that the 1982 World’s Fair wasn’t Knoxville’s first international exposition. The city made world’s fair history early in the 20th century by holding the National Conservation Exposition of 1913.

According to a 2009 report by noted Knoxville historian Jack Neely, the National Conservation Exposition of 1913 drew more than 1 million visitors to “the new cause of environmentalism.” This grand exposition was held at Chilhowee Park on Knoxville’s east side.

In autumn 1913, Knoxville proudly set out to show off its modernism and at the same time champion the cause of protecting and carefully using our natural resources. The National Conservation Exposition attracted quite a few people of notoriety, including Helen Keller, Booker T. Washington, Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan and Cardinal James Gibbons, the archbishop of Baltimore, who also was a noted author, labor advocate and reportedly the most famous Catholic priest in America.

The Conservation Expo at the time was touted to be the first event of its kind in the history of the world and was noted for being the first big fair to celebrate the future instead of the past, according to Mr. Neely.

Cardinal Gibbons, who served as archbishop of Baltimore from 1877 until his death in 1921, was elevated to the cardinalate in 1886 and was the second American to receive the honor. Cardinal Gibbons advocated the establishment of The Catholic University of America and served as its first chancellor in 1887.

Upon his golden jubilee in 1911, Cardinal Gibbons was honored by President William Taft, and President Theodore Roosevelt also honored the cardinal as “the most venerated, respected and useful citizen in America.”

Expositions that promoted ecology were very rare then and into the 21st century, but a notable exception was the 1982 World’s Fair. And the federal government comes to mind with two key events in the 20th century that affected East Tennessee. The federal project known as Tennessee Valley Authority became a model for harnessing water and electricity throughout the Tennessee Valley. Then less than a decade later a major part in the development of the atomic bomb occurred in Anderson County with the creation of Oak Ridge, the Secret City.

So, one can see how difficult it might be to pinpoint a religious and secular event in East Tennessee that does not have broader ramifications.

Just as the Conservation Expo of 1913 highlighted the future while marking the past, the Diocese of Knoxville’s 25th anniversary and Eucharistic Congress also celebrated the past while looking ahead to the future.

Monsignor Mankel is a vicar general of the diocese and the pastor of Holy Ghost Parish in Knoxville.