Basilica still stands as a community beacon after 125 years

Sts. Peter and Paul marks historical milestone as it looks forward to a bright future

By Dan McWilliams

There was much to celebrate at the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul on June 28.

The basilica community gathered for Mass with Bishop Richard F. Stika to mark not only the 125th anniversary of its church building (1890-2015) but also the 10th anniversary of the ordination to the priesthood of its rector, Father David Carter. The Mass was on the vigil of the solemnity of the parish patrons.

“Where were you 125 years ago?” Bishop Stika asked. “We were in the hands of God. This parish had its beginnings in a place where people could gather together to worship their God, to be nourished by the Eucharist, to witness the great miracle of the sacraments, and especially to be loved by God as we return that love to him.

“So as we gather together this day, in a special way we remember all the benefactors and all those who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith, members of this basilica parish.”

Monsignor George Schmidt, the parish’s retired longtime pastor, attended the Mass and the dinner following.

Bishop Stika in his opening remarks led a round of applause for Monsignor Schmidt.

Concelebrants were Father Carter, Father David Boettner of Sacred Heart Cathedral, Father John Dowling of Holy Ghost in Knoxville, newly ordained Father Scott Russell of Sts. Peter and Paul, and Father Santiago Gassin, a visiting priest from Spain.

During his homily, Bishop Stika led another round of applause, this time for Father Russell, ordained a priest just the day before.

Bishop Richard F. Stika has a little fun with Father David Carter at the anniversary reception for the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul.

The bishop opened his homily by saying “what a great joy it is, for today this evening we sing a song of thanksgiving to Almighty God for the existence of this parish and this church, which we not only recognize as something very important and vital to the Catholic Church in East Tennessee, especially in this Chattanooga area, but especially because the Holy Father himself, Pope Emeritus Benedict, recognizes this beautiful edifice as a minor basilica of the Catholic Church.

And actually very few are in existence throughout the whole world compared with the amount of churches.”

The basilica’s stained-glass windows depict events in the lives of St. Peter and St. Paul.

“This beautiful church is dedicated in memory of St. Peter and St. Paul, the two foundations of the early Church, two men who at times didn’t seem to like each other a whole lot,” Bishop Stika said. “But God doesn’t pick perfect people, does he? He picked St. Paul, who persecuted the early Church. . . . And then we’ve got Peter. Of any apostle who ever got himself into trouble with Jesus, it was Peter.”

As the basilica parish “looks into the future with bright promise and hope, know that it’s not so much about me or you or even Francis, the pope—it’s about Jesus,” the bishop said. “It’s about gathering together around this table, this altar, to once again celebrate the sacrifice of the Mass.”

At the end of Mass, Father Carter expressed gratitude to Bishop Stika for his presence.

“Thank you, bishop, for being here and celebrating this Mass with us on this historic occasion, the 125th anniversary of the dedication of Sts. Peter and Paul. Bishop Stika, you along with your brother bishops constitute the college of apostles in their succession. You follow in the footsteps of Sts. Peter and Paul themselves in proclaiming to us the Word of God in Jesus Christ. Thank you for your witness. Thank you for your leadership in the Diocese of Knoxville.”

Father Carter said he had preached on sacrifice that morning.

“This event couldn’t have taken place without the sacrifice of so many, and I just want to say thank you to all who have spent countless hours of your time, of your life, preparing for this momentous occasion for our parish,” he said. “Those who are singing, those who are serving, those who have worked behind the scenes that you’ll never see. The Knights of Columbus and their visible witness for life and for patriotism and for true values of our country. We thank all those who sacrifice in prayer and all those who make reparation for all the many sins and offenses in this world.

“Thank you for your presence and your fidelity. It heartens me as I celebrate this 10th anniversary of my ordination. I’m very much indebted to your prayers and your witness also to keep me moving forward.”

Father Carter invited the assembly to tour the basilica’s newly renovated rectory and offices as they made their way to the dinner downstairs in the Varallo Parish Hall.

At the dinner, Father Carter presented the Monsignor George E. Schmidt Jr. Notre Dame High School Scholarship to three young people: James Schumacher, MacKenzie Ramey, and Jimena Villanueva.

“Monsignor George had a great love for Catholic education, and he valued it not only in his words but also in his actions,” Father Carter said. “He supported our Catholic schools. To honor his legacy, many of you donated generously to this Monsignor George E. Schmidt Jr. Scholarship Foundation for Notre Dame High School.”

The dinner was emceed by permanent-diaconate candidate Hicks Armor.

“What a privilege we have to be able to worship our Savior in such a beautiful and holy place,” Mr. Armor said. “We also need to pause and reflect on all the people who have gone before us and sat in the same pews we just sat in for such a memorable Mass. Many of those people made it possible for us to worship here today. Many of those were our parents, our grandparents, our aunts, our uncles, other family members who sat in those pews, said the prayers we said, and sacrificed their gifts so we have such a beautiful basilica today.”

Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul parishioner Hicks Armor presents Bishop Stika with a framed rendering of the original Sts. Peter and Paul Church.

Mr. Armor said he would “get in trouble” if he didn’t mention that 2015 is also the 163rd anniversary of the founding of Sts. Peter and Paul. Mr. Armor and the bishop teased each other throughout the dinner before the emcee concluded by presenting the bishop with a framed picture of the original 1890 church.

Diocesan seminarian Mark Schuster joined Monsignor Schmidt at the head table at the dinner.

“One of the great moments of my life as a bishop here in Knoxville: Monsignor George along with two other priests were given the title monsignor,” Bishop Stika said.

Mr. Armor earlier had acknowledged Bishop Stika’s efforts in having Sts. Peter and Paul Church declared a minor basilica.

“I just wanted to honor it as the mother church of the southern part of the diocese,” Bishop Stika said.

“That was one of the other great moments of my life, to be able to petition for that and have the Holy Father grant that.”

The bishop said at the dinner that “in the life of a parish, the church building is important, and that’s what we celebrate in a particular way today, because it’s the place where we gather together to pray.

“The church is a holy place. I think sometimes we’ve kind of lost that sense of holiness, and our churches sometimes become parish halls, and I remind our priests to remind the people that when people want to come to the church before Mass or after they like to pray before the Blessed Sacrament. That’s what makes the church so holy: the building, because there’s that one thing you can always count on: you can enter a dark church and see a red light flickering, and you can always know that the precious body and blood, soul and divinity, of Jesus is there. And so that’s what we honor when we honor a church building: we honor Jesus himself.”

Bishop Stika took note of the rectory renovations, which included the addition of a suite for the bishop’s use.

“Father David wanted to make sure that I kept him here, so he gave me my own set of rooms,” Bishop Stika said.

During the dinner, Bill Soffe, Grand Knight of Council 610 of the Knights of Columbus, presented Father Carter with a memento in honor of his priestly anniversary. The gift was “a token of our appreciation for your service to the council as well as your service to the Church, as well as being a priest for 10 years,” Mr. Soffe said.

The Sts. Peter and Paul rector thanked the Knights for the presentation.

“Thank you very much for this gift and for all that you’ve meant to me, and I promise to try and make it to more meetings,” Father Carter said. “Thank you for all the people I’ve served in these 10 years of priesthood. It’s been an honor and a pleasure to serve, and I pray for many more years of priestly service. Pray for me. You have the little prayer card. Read the back of it, and then pray for priests that we might be faithful to the calling that we have received.”

Father Carter also narrated a history of the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul near the end of the dinner. The rector mentioned the church’s original 174-feet-high twin towers, which were crumbling and had to be dismantled in the late 1930s, leaving the church with one shorter tower.

High moments in the long life of the building include its being listed on the National Register of Historic Places on Dec. 11, 1980, and the granting of its title of a minor basilica on May 12, 2011.

At the end of the evening, Father Carter gave a presentation on a proposed sanctuary renovation for the basilica.

“It’s been some years since it was last renovated with the beautiful stencil work and the organ restoration,” he said.

The renovation will include moving the tabernacle in line with the bishop’s “call to bring Jesus front and center and to have the Blessed Sacrament as the center of our worship experience,” Father Carter said.

Marble will replace carpet in the sanctuary floor “to elevate the dignity and the nobility of that space,” the rector said. “Another thing that was identified as very important to the people of the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul was the restoration of the altar rail.”

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