Past remains vital to parish’s future as proceeds from fundraising effort go to restore original building
By Jim Wogan
Holy Ghost Church is one of East Tennessee’s most identifiable Catholic landmarks and is a vital place for worship and fellowship.
For nearly 90 years, the massive limestone structure and its adjoining bell tower have dominated the view over North Knoxville’s Central Street district.
The parish has played a key role in the growth of Catholicism in East Tennessee, and even after a century it remains one of the busiest parishes in the Diocese of Knoxville—with no fewer than 18 Masses celebrated each week in English, Spanish and Latin.
It’s a vibrant community and its pastor wants to make sure it stays that way.
“We have so many Masses, we want to make sure people still have that flexibility here, that they still have that opportunity to have a liturgy celebrated in a very reverent way and also in an architecturally beautiful setting, lifting up the spirit,” said
Father John Dowling. “But, as we’ve seen around the country, that doesn’t necessarily sustain a parish.”
Holy Ghost has a membership of more than 600 families. While the church is beautiful, indoor activities beyond Mass are confined to the church basement. The competition for space is challenging, and scheduling wedding receptions, social meetings, adult and religious education classes, meals and other worship gatherings is tight. Some elements of the parish family are being squeezed out.
“Especially our young people, they need a place for youth groups as well so they can call our parish property their home instead of often times meeting five miles away,” Father Dowling said.
To help sustain and grow a community that has been around since 1908, Father Dowling and a committee of parish leaders got creative and ambitious.
As part of their Home Campaign effort, Holy Ghost will renovate its original church—built in 1908 and located next to the current church, which was built in 1926.
The original Holy Ghost has been used for various activities over the years, including a Ladies of Charity thrift store until the Ladies of Charity’s recent move to nearby Baxter Avenue. But after 107 years, the building needs serious renovation—especially on its upper floor, which is uninhabitable.
With hard work and funds generated from the Home Campaign, Father Dowling and Holy Ghost parishioners hope to turn their original church into a parish social hall, one that will accommodate all the activities of a parish that has grown and diversified over the past few decades.
Father Dowling was an associate pastor at Holy Ghost from 1987-1997.
“When I left about 20 years ago there were no Hispanics in the parish. Now we have a huge portion of our parish that’s Hispanic and is very, very active. So that’s the direction Holy Ghost is taking, and we want to be all-inclusive.
“We also have members who have come recently to Holy Ghost from Africa and who have settled here. We want to minister to them. We have the Asian community and the traditional members of the parish who have put a lot of time, talent, treasure, and sweat into the building—sustaining this gorgeous church. The people of this parish are proud of the beauty of this church and again, the liturgy, and the reverence that is displayed in the liturgy. We hope that we can grow it.”
Holy Ghost parishioners have pledged more than $943,000 in that effort, far surpassing their initial parish goal of $738,000. Additional pledges are expected, according to Father Dowling.
Under the campaign, the parish will keep 50 percent of its initial goal and no less than 75 percent of the funds raised beyond that.
According to the formula, Holy Ghost is on target to generate at least $520,000 for its own projects.
The remainder will benefit diocesan efforts with the Pope Francis Charitable Trust Fund, the Catholic Education Trust Fund, priest retirement and the new Sacred Heart Cathedral project.
While there were initial questions about helping fund a new cathedral, Father Dowling said once the entire scope of the Home Campaign was explained, parishioners understood the benefits and possibilities the campaign presented—for a cathedral and for every other parish.
The cathedral project is budgeted for $25 million. Diocesan parishes collectively have been asked to contribute $4.5 million of that amount. The remainder is being funded through outside donations and through the Sacred Heart Cathedral parish, which has raised nearly $10 million on its own.
In addition to turning the original church into social and education space, Father Dowling said the Home Campaign effort at Holy Ghost will help fund restoration of the large oak doors on the current church and finish some exterior repair work on the church tower.
“We want to make sure Holy Ghost remains a lively parish,” said Father Dowling.
“It’s always been a parish that’s been known for its liturgy, prayer and devotedness; and also helping the poor and for Catholic education; but what we’re seeing now is the youth are being attracted in other areas. We want to make sure we don’t lose them. I just want to make sure that Holy Ghost itself doesn’t lose its identification. We have to keep up with the needs of our parishioners,” he added.