St. Thérèse of Lisieux Parish celebrates a century of Catholicism in Cleveland, looks forward to the future
By Jim Wogan
Long before the Diocese of Knoxville existed, back when the seeds of Catholicism were starting to sprout roots in the spiritual soil of East Tennessee, Father Paul Hostettler was helping nurture the crop. And keeping the rats away.
Father Hostettler was appointed pastor at the Church of the Resurrection in Cleveland in 1958, and he quickly discovered that he wasn’t the only full-time resident at the parish.
“The Church of the Resurrection (built in 1914) was downtown, behind the post office, on a very small piece of property. It was just a little wooden church with a two-story wooden rectory that was … full of rats,” he recalled while laughing.
“I wouldn’t sleep upstairs because I could hear rats running through the wall. I slept on the couch down in the living room.”
The Church of the Resurrection is gone. So are the rats.
Father Hostettler, 92, and living in Nashville, is now retired. Thanks to him, and many other devoted clergy and hardworking laypeople over the decades, the Catholic Church in Bradley County is still growing.
Parishioners at St. Thérèse of Lisieux, which was built to replace the Church of the Resurrection, recently celebrated 100 years of Catholicism in their community.
“We stand on the shoulders of many,” said Father Mike Nolan, the current pastor at St. Thérèse.
“Certainly my parishioners have heard me say this too many times and they probably groan now, but we’re the best Catholic Church in Bradley County.”
“It’s not bragging. It’s just fact, because we’re the only one. So what we make of it is up to us. What we are is God’s gift to us. What we become is our gift to God,” Father Nolan added.
Being Catholic in Bradley County in those early years wasn’t without challenges.
The Church of the Resurrection had enough pews for about 60 worshipers. Sometime in the 1950s the church was expanded to make room for 120.
“It was a very small church, and in fact, on Sunday we would open the windows and people would stand outside and look in,” said longtime parishioner Barry Boettner.
“I have one fond memory of our oldest child being baptized in that church and it really didn’t have much of a baptistery, so they would (baptize) on the first pew, and they would lay a white cloth on the pew.
“We were going through the ceremony and at about that time Father Hostettler’s cat came in the side window and jumped onto the pew and walked across the white cloth. About two seconds later, Father said, ‘I take this pure white cloth,’ and everybody just about lost it,” Mr. Boettner said with a big smile.
With a migration of businesses to Bradley County in the 1950s, the population of the area grew, and so did the number of Catholics.
The need to build a new church became a hot topic—too hot for the Bishop of Nashville (the Diocese of Knoxville didn’t exist yet). It took a few letters and a dinner invitation to convince Diocese of Nashville Bishop William Adrian that the parish was indeed ready for a new church. In 1961, construction started on St. Thérèse of Lisieux.
“It is up on a hillside and at the time it was built it was the only building on the property and you could see it from two miles away,” Father Hostettler said. “We bought eight lots atop the hill. Now you have to be up there to see it.”
St. Thérèse of Lisieux was built for just over $100,000, according to Father Hostettler. The building loan was paid off in just three years.
“For a parish that only had 100 families, building a church, that was quite a (financial) chunk to bite off,” said parishioner Ron Braam, who has headed five different capital and fundraising campaigns at St. Thérèse.
The most recent is the Home Campaign—a diocesan-wide effort aimed at building and strengthening the Catholic Church in East Tennessee. St. Thérèse of Lisieux will use its portion of the campaign funds to pay down parish debt and improve campus facilities.
“It’s part of the message of the Home Campaign. We want to do that. We want to finish the second floor of the Family Life Center. It’s not heated and it’s not cooled,” Mr. Braam said.
“The walls and ceilings in some places aren’t finished. There are no bathrooms up there. We have a budget planned. We’ve reached 85 percent of our (Home Campaign) goal and we haven’t had commitment weekend yet,” he added.
Father Nolan, who also served as pastor at St. Thérèse from 1993-1997, is equally excited about the opportunity.
Since his return in 2014, St. Thérèse parishioners have reduced parish debt by more than 60 percent.
“That is amazing. (They did it) through their own generosity without affecting parish attendance or offertory. In fact, offertory has increased, and that is due to the generosity of the people who see a need and say, all right, I need to dig a little deeper to do my part for my church, for my children, for somebody else’s children,” Father Nolan said.
“The Home Campaign will allow us to not only pay off the debt from (the Family Life Center), but it will also allow us to finish it, to put the flooring in and the ceiling in. It will allow us to make improvements to our lighting and our audio in our church. We have to put a whole new roof on the church and redo the wiring. Not sexy stuff, but stuff that comes with the joy of home ownership,” Father Nolan added.
The parish now has roughly 800 registered families. Like many parishes around the Diocese of Knoxville, some of that growth is the result of an expanding Hispanic community.
Ana Giraldo-Taylor, originally from Colombia in South America, has been a parishioner at St. Thérèse since 1996.
“I have seen a lot of families that have settled here in Cleveland, and that used to have little children. Now, their little children are grown, like mine.” Ms. Giraldo-Taylor said.
“Their children are having children. There are a lot of people moving here. Not only Hispanic. There are a lot of Anglos coming from the north and settling around here. Our parish is very big. It has grown a lot. It is very vibrant,” she noted.
Pam Wilcoxon has been a parishioner at St. Thérèse since 1974 and is head of the parish’s Women of Faith ministry. “We are a very diverse parish, and we are very fortunate to have such an active Hispanic group,” she said.
“I have seen many changes and been through many priests. It doesn’t matter what changes, it’s always my home. I was married in this parish, my children were baptized in this parish, and a few years ago my daughter was married in this parish. That just means so much to me. When my husband and I were married, actually, the altar was on the other end, so that changed, too,” Mrs. Wilcoxon added with a smile.
The “best” Catholic church in Bradley County is trying to “do the best we can with the gifts we’ve got,” Father Nolan said.
The parish’s Three Kings Feast in December is a celebration for all of Cleveland — and the parish distributes toys and blankets and feeds all who attend. Work done by the Knights of Columbus, the Women of Faith and the John XXIII group is cited by many, including Father Nolan, as vital parish components to its outreach.
Each fall, the parish holds a weekend homecoming celebration.
When Bishop Adrian approved construction of St. Thérèse in 1961, Father Hostettler asked him to consider three names for its dedication. St. Thérèse of Lisieux was at the top of his list.
“She was a cloistered nun and never got out of the monastery. She was named co-patroness of missions in the whole world, and this was a mission parish in a sense,” Father Hostettler said. “I felt she was going to look after us and she did, and it’s still going strong.” ■