Completing their mission: St. Michael the Archangel community working to fulfill dream of becoming parish

By Dan McWilliams

God has performed many marvelous deeds for St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Mission in Erwin, and the story is not finished yet.

The Unicoi County mission has now outgrown a second location, as it looks forward to the construction of a multipurpose building on its 12½-acre plot of land.

Father Tom Charters, a Glenmary Home Missioners priest, leads St. Michael the Archangel, with assistance from Brother Tom Sheehy, GHM, and a Glenmary lay missioner, pastoral associate Kathy O’Brien.

St. Michael the Archangel Mission is following in the footsteps of legendary circuit-riding priest Father Emmanuel Callahan, who celebrated Mass for Catholics wherever he could find them throughout East and Upper East Tennessee at the turn of the 20th century and established the early Church in the area.

“That’s what Glenmary does,” Father Charters said. “Glenmary has gone into counties where there is no Catholic church and done just what we’re doing.”

St. Michael the Archangel is located in the basement of a rented ranch house at the corner of Jackson Love Highway and Berkshire Drive. The mission is next door to the Fellowship Free Will Baptist Church, one of several Free Will Baptist churches in Unicoi County.

Father Charters said there are about 200 members of St. Michael, including a sizable Hispanic community. There is one Sunday Mass for everyone, which respects the wishes of the St. Michael community, which wants one unified Mass, not separate Masses in English and Spanish.

There were 176 people at the Easter Sunday Mass on March 27, which prompted Father Charters to open the garage door to the basement of the house, where Masses are held. When there is overflow, chairs are set up on the driveway just outside the basement and a portable awning is put up for cover. Some 59 people attended the Easter Vigil Mass the night before at the mission.

“We open the garage door only for Easter and first holy Communion,” Father Charters said, adding that the mission recently purchased 98 folding chairs for $150, which now gives it almost enough chairs for everyone to sit without having to borrow any.

Father Charters blesses holy water used in a sprinkling rite.

Jack Holiwski and wife Teresa have been in Erwin for 22 years since moving from New York City, and have been at St. Michael the Archangel from its beginnings.

Mr. Holiwski called the growth of the church “beautiful.”

“It’s growing — that’s why we have to get out of here,” he said, pointing to the ranch house. “We haven’t got the room.”

Brother Tom dubbed the growth “amazing.”

“The past four years, it’s just exploded, basically because there are so many Hispanics in the area, and word has really spread, and Kathy has done an amazing ministry in terms of working with the Hispanics,” he said.

The current meeting house is bursting at the seams.

“It’s way under-sized,” Brother Tom said.

According to Father Charters, the entire Erwin community is excited that the mission is preparing to construct a church building on property it has purchased across town from the current location. The site has been graded, and the Knights of Columbus have erected a pavilion for outdoor events.

Father Charters describes the new property, located in a peaceful valley at 657 N. Mohawk Drive about three miles away from the present mission, as “sizable.”

“People have even asked in the community, ‘How did you get that?’” he said.

The property cost $246,900 and was paid for by the Catholic Foundation of East Tennessee.

Steve Miles, who chairs the building committee, said his group has agreed to an 8,000-square-foot, two-story multipurpose building for the parish. It will have offices on the bottom level for Father Charters and Ms. O’Brien, with space for Mass upstairs.

A rectory for Father Charters would follow next before a church is built on the site.

“[A priest’s residence] will probably be our second effort; after we do the multipurpose building,” Mr. Miles said. “We would try to build a house, because right now we’re renting, and if he could move onto the property, that would be great.”

The multipurpose building would cost under $500,000 ideally, Mr. Miles said, adding that St. Michael is working on a building proposal to present to the diocese.

“Our goal is to kind of get some plans together this summer, and maybe at the end of the summer or in the fall have a plan that we like,” he said, “and feel we want to go forward with and show it to the folks down in Knoxville, and start figuring out how we can get funding and when we can actually start groundbreaking. We realize that the folks in Knoxville need to basically buy into our plan, and we’re hoping to bring them some concrete ideas at the end of this year.”

The multipurpose building will seat 250 to 270 at one service.

Raising funds and preparing for construction of a new church building are far cries from when Father Charters arrived in the Diocese of Knoxville in 2011 to carry out Bishop Richard F. Stika’s request to build a parish in Unicoi County. Initially, the mission held Mass at the Erwin Elks Lodge but moved to its present location in May 2014, where the rectory and a day chapel occupy the main level of the house.

Father Charters credited St. Michael members for being determined to get a parish off the ground in this mountainous community that borders North Carolina.

He said they have really stepped up.

“They said, ‘All you have to do is ask, Father.’ They’re just very generous,” Father Charters said.

“We started with 37 people who came to our first Mass at the Elks Club,” Father Charters said. “It just kept growing and growing. When Kathy came, because she does Hispanic ministry and youth ministry and religious education, we really took off.

“When we moved to the house from the Elks Club, we figured that we could put 150 in there. I thought, ‘Oh, great, this will last us for a couple of years,’ because all we have is 100 people. Within the first year, we were filling it up. We have had up to 189 in there, and that was with 30 people missing. There are more than 200 parishioners.”

And when attendance approaches 200, the garage door is opened, the awning goes up, and chairs are unfolded in the driveway.

St. Michael the Archangel was a Wave 1 participant in the diocese’s Home Campaign, which Father Charters dubbed the “mission campaign.” The mission’s enthusiasm showed itself as St. Michael members secured $131,000 in pledges against a goal of $56,181.

Members were eager to visit townspeople to raise money for the campaign.

“They were actually almost debating each other on who they were going to get. There was fire around that table, one of those roundtables we were having at this meeting,”

Father Charters said. “And sure enough, they went out. They went knocking on doors. They went asking.”

While there is enthusiastic participation in the Home Campaign, Father Charters pointed out that it will take much more than $131,000 to construct a church building. St. Michael has been holding fundraisers in addition to the Home Campaign, and has welcomed funding sources from within and outside the mission.

“Until we get the basic funds, we can’t go any farther. We just don’t have deep pockets,” he said, adding that one couple hiking the nearby Appalachian Trail attended Mass at St. Michael and later sent the mission a check for $1,000. And there have been similar gifts.

“We’re one community, and we want to keep one Mass. That’s why we need a bigger building,” Father Charters said. “We have a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of participation, and a lot of faith.”

The mission’s enthusiasm also shows in the collections at Mass.

“Even the second collections — I’ve been in Glenmary missions where what we get in the second collection here was the Easter collection in our missions,” Father Charters said. “They’re always very generous.”

Parishioner Mary Ann Laun came up with an idea to raise money that has literally paid off, Father Charters said.

“She wanted to write to all the parishes that had the name St. Michael the Archangel,” he said. “She typed up a letter, and then ‘calligraphied’ each letter by hand and mailed it. As a result we’ve gotten seven or nine letters back; actually, we have more than $2,100. It’s just been very, very generous.”

Despite being in temporary headquarters, St. Michael the Archangel outdraws its fellow churches in Erwin’s downtown.

“We have a larger attendance than the First Baptist Church, the Presbyterian Church, the First United Methodist Church, and the First Christian Church, and those are the center churches downtown,” Father Charters said.

Ecumenical support from the local ministers is “very good,” he noted.

“They would give me suggestions on where to look for property. They were very helpful, praying that things would go well here, that we would find property,” he said.

When asked how people around the diocese can help St. Michael the Archangel Mission, Father Charters had a one-word answer.

“Financially!” he said. “That’s really the big thing; their prayers, too; their prayers, their support. If they’re able to help us financially, if they’re able to help us with a building or something like that — that’s what we need.”

Father Charters said that St. Michael is faring pretty well, despite not being “a prosperous parish.”

“We have a church without a building,” he said.

“We have all the ministries and beyond. We’re doing ecumenical ministry. We’re doing outreach ministry. We’re doing ministry to the poor — people are calling and asking for assistance.

“We’re doing evangelization, and it’s not just me. The high school kids and the adults are inviting people. Our high school group is the size that it is, over 30 people, because the high school kids are going out and inviting people to come. The adults are the same way — they’ll meet people and say, ‘Why don’t you come over to the church?’ Our religious education just keeps growing and growing. Again, it’s people going out and inviting people. It’s not just me doing it. It’s not talking evangelization, it’s not saying, ‘Let’s get a new evangelization program’ — they’re doing it.”

Father Charters is excited about the direction St. Michael is taking. He is especially complimentary of the youths, who are taking leadership roles in the mission, and the adult religious-education program, which has more than a dozen members who meet weekly at the Hawg-N-Dawg barbecue and hot dog eatery. Since arriving in Erwin, the Glenmary Home Missioners priest has been working hard to get St. Michael established in the community. And he is succeeding.

In a county where there are Church of God, Church of Christ, Assembly of God, Baptist, Presbyterian, and Methodist congregations, the Catholic Church is making a name for itself.

Father Charters and St. Michael members have joined the other churches in the Witness Walk on Good Friday, and, two years ago, St. Michael had the largest congregation taking part in the walk, which is a procession by congregations of all the participating churches through downtown Erwin, with participants carrying a large cross through town to represent the journey Jesus was forced to make as he carried the cross to his crucifixion.

Ms. O’Brien, the pastoral associate, sees the mission’s growth firsthand as she works with children, teens, and Hispanics. She now has more than 30 kids in the high school group.

“I work particularly with the teenagers, and that’s a real explosion of growth. I started with four kids in my living room less than three years ago. We’re going to start a middle school youth group separately, and there’s probably another 30 of them.”

She called the new property “a fine piece of land.

“I want to see a building on it.”

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