Diocese of Knoxville initiates inquiry of renowned priest who served in Chattanooga more than 100 years ago
By Jim Wogan
The Catholic Church of East Tennessee may have a saint in its midst.
An investigation recently initiated by Bishop Richard F. Stika and the Diocese of Knoxville is focused on the life and death of Father Patrick J. Ryan, a respected priest who served in Chattanooga more than 100 years ago.
In its early stages, the case for Father Ryan is compelling, and officials at the Vatican have expressed encouragement. But the making of a saint isn’t easy. It involves countless hours of research and requires demanding scrutiny by those doing the investigation. Proof of a virtuous life and adherence to Catholic beliefs are just two of the requirements.
The confirmation of two miracles, credited to the person being considered for sainthood, is mandatory. And of course, final approval, in the form of canonization, comes from a highly placed Church official: the Vicar of Christ, the pope.
Father Ryan was born in Ireland in 1845. After his family emigrated to the United States, he grew up in New York City before attending seminary in Missouri.
In 1869, Father Ryan was ordained a priest in Nashville. He first served the Church in Clarksville.
His biography, published by the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Chattanooga, says Father Ryan’s “prudence and priestly zeal” caught the attention of Nashville Bishop P.A. Feehan, who moved the young priest to Chattanooga—a vibrant and commercially successful city — in 1872.
The Catholic Church in Chattanooga at that time was growing, and Father Ryan was helping lead the effort. Everything seemed good until 1878, when the region was hit with yellow fever. An estimated 12,000 people fled the city. Figures on the number of people who died from the disease vary, but one thing is certain — Father Ryan was among its victims.
Father Ryan contracted the viral disease while administering to the sick. The young priest died on Sept. 28, 1878.
“Here we have a priest who could very easily have fled the city, or stayed away from the areas that were afflicted with the ravages of the yellow fever,” said Father David Carter, the rector of Sts. Peter and Paul. “But following an impulse of great charity, Father Ryan went into those places, stayed, and ministered to the people that contracted the disease, and died from it while ministering to his people in a very heroic way.”
A casual conversation between Father Carter and a deacon assigned to the basilica led to an astonishing suggestion: perhaps Father Ryan should be considered for sainthood.
“I said to Father David, it just popped into my mind, what about us working on canonization for Father Patrick J. Ryan,” Deacon Gaspar DeGaetano said.
“I had been a Knight of Columbus for about 35 years and the name of our council was Father Patrick J. Ryan Council. The fourth-degree assembly is named in his honor, too, so we have two groups that honored him. I knew a little bit about him.”
On June 14, Bishop Stika signed a decree officially establishing the Diocese of Knoxville as the petitioner of the Cause of Beatification and Canonization of Rev. Patrick J. Ryan.
Father Carter is designated as episcopal delegate for the cause of sainthood. Dr. Waldery Hilgeman, who works closely with the Vatican on matters of sainthood, will serve as postulator. Dr. Hilgeman resides in Italy.
As vice postulator, Deacon DeGaetano will broaden his research into Father Ryan’s life and death, oversee the acquisition of relics in case Father Ryan becomes a saint, and distribute prayer cards. Deacon DeGaetano also is the contact in the event someone believes a miracle can be attributed to Father Ryan through intercession.
“When it comes to sainthood, we want to honor people that have certain heroic virtues, and when it comes to Father Ryan, his witness to Christ, through his staying behind when the yellow fever epidemic was raging, and his dying in the service of mankind…in all probability we believe he is in heaven, but we need to prove it,” Deacon DeGaetano said.
By virtue of Bishop Stika’s decree, Father Ryan is now considered a Servant of God, the initial phase in a rigorous process of being pronounced a saint by the Church.
“Father Ryan was a man of holiness and a man of Christ who through his efforts to minister to the sick became sick himself. He gave his life for people in trouble,” Bishop Stika said. “The Bible reminds us that Jesus said there is no greater love than to lay down your life for another. Father Ryan did that.”
During a pilgrimage to Rome in April, Father Carter and Deacon DeGaetano met with Monsignor Robert Sarno, a member of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints.
“(The meeting went) beyond our expectations,” Father Carter said. “We expected just to get a basic outline of how to proceed, what to expect, and get a good pat on the back and say ‘good luck.’ But no; we got a warm reception, an excitement about the cause from this official, a clear path forward with very concrete first steps to get the ball rolling at a quicker pace than we ever thought was possible.”
One step in this process involves exhuming Father Ryan’s body from its current location at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Chattanooga. Deacon DeGaetano says that could happen as soon as January. Forensic work will be used to authenticate Father Ryan’s remains and gather relics in the event sainthood can be determined.
“Our plan is when we exhume his body a forensic lab will be set up in a garage at the cemetery. We will take first-class relics and second-class relics for churches,” Deacon DeGaetano said. The current prayer card for Father Ryan includes a third-class relic—fragments of a cloth that was recently draped on the priest’s grave at Mount Olivet.
There also are plans to recreate the funeral procession that initially brought Father Ryan to Mount Olivet—his biography indicates that the cortege was a mile long and included more than 100 carriages.
While there is much research to do, diocesan officials are working hard to have Father Ryan pronounced venerable by proof of heroic virtue, something that must be approved by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints and the Holy Father.
The final steps, being pronounced blessed and eventually a saint, depend on the proof of miracles.
A prayer card for Father Ryan, now in circulation, carries these words from Bishop Stika: “Heavenly Father, through the intercession of Servant of God, Patrick Ryan, may I be granted the favor I seek…I ask this in the name of Jesus, Your Son who lives and reigns with You, and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever, Amen.”
Father Ryan’s path to sainthood could be clinched if miracles can be attributed to him through prayers of intercession.
“We’re going to try to promote the cause and ask people to pray for his intercession (with the holy card) and then report any favors granted — to me, as the vice postulator,” Deacon DeGaetano said.
Under Pope Francis, the Roman Catholic Church has seen some high-profile causes for sainthood in recent years. In 2014, Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II were canonized to sainthood. In 2015, an American priest, Father Junipero Serra, was canonized in Washington, D.C. Next month, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta will be proclaimed a saint at her canonization Mass in Rome.
Father Carter believes Father Ryan qualifies for a unique path to sainthood — as a Martyr of Charity.
“The church is still discerning this classification. But we and the Congregation are thinking that, in our understanding of Christian life, (the) great witnesses and examples of Father Ryan need to be known, honored, venerated and emulated,” Father Carter said.
“Being designated a Martyr of Charity may give him a quicker path to beatification and canonization. It may present to us a more direct route that wouldn’t take as much time, but we’re not going say that there is any time frame,” he added.
During his years as a Vatican official, Cardinal Justin Rigali, now in residence in the Diocese of Knoxville, has seen the canonization process up close. His office includes photos of modern-day saints.
Cardinal Rigali worked with Blessed Paul VI and St. John Paul II, and he visited with Blessed Teresa of Calcutta.
His Eminence welcomes the Cause for Sainthood of Father Ryan; he understands the excitement it generates at the diocesan level; and he recommends patience for those who plan to follow the effort.
“Every diocese is part of one holy Catholic Church. Every diocese has hidden people of holiness,” Cardinal Rigali said.
“Father Patrick Ryan has merited attention, and now they are pursuing the case. They are looking at it more closely, and at first sight it looks good, so let’s pursue it and see what happens.”