‘For your faithful, Lord, life is changed, not ended’

Cathechizing through Catholic cemeteries in the Diocese of Knoxville

By Bill Brewer
Photography by Bill Brewer and Dan McWilliams

As the Diocese of Knoxville plans for the future and identifies areas of growth and need, Bishop Richard F. Stika and diocesan leaders are looking at Catholic population trends, parishes, schools… and cemeteries.

Two Catholic cemeteries now serve the diocese and its 65,000-plus members, but Bishop Stika hopes to change that.

Calvary Cemetery, the only Catholic burial site serving the greater Knoxville area, is nearing capacity, prompting the bishop to begin a process of identifying the location of a new Catholic cemetery for the part of the diocese represented by the Smoky Mountain and Cumberland Mountain deaneries.

The diocese’s second cemetery, Mount Olivet in Chattanooga, was founded less than 20 years after Calvary and has much more capacity than Calvary. Immaculate Conception Parish pastor Father Ron Franco, CSP, said there are only about 50 gravesites remaining in Calvary, which dates to 1869, when Immaculate Conception acquired approximately six acres in East Knoxville for its cemetery.

“Since I’ve been here, people have asked if we’re ever going to have another cemetery in Knoxville,” Bishop Stika said, noting the few plots remaining in Calvary for families or individuals.

Bishop Stika said the diocese would like to find someone who would donate land for a new cemetery.

“I have decided to possibly acquire some property within a reasonable drive from the city of Knoxville, perhaps between Oak Ridge, Knoxville, and Powell,” he said. “I am in the early stages. A diocese should provide burial spaces. We have areas for cremains, our columbaria. And we’ll have a columbarium at the new cathedral, too; a large one at the cathedral. But the Church still prefers burial, which has been our long tradition.”

The bishop explained that when the new Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus is dedicated on March 3, 2018, it will include a columbarium and space for some gravesites. “I’m thinking of calling it the Holy Family Garden, where we will have the columbarium and cremains. And the bishops will be buried in the ground there, in keeping with the custom.”

Bishop Stika has not set a timetable for opening a new Catholic cemetery, but he is ready to begin the process for identifying a possible donor and securing the land.

In the meantime, Father Franco said the remaining plots at Calvary will be sold as needed until there are none remaining. And the cemetery will be maintained just as it has been through its 148 years, whether there are gravesites available or not. The cemetery does not have a columbarium.

The Paulist priest said an Immaculate Conception committee maintains the cemetery located at 1916 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave., two miles from the historic church founded in 1855. He added that upkeep of the cemetery is a major responsibility for the parish.

“It still is the only Catholic cemetery in the city of Knoxville. But space is running out,” Father Franco said, noting that it makes sense for the diocese to begin looking for a site for a new cemetery.

“Calvary is small, and if you are looking to the future and you want to have a Catholic cemetery, you will have to find more room,” he added.

Calvary is landlocked, surrounded on all sides by the residential community where it is located, so expansion is not an option.

Unlike Calvary, Mount Olivet Cemetery has a lot of space remaining for gravesites. Similar to Calvary, the Chattanooga cemetery opened in the 1800s to serve another historic Catholic parish, Sts. Peter and Paul in downtown Chattanooga, which was founded in 1852 and is East Tennessee’s oldest Catholic parish. Mount Olivet was founded in 1886. Sts. Peter and Paul Parish, for generations, has maintained Mount Olivet, but Bishop Stika said he has instructed that the cemetery, which serves all the parishes in the Chattanooga Deanery, be supported by all parishes in the deanery.

David Hale, Mount Olivet superintendent, explained that a smaller cemetery initially served Sts. Peter and Paul, but the parish was in need of more space, so it acquired the property in East Ridge on Mount Olivet Drive.

Mr. Hale said the cemetery now has about 6,000 graves, with room for up to 20,000 more, and that number could rise if parishioners opt for the cemetery’s columbaria. He said Mount Olivet covers nearly 30 acres that are dedicated to gravesites, with another 20 acres that could accommodate expansion.

“We’re actively engaged in selling lots, and we’ve been quite successful over the past couple of years. Demand has been strong,” Mr. Hale said. “The cemetery belongs to the Diocese of Knoxville and is for the Catholic churches in the Chattanooga area.”

Mr. Hale reiterated that Bishop Stika wants Mount Olivet to be a deanery cemetery and that a board is being formed to make oversight of the cemetery more uniform among all the deanery parishes.

The cemeteries not only serve parishioners, they also serve those in the religious community in the diocese. A number of priests dating to the earliest days of the Catholic Church in East Tennessee are laid to rest in Calvary and Mount Olivet, and that hasn’t changed.

Monsignor George Schmidt, longtime pastor of the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul, was buried in Mount Olivet in January. Father Joe Campbell, who served as pastor of several churches in the diocese, was buried in Calvary in October.

“A number of pastors of Immaculate Conception are buried there, as are other priests, and that tradition continues,” Father Franco said. “Obviously, it will fill up at some point.”

He pointed out that Calvary is a very active cemetery that has undergone a major grounds improvement project, including the refurbishing of its outdoor Stations of the Cross.

“We’ve worked hard on maintaining Calvary. The grounds are kept up, and the Stations of the Cross recently were redone,” he said. “The cemetery is certainly actively used. It’s a heavy responsibility for the parish to bear.”

Every Memorial Day, the priests of Immaculate Conception and Holy Ghost parishes celebrate an outdoor Mass at the cemetery to remember the Catholics who have died. And each first Sunday of November, the priests lead a rosary service and blessing of the graves. Both services are well-attended.

Those activities are to continue, even if Bishop Stika is successful in founding a new Catholic cemetery.  In the meantime, the search will continue for a potential donor with available land that is suitable for a cemetery.

“If somebody would like to be a part of the ongoing history of the diocese and make a donation within a reasonable vicinity of the greater Knoxville area, and if the property is able to receive bodies, that would be an outstanding gift to the diocese. And as always, the gift would be tax-deductible,” Bishop Stika said.


Related: Catechesis through life and death

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