St. Mary-Johnson City has triple celebration

The parish burns its church mortgage, honors Monsignor Bill Gahagan, and receives a Leadership Roundtable award

By Dan McWilliams

St. Mary Parish in Johnson City held a triple celebration Aug. 22.

The parish burned the mortgage on its church building, honored former pastor and now-Monsignor Bill Gahagan, and announced that it had received a Leadership Roundtable award.

And all of that took place on the memorial of the Queenship of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the parish’s patron.

Bishop Richard F. Stika, St. Mary pastor Father Peter Iorio, parochial vicar Father Jésus Guerrero-Rodriguez, seven other priests, and St. Mary deacons John Hackett, Mike Jacobs, and George Fredericks all took part in the mortgage-burning ceremony and the Mass that followed.

The front of the Mass program billed the evening events, which also included a dinner, as a thanksgiving for the past, present, and future of the parish.

A youth choir from St. Mary School sings at the parish’s Mass that followed the mortgage burning.

Father Iorio began the ceremonies with the mortgage burning outside the front doors of the church.

“I just want to show you something that was given to me on July 26, 2016,” he said. “George Imes was chair of the finance board, and he presented me this little Roadrunner Markets lighter, and he said, ‘We will be burning our mortgage soon.’ So in less than a year, we paid off our debt, and tonight we are celebrating that. It took all of us together, so now he presents to me a representation of the mortgage, and I’m going to burn it.”

Cheers and applause followed as the piece of paper in the brazier caught fire and turned to ashes.

Father Iorio then led a prayer of thanksgiving before the congregation processed in for Mass.

St. Mary’s church construction debt story began in 1980, when under the leadership of Father Richard Archer, OP, 125 families contributed $500,000 to purchase nearly 18 acres of land on Lakeview Drive, site of the current church. In 1991, Father J.D. Tamburello, OP, moved St. Mary Church and School to a parish center on Lakeview Drive at a cost of $1,850,000. The parish center was quickly paid off with revenue from the sale of the church’s old property on Market Street and with the generosity of many parishioners.

It quickly became evident that the capacity of the worship area was being pushed to the max, and in 1995 new pastor Father Gahagan created a building committee for a new church. During the planning and construction, St. Mary purchased two additional parcels of land to enlarge the church property to 40 acres. In 1999, St. Mary requested a loan from the diocese to build its current church. The church itself cost $3,250,000 and the additional land $350,000. St. Mary had $850,000 on hand to reduce the loan amount to $2,750,000.

From 1999 to 2017, many contributions were made, starting with a 2001 “A Step in Faith” three-year campaign. At another point in time a second collection was initiated to reduce debt. Over the last 17-plus years, St. Mary parishioners maintained the necessary funding for the parish’s many ministries while paying off more than $2 million in debt and $1.7 million in interest. As of June 2016, the parish owed the diocese $700,000.

2017 has seen great financial blessings for St. Mary Parish. A number of things came together that allowed the parish to pay off the $700,000, including Home Campaign funds of $210,000. The parish paid off the loan in June and now has more than $500,000 available for operations and future capital projects.

Monsignor Bill Gahagan, pictured with Bishop Stika, speaks at the dinner following the Aug. 22 Mass at St. Mary in Johnson City.

Monsignor Gahagan was pastor of St. Mary for nine years, from 1995 to 2004. The Dominican Fathers had staffed the parish for the previous 79 years.

“Nine years now looks like it’s about 90 days, but it’s not,” Monsignor Gahagan said. “[The evening] brings back so many good, loving relationships, challenges of what it is to be a parish family today, challenges of allowing us all to grow spiritually, to find the love of Jesus in ourselves and one another. We’re against a lot of the secular world that makes that challenging, when most of our people live Monday through Saturday in the real world, and as always we try to help people to realize that that’s where the Lord is at.

“Today’s readings were interesting. I was reading one of the sayings of the Amish community: you put your hand in God and you’ll find God’s hand in you in all things. It sounds good, but the more you think about it, it’s true.”

Monsignor Gahagan said he was “just overwhelmed” at being back at St. Mary.

“I’m seeing people here I haven’t seen obviously in a few years,” he said. “It’s just wonderful to see them, bringing back what it took all of us to do, what we’re here for, the burning of the mortgage. I just wish them the continued blessings of the Lord, and I know that they’ll be open to that.

“Good things continue to come out of St. Mary’s here in Johnson City—the parish, the school, and the many ministries they serve in the name of Christ.”

Father Iorio announced the Leadership Roundtable award at the dinner.

“The Leadership Roundtable for Catholic Church Management was offered through our diocese for four of our parishes—it was a grant program, and we worked with [diocesan director of Stewardship and Strategic Planning] John Deinhart,” he said. “Marcy Meldahl [former diocesan director of the Office of Employment Services] brought the Leadership Roundtable to the diocese, and the bishop allowed us to participate in this.

“We had a committee where we implemented the 55 standards—we have all these procedures that really help us to be a better, more efficient, transparent, communicative parish. We applied for what is called the Seal for Excellence. We just received word today that we received the Seal for Excellence from the accrediting body.”

Bishop Stika, pictured with Father Iorio, holds a copy of the e-mail announcing St. Mary’s Leadership Roundtable honor.

The significance of the award is that “it is the gifts of the Catholic business world to help us to be more cooperative, collaborative, a church family that works together,” Father Iorio said. “We are so big as a parish community, with so many different ministries and folks, that it has helped us to be financially accountable and transparent, to communicate, to have public policy, to have governing boards like the parish pastoral council and the finance council and the school board and the Hispanic committee all working with the clergy and laity together.”

Bishop Stika welcomed the gathering to Mass.

“It’s great to be here, especially as we celebrate with the parish dedicated to the Blessed Mother, the Queenship of Mary,” he said. “It is without doubt that she has blessed this community as we gather together this day. It’s good to have formerly Father Gahagan, now Monsignor Gahagan, with us this day, who was so instrumental in this church. For the new monsignor, all you have to do is bow profoundly, and he’ll be happy.”

In his homily, the bishop said “it’s good when we gather together to celebrate important moments in the life of a parish, in the life of a faith community, in the life of a family, for that is what we are, the family of St. Mary’s in Johnson City. And as I’ve said many times, I always love coming here because this is sacred ground because of the Johnson City Cardinals. It reminds me of my [hometown team in St. Louis].”

During his sermon, the bishop pointed out Father Tom Charters, GHM, of St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Mission in Erwin.

“One of my mantras as I travel through the diocese is that we do together what we can’t do by ourselves,” he said. “At one point in the history of this parish, it was dependent on all of the other parishes for the loan that now we burn the mortgage for, for that’s where the flow of cash comes from. It comes from the central banking system, where every parish helps out another parish, in order to do what you’ve accomplished now in these years.

“That’s why we need to pray for parishes like St. Michael the Archangel and Father Tom, because soon there are plans I think that are coming to my desk, and they, too, will be in the same position that you’ve been in. They’ll have a mortgage, for I think it’s one of the positions of the church that all churches should have mortgages at some point, and all churches and dioceses have debt because we try to do a lot with what we have.”

Bishop Stika said he “congratulates you in the name of all the people of the diocese on this very special moment. Continue to do good, being a church on the hill, the new Jerusalem, through the intercession of the Blessed Mother, who reminds us that the important person is Jesus. So often in artwork, Mary will either look at Jesus or point at Jesus or call attention to Jesus, for she is not the end of our faith. She has transmitted to us the life of Jesus, both God and man. You’ve got a great protectoress here in this parish. Rely on her, for she reminds us all to do as He says.”

The Mass featured the St. Mary choir, a choir of students from St. Mary School, and a soloist from the parish’s Latin Mass schola.

After Mass, Father Iorio gave advice to Father Charters.

“You know the saying, ‘If you build it, they will come.’ I modify that and say, ‘If you build up your people in peace and love and faith, God’s blessings will flow and come down,’” he said. “So that’s what I say: focus on those relationships and keep leading the people in prayer and shepherding them rightly, and God is the one. It’s not anything that any individual one can do, but it’s God’s blessings. That’s my advice.”

Father Charters contrasted the position of St. Mary Parish with his mission community.

“They’ve prayed to burn their mortgage—I’m praying to have a mortgage. That’s the big difference,” he said.

The St. Mary mortgage-burning event gave Father Charters encouragement that he will perform the same act someday.

“Oh, yeah. A lot of encouragement there on that. You start as a small seed, and you start growing, and that’s really where we are—we’re a small seed growing right now. And we’ve burst our seams right now where we are,” he said.

At the dinner, Bishop Stika recalled the meeting of diocesan priests May 23 at St. Thomas the Apostle in Lenoir City, during which he announced then-Father Gahagan’s appointment as a monsignor. A thunderous ovation followed from the new monsignor’s brother priests.

“It was one of the great events in my life as the bishop here in Knoxville, to see him recognized not only by the Holy Father—that’s important—but to be recognized by his brother priests,” Bishop Stika said. “I just want to acknowledge the fact that Monsignor is a good priest, he’s a holy priest, he is a good pastor. He’s also set the record in the diocese for the most times a priest has retired. I think we’re up to five times. He’s now a member of the papal household.”

Monsignor Gahagan followed the bishop to the dinner dais.

“It’s the priesthood of all of us, isn’t it, because we all share the priesthood of Jesus Christ,” he said. “I just thank Bishop Stika for allowing me to come back once in a while, to rise from the ashes. I thank you for your willingness to walk with the Lord.”

Father Iorio then announced the Seal for Excellence honor to his parishioners at the dinner.

“As I reflect on this, the award does not make us perfect by any means. We know that,” he said.

“It’s an affirmation that we are moving in the right direction and continuing to work together with the many gifts that you as the body of Christ have.”

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