Clancy Custom Woodworking adds local craftsmanship to the Diocese of Knoxville’s new mother church
By Bill Brewer
Art Clancy III envisioned the Diocese of Knoxville’s new cathedral “a million times” before his company ever installed the first wood trim or molding. That’s because the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus has been on his mind for more than a decade.
The founder and owner of Clancy Custom Woodworking in Knoxville said he has had designs on being part of a cathedral construction project since before Bishop Richard F. Stika was ordained and installed as the Diocese of Knoxville’s third bishop on March 19, 2009.
A new cathedral for the diocese that would replace the current Sacred Heart Cathedral has been discussed since the earliest days of the diocese. And Bishop Stika has said one of his earliest conversations after arriving in the Diocese of Knoxville was about the possibility of building a dedicated cathedral.
“When the bishop first got here, I asked him ‘when you build a cathedral, please think of me.’ And he said, ‘oh, I will.’ While I was doing some work on his home when he first arrived, and then I built the altar and the pews in the chapel of his present residence, we continued to talk about it,” Mr. Clancy said. “He’s been very friendly to me. I think the world of him, and I really enjoy talking to him. He let me know when the diocese was planning the cathedral, and he said, ‘We want you all to have some part of it.’ And I said, ‘That would be great. Any part we would be happy to have.’”
Bishop Stika followed through with his pledge to give Clancy Custom Woodworking serious consideration on specialized carpentry work for the cathedral. And as plans for the cathedral advanced, Clancy Custom Woodworking was asked to bid on part of the project. But the company still had to show it could handle the work. And references would prove invaluable.
Coincidentally, Knoxville-based general contractor Merit Construction had been building Pigeon Forge’s LeConte Convention Center, which opened in October 2013, and had engaged Clancy to do the custom carpentry on that project. During that time period, Merit also was awarded the bid as general contractor for the new Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, on which construction began in spring 2015.
Mr. Clancy’s interest in working again with Merit and the company’s project manager and project superintendent Wes Crow and Fred Atkins piqued. “When I heard they were working on it I knew I had a shot at getting some of it. Father David (Boettner, Sacred Heart Cathedral rector) and I had talked about it,” Mr. Clancy noted.
“There aren’t a lot of companies that can do this kind of job. It’s not residential trim. It’s a whole different animal. There’s a different mindset from the get-go. In Pigeon Forge, Wes took a chance on me. He asked if I could handle that project. I said I’m positive. He said this was one of those career-defining jobs, and I told him I wouldn’t take the job if I didn’t think I could handle it,” he said.
Clancy Custom Woodworking’s work for the Pigeon Forge convention center went well, and the veteran carpenter, who is part of a family of longtime East Tennessee Catholics, believes that project was instrumental in his company getting a contract to work on the cathedral.
Mr. Clancy said the primary architect on the project, James McCrery, who is based in Washington, D.C., thought the general contractor would need to bring crews from outside East Tennessee to do the cathedral molding and trim work because he didn’t know of anyone in the area who could do the job.
Merit then pointed to Clancy Custom Woodworking as a shop that could handle the project, so Father Boettner led a project team on a tour of Clancy’s woodworking facility in northwest Knoxville to ensure it could handle the scope of carpentry and intricacy required.
Mr. Clancy, who noted the team was satisfied the company could do the work following the shop tour, said he wanted to bid on all the woodworking elements of the cathedral project, including the baldacchino and the two reredos, large screen altarpieces behind the altar.
“I wanted everything and I bid it all. But they said they didn’t want to give it all to one person. They had a guy they wanted to do the baldacchino and the reredos. In retrospect that was fine. They split it up.”
He said he was informed that he received the bid on the molding and trim work in November 2016. Mountain View Millworks of Hedgesville, W.Va., received the bid for the baldacchino, the two reredoes, podium, and the Stations of the Cross.
Mr. Clancy has developed a good working relationship with Mountain View Millworks owner David Tressler, and they have shared resources as they’ve worked together on the project.
Good working relationships have been a hallmark of the intense cathedral project and mark the project’s success.
“The cathedral is high-profile. A lot of the better craftsmen in Knoxville really wanted to be part of it,” Mr. Clancy pointed out, adding that carpentry on the cathedral is extremely intricate, just as with other crafts working on the project. He observed that everyone on his crew is a topnotch trim carpenter.
“The most talented craftsmen in East Tennessee have asked me if they can help me with this project. We are employing some of the best talent,” he noted.
The Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus is probably the most detailed work Clancy Custom Woodworking has done on a building project, although the Pigeon Forge convention center had more components — a facility spread out over three acres under roof that consumed 250,000 lineal feet of trim.
“This (cathedral) is the most condensed. The logistics of doing this are immense. We’ve been working side-by-side with other trades, such as the acoustical plasterers,” Mr. Clancy said.
Most of the wood adorning the cathedral will be poplar, but white oak also is being used. He explained that poplar is more user-friendly and mills better. There is crisper detail with it and it is smoother and porous, which lends itself to painting. Quarter-sawn white oak is used for the chancel rail, narthex, cathedra, and confessional screens.
The Sacred Heart project is close to home for Mr. Clancy. He and his wife, Stephanie, were married at Sacred Heart Church in 1980, eight years before it became a cathedral. They attend Holy Ghost Church, where he also has lent his woodworking talents. The Clancy family’s roots date to the early 1900s and extend to Immaculate Conception Church.
Since attending St. Joseph School and graduating from Knoxville Catholic High School in 1976, Mr. Clancy’s vocation has been in carpentry and the construction business. His son, Art Clancy IV, also works in the family business and is one of more than 50 people from Clancy Custom Woodworking who have been working on the cathedral project.
In the months and weeks leading up to the cathedral’s March 3 Dedication Mass, it has been all hands on deck for Clancy Custom Woodworking. Mr. Clancy explained that the many crafts working on the project side-by-side have had specific windows of time to begin and complete their work, with each construction discipline building on the one before it.
By the time Clancy Custom Woodworking completes its role, it will have installed approximately 216,000 lineal feet of molding, which translates to about 43,000 board feet of lumber. Add to that the thousands of other pieces the company has placed in the cathedral and Clancy’s woodworking efforts can be measured using an interstate — more than 40 miles.
The company’s work can be seen ground to ceiling, from the baseboards and wall cornices to window trim, the 160 ceiling coffers above the nave, and the trim inside the dome 144 feet above the cathedral floor. Mr. Clancy pointed out that just the coffered ceiling is more than 5,000 pieces specifically cut, with the thousands of pieces of wood fitting perfectly together because they had to be precisely mitered.
All molding from the cupola and dome to the cornice that goes around the top to the architrave, an inscription band that goes all the way around the cathedral that contains Scripture (excerpts from the Litany of the Sacred Heart of Jesus), window and door trim, sacristy cabinetry, coffered ceilings, side lectern with the chancel rail, cathedra, and altar chairs are Clancy work.
What won’t likely be seen are awkward creases, seams, exposed joints, or out-of-place edges. Mr. Clancy and his team have taken special pains to make their wood craftsmanship match the art and skill of the other artisans who have left their nearly perfect imprint on the cathedral.
The cathedral project is not just another job to Mr. Clancy; far from it.
“It is personal for me. This is a career-defining job. I don’t have any margin for error. And all my guys know this, too,” he acknowledged.
While the cathedral has required much of his attention, Mr. Clancy said his business also has been tending to other projects, so his employees have stayed very busy in recent months.
“I still have had to hit other deadlines. But I carved out a spot for our part of this project. This is complicated work that takes time to do. We have worked around the artistic painters and other crafts. But it has worked out,” he said, adding that his team also has worked around the clock for months to meet its deadline.
Now that construction work is coming to an end, Mr. Clancy has been imagining attending Mass in the new cathedral with his family and the emotions that will be present as he admires the sacred worship space. He knows the fruits of the labor of the company he founded soon will be apparent to the faithful.
“It’s been a challenge. Everyday there was something new that you had to deal with. That is what made it interesting; but what an opportunity this is,” he said.
He’s looking forward to attending Mass there with his parents, Sue and Art Clancy II, his wife and son, Art Clancy IV, and his married daughter, Jennifer Lawson, who attends Notre Dame Church in Greeneville with her young family. He also looks forward to observing firsthand the construction artistry in the diocese’s new mother church, and he anticipates how he’ll feel: joy (and relief), thanksgiving, accomplishment, and pride in the workmanship.
“It will be similar to when I bring my grandchildren to Holy Ghost and tell them I built that altar and the confessionals. I like doing church work. The cathedral is a landmark. It is a beautiful place. I’m already proud of what we’ve done. It’s more than a job. It’s a labor of love,” he said.
Bishop Stika is familiar with the Clancy family and their involvement in the Catholic community. And he was glad to have Clancy Custom Woodworking contribute to the cathedral project.
“One of our goals was to use as much local talent as we could in terms of the design and artwork. And Clancy has such a sterling reputation. I would recommend them to anybody. Art has been there every day, and I’ve reminded him a few times of the importance of what he is doing, not only with the woodwork, but he’s making the bishop’s chair — the cathedra. It pleases me so much to see local folks involved in the cathedral construction,” Bishop Stika said.
Since his first introduction to the idea of a new cathedral for the Diocese of Knoxville years ago, Mr. Clancy has added to the number of trips, both imaginary and real, he’s taken through the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Now he looks forward to walking through the finished cathedral with the rest of those who will soon worship inside it.
“I walked through that cathedral a million times in my mind before we ever put the first board up. I have been walking through that building in my mind for two-and-a-half years now. Since I got the first set of plans I have been planning and plotting different ways and methods to accomplish the molding scheme that the architect specified. It has been a real challenge, but seeing all of the tens of thousands of pieces and parts come together has been extremely gratifying…and exhausting,” he said.
“The cathedral is turning out to be every bit the way I imagined it. When it’s done it’s going to be breathtaking,” he noted.