Father David Boettner invites faithful to seek Jesus when they worship in parish’s new church
By Bill Brewer
Incense from the three-hour rite of dedication for the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus had barely dissipated when Father David Boettner celebrated Sacred Heart Parish’s first Mass in the new building, the beginning of the next chapter in the history of the Diocese of Knoxville’s mother church.
As Father Boettner processed into the crowded cathedral, most — if not all — of the faithful in the pews were agog at the intricate cathedral details filling their view. It was sensory overload. For most, it was their first chance to see the fruit of so much labor.
Gauging by the applause, everyone agreed the cathedral exceeded expectations.
Necks of those in the pews craned and index fingers pointed upward and all around as Father Boettner, as cathedral rector, took his new seat. Associate priests Father Joe Reed and Father Arthur Torres Barona, Deacons Walt Otey, Joel Livingston, Jr., and Dan Alexander, acolyte Jerry Bodie, and the altar servers followed suit.
For Father Boettner, the 5 p.m. vigil Mass on March 3 was the culmination of more than three years of pre-planning, planning, fundraising, and construction of the diocese’s first designed cathedral. In addition to his role as cathedral rector and vicar general, Father Boettner served as project manager of the cathedral construction for the diocese.
“Words cannot describe how good this feels. It is a wonderful honor to be with you to celebrate the first parish Mass in our new cathedral,” Father Boettner said to open the Mass, receiving wide applause.
In his homily, Father Boettner connected those attending the first Mass to the Samaritan woman getting water from the well to quench her thirst, but instead having an encounter with Jesus Christ, who said she would never thirst again if she believed in Him. Father Boettner pointed out that when parishioners fast before Mass, they come to church thirsting for a similar encounter with Christ.
“We come to this sacred space hungry and thirsty, believing that God is here for us, believing that when we gather here together in communion, when we celebrate around this altar, we receive from the hand of Christ Himself the one thing that we are missing — His very presence,” Father Boettner said.
“So it is a privilege to gather together today to experience in this new space new blessings because of your fruit, because of what you’ve offered, because of the gifts that you’ve brought to this altar and asked God to bless them, because you yourself have offered what you have,” he added. “It is because of you that this cathedral was built. It is your gifts that have been blessed and magnified.”
Father Boettner said he recently read in a newspaper where Tennessee was ranked as one of the angriest states in the country. He was baffled because he considered Tennessee to be one of the happier, friendlier states.
As he mulled over the apparent disparity between the study and his firsthand experience, he agreed that society in general is becoming more angry.
“What is it that causes our state to be so angry? That question then opened a different line of thinking. What is it that makes someone happy? We ought to be happy. You know, we see on the national scene a country becoming more and more angry. It seems our public dialogues are becoming more angry,” he observed.
Father Boettner then pointed to social media and the hostile communication occurring there.
“What is it that is causing this sense of anger? Is it possible that people are lacking something? Is it possible that people are thirsty for something that they can’t find? Is it possible that people feel empty?” he asked.
He urged anyone who feels an unquenchable emptiness to seek an encounter with Christ.
He noted that when someone enters sacred space like the cathedral, they should expect to encounter Jesus Christ. It could be through prayer, music, a homily, sacred Scripture, or the sacraments, or maybe through someone sitting next to them.
“Whatever it is, when we come to church, we should come to church expecting an encounter with Christ, not to just encounter Him, but to really receive Him, to have an experience. You should really come looking for that,”
Father Boettner said, alluding to the new cathedral. “It’s a little easier to do now. I have a feeling many of you are going to have sore necks tomorrow because you are spending a lot of time looking up. That is good. That doesn’t offend me in the least.
“But when we come here to this space, it’s supposed to provide us with that opportunity to encounter Christ. What we see in the Gospel reading is the Samaritan woman much like us who did not really expect much. But she knew there was something missing. She thought she was coming to fill her bucket with water. But what she got instead was her soul filled up with Christ. So today, it’s important for us to ask a simple question. Am I missing something? Am I happy? It’s OK to say, ‘I’m great, I’m fine.’ There’s always something more because God created us with a hole that nothing else can fill. No matter what we experience, no matter what we do in life, no matter how rich our lives are, there’s always that hole that can only be filled by God.”
He urged parishioners during Lent to let Christ quench the thirst they have. The Christian journey is never a solo journey; the Christian journey is a community journey together, he said.
“I just want to say to you all thank you. Thank you for your faith, thank you for your prayers, thank you for your witness and your generosity in making this possible. And so as we celebrate the faith that built this church, we also celebrate the gift that we all receive together — the quenching of our thirst by Christ, who came not be served, but to serve.”
Longtime Sacred Heart parishioner Ruth Coughlin, who attended the final vespers service at the original cathedral on Feb. 25 and the dedication Mass for the new cathedral, acknowledged mixed feelings about the closing of the Sacred Heart church and cathedral, which will be converted to a parish hall. But she has been supportive of the new cathedral project since its inception, summing up her opinion in one word: “wonderful.”
“It is bittersweet, but I have looked to this new church for so long. I have wanted this cathedral,” she said. “The Catholic community has somewhere wonderful to worship. It is very exciting for me.”
Mrs. Coughlin, who, with late husband Dr. Dennis Coughlin, raised their five children at Sacred Heart, is grateful to the parish and school for the Christian foundation they provided her family and thousands of others through the years.
She now looks forward to attending Mass in the new cathedral with her children, grandchildren, and Sacred Heart family. She’s heartened by the impression the cathedral is making.
“This was built as a cathedral and it acts as one,” she said.
Knoxville lawyer Lynn Tarpy, a Sacred Heart parishioner, agreed that the transition from the original church and cathedral to a new sacred space is bittersweet.
“There are a lot of memories,” he said, recalling that his aunt taught at Sacred Heart School years ago. While he will miss attending Mass in the original church building, he is excited at what the new cathedral represents for the diocese.
“It’s a great testament to the growing strength of the Catholic people in East Tennessee. We pray and hope that it grows exponentially in the next few years,” he said. “A lot of people have given their time, talent, and treasure to this cathedral. I hope everyone in East Tennessee comes and participates in worshiping in this magnificent church.”
Another longtime Sacred Heart parishioner, Kathy DeWine, was less conflicted about the cathedral transition. She has been anticipating the relocation.
“To me, it’s not bittersweet at all. I’ve always loved to move, and I’ve looked forward to the transition,” said Mrs. DeWine, who has enjoyed recent reflections on Sacred Heart’s history as the original church and cathedral closes.
Mrs. DeWine has looked forward to attending the first Masses in the new cathedral. She was not disappointed.
“It is beautiful, and the music sounded wonderful. It will take some getting used to, but I look forward to spending quiet time here alone,” she said.
Her husband, Larry DeWine, who is a founding member of Sacred Heart Parish, was recognized at the last Mass held in the old Sacred Heart Cathedral, at noon on March 1. Father Joe Reed asked Mr. DeWine to join him in front of the sanctuary and announced that Mr. DeWine was an altar server at the first Sacred Heart Mass on Christmas Eve 1956 and was now attending the last Mass in the original church.
Following Mass, Mr. DeWine was joined by Sacred Heart acolyte Jerry Bodie, Father Reed, and Sacred Heart School faculty member and cathedral altar server Scott Barron for recognition and a photograph.
Just as with the new cathedral, Mr. DeWine recalls the excitement surrounding the opening in 1956 of Sacred Heart, which at that time was only the third Catholic church in Knoxville.
“It was a pretty big deal. It was very exciting when Sacred Heart opened for those of us living in West Knoxville. It was dramatic in that the Church was growing,” he said.
In addition to attending daily and Sunday Mass at Sacred Heart, the DeWines have grandchildren who now attend Sacred Heart School and Knoxville Catholic High School.
Mr. DeWine still is adjusting to the idea that the Diocese of Knoxville has a dedicated cathedral that stands up to most in its artistic and architectural splendor: “The new church is beautiful. It’s a step of progress. It’s something I thought I would not live to see. It will be here for centuries to come.