Despite setbacks from wildfires, Sevier County parish is outgrowing present space for activities
By Bill Brewer
Unlike the proverbial phoenix, St. Mary Parish in Gatlinburg hasn’t had to rise from the ashes, though that possibility was a sobering thought for Father Antony Punnackal on Nov. 28, 2016.
Still, Father Punnackal, CMI, has construction on his mind. As many of his Gatlinburg neighbors rebuild from the devastating wildfires 17 months ago, Father Punnackal and his parishioners are making plans to expand St. Mary, which was spared in the firestorm.
Despite the fact St. Mary lost some parishioners who chose to relocate from Gatlinburg following the wildfires, the parish’s membership over time has swelled, and there is little room anymore for participation in church programs.
“This is a small parish. When I came here we had only about 100 families. Now it has gone up to 125 families. Plus, the Hispanic community has grown here. When I came here we celebrated Mass in Spanish on Wednesdays. The average attendance then was 25 to 30. Now it has gone up to 100 to 125. So you can see big growth here if you consider the 125 families and more in the Hispanic community,” Father Punnackal said.
St. Mary was founded as a parish in 1969, and its roots extend farther back to the opening of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1934. Its presence in downtown Gatlinburg makes it a tourist parish whose pews frequently are full from spring through late fall.
Father Punnackal emphasized that the number of full-time parishioners has been on the rise, especially within the church’s Hispanic community. Accompanying that increase has been a demand for parish programs.
“There wasn’t a CCD program when I came here. And I thought that wasn’t right. That is closing the door, especially when I saw the Hispanic community that is growing, and I can see the number of Hispanic children. I decided, yes I met the parish council chairperson immediately after I arrived, I discussed the details of the parish with the chairperson. He asked me if I would start a CCD program here. I asked him why there is not a CCD program already, and he said there were not enough children. I then asked how can we start a CCD program without enough children,” Father Punnackal said.
The parish lay leader told him the few St. Mary children needing a CCD program were receiving Catholic education at other parishes.
“Finally, I said if there is only one child here, we will have a CCD program in this parish. I asked him if he would help, and he and his wife have helped organize a CCD program here. The first day, we had 24 children signed up for CCD. That was never expected, and by the end of the year, we had 45 children. It has continued to grow. Last year, we had 85 children, and I didn’t know what to do. We do not have enough space. We are very crowded,” Father Punnackal said.
To make do, St. Mary’s pastor said parishioners are filling two small basement classrooms and using the daily chapel for meeting space. In the warm months, they use the outdoor grotto as a meeting site.
“We discussed several options, but nothing was working. Finally, we had the idea to build a multipurpose parish hall that can be used for parish activities, including CCD programs,” he said.
Kevin Tierney, a Gatlinburg businessman who now heads the parish council, said St. Mary parishioners are committed to adding space to accommodate the expanding needs.
“With the growth of our CCD program, it’s essential that we expand our facilities, as it is actually a high-liability situation with all those kids in such cramped confines. We are dedicated to making sure anyone interested in receiving CCD education do so. At our meetings several months ago, all the attendees unanimously agreed with the commitment to provide CCD and adequate/safe facilities for the children and teachers, so we are following through with the desires of our entire parish as I see it,” Mr. Tierney said.
“We are also in need of larger and better facilities for our family life center. When we gather for dinners and other activities as a parish group, the present facility is very cramped and challenging for serving the people attending. So a larger and better gathering place will be important as well,” he added.
As parish discussions on the space issue were taking place, Father Punnackal realized that parents would wait at the church while their children were in CCD. So he decided to offer the parents a faith-formation program while their children were in CCD. St. Mary members who speak Spanish help lead the new programs.
“I started with seven parents. Now I have 45 to 50 parents in attendance. As I’m looking at this growth, we need something for this parish, which is why we are discussing a multipurpose parish hall,” he noted.
But the addition of yet another new faith formation program made an already-challenging space situation acute.
A new parish family life center could include an office, kitchen, bathrooms, storage space, and classrooms.
The site for the parish hall is currently occupied by the rectory garage adjacent to the rectory. So the garage would need to be torn down and replaced elsewhere on the property, which sits just off the Gatlinburg Parkway at 304 Historic Nature Trail.
When Father Punnackal arrived at St. Mary in July 2014, the parish had over $200,000 in savings. And he has been able to raise another $300,000 since he arrived, including proceeds from the Home Campaign, bringing total financial reserves to about $500,000.
Plans for the parish hall and fundraising programs started nearly a year ago.
St. Mary still needs to finalize architectural plans and the project cost and identify a builder for the project before it can proceed.
Father Punnackal said another factor affecting construction is architects and builders are so busy right now with rebuilding projects in Sevier County from the 2016 fires.
“Once we get the cost, we are ready to start,” he said. “We don’t want to build a Taj Mahal. We simply want something that will match the existing church building. I’m not building anything for me. I’m building for God and God’s people. He’ll show the way, and we’ll bring the money. If we can raise $300,000 in three years, anything is possible.”
He said he cannot abandon the children who are needing CCD.
“But it’s not just CCD alone. We need parish activities. We need a church office,” he said, adding that the church office is now in the rectory, which is not suitable. “This is a little place, and we are so congested.”
He noted that when Bishop Richard F. Stika and the diocesan priests gather in Gatlinburg each year for retreat, they worship at St. Mary.
“We are blessed. It is wonderful when the people of our parish are coming together here with the priests and the bishop. We are so happy and privileged to have these opportunities,” he said.
Mr. Tierney said he and the parish members are grateful to Father Punnackal for his leadership on this important moment in the life of St. Mary.
“I’m very proud of Father Antony for having the foresight and dedication to this project in particular and the future of our church in general. He has been a great spiritual leader as well as the church leader. We’ve been blessed to have him pastoring our church, and I look forward to moving into our future with him leading the way. His interaction with the children is very inspiring; he loves them and they love him – very much as Jesus would do,” he said.
Mr. Tierney said the parish will move ahead carefully on the project, vowing not to move too fast. But he’s confident the project will happen.
“I’m very confident that we will be able to complete the project in due time, but when we can actually break ground is yet to be determined. … We need to be patient and move in a careful way so as to dot all i’s and cross all the t’s,” he said.
“I’m pleased with the response from our parishioners, both local and visiting, with their financial support so far. We have just begun the project and are still in the process of putting some fundraising programs together,” added Mr. Tierney, who also serves as cantor for St. Mary Masses.
“I feel that with this commitment to our youth in the church, we are building a better future for our church in so far as making sure any and all families can bring their children to St. Mary and receive the proper CCD education. With this building in place, I know we will continue to attract and provide the proper opportunities for families moving to the area, which of course is the necessary element for growth in the church,” he said.