St. Michael the Archangel elevated from Catholic mission status; Bishop Stika blesses new building
By Bill Brewer
Bishop Richard F. Stika created the Diocese of Knoxville’s 50th parish on Sept. 29 as St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Mission in Erwin became a canonically established church.
The feast of St. Michael the Archangel from now on will have deeper historic meaning for the diocese and its newest parish.
Bishop Stika presented the canonical documents to Glenmary Father Tom Charters, officially elevating St. Michael to parish status as the bishop blessed its new parish life center, which will double as a church until a permanent church is built sometime in the future.
Nearly 200 St. Michael members were in attendance as Bishop Stika celebrated Mass. Concelebrating the Mass were Father Charters, who has led St. Michael since the mission was founded on Oct. 23, 2011; Father Chet Artysiewicz, president of the Glenmary Home Missioners; Father Peter Iorio, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Johnson City; and Father Michael Cummins, pastor of St. Dominic Parish in Kingsport. Deacon Jim Fage of St. Patrick Church in Morristown served as deacon of the Gospel.
“I want to commend you for what you’ve accomplished in just seven years. Where now does St. Michael’s go? You’re no longer a mission. Just like the angel who spreads his wings, you’re spreading your wings in the community of Erwin and in the area that surrounds us,” Bishop Stika said.
He encouraged them to continue being confident when they say, “I am a Christian, I am a Catholic, I believe in the Word of God, I believe the Gospels and the Scriptures. The letters of Paul and the Old Testament feed us and nourish us.” He also urged them to “believe in the Eucharist, the great miracle of that first Passover, and when Jesus gave His Body and Blood, when he said take and eat, take and drink, this is my Body and this is my Blood given for you.”
“The beautiful thing is now that after our celebrations are ended, that red candle reminds us that Jesus still is here in the most holy Eucharist,” Bishop Stika added.
In his homily, Bishop Stika said the new parish’s beginnings are reminiscent of the early Church, when the disciples met in informal locations as Jesus’ seeds of Christianity were sown.
He began by telling the congregation he missed the “basement,” referring to a basement ranch house at 1700 Jackson-Love Highway in Erwin that was home to the mission for five years. The upstairs of the home housed Father Charters’ residence, a chapel, and meeting space for the mission. Downstairs in the basement is where Mass was celebrated.
Bishop Stika continued the lighthearted references to the mission’s humble beginnings when he said he looked for the elk’s head to be hanging on the wall in the new parish life center. That was a nod to St. Michael’s first location – the Erwin Elk’s Club, which provided the mission meeting space. That temporary space included the elk’s head.
Then there was the National Guard Armory and the YMCA, which also provided meeting space.
“Now, through the generosity of so many individuals, but especially yourselves, through the generosity of the Glenmary community, this day we celebrate with you that which began awhile back and that which is now part of the process,” Bishop Stika said.
“What’s the process? Of proclaiming Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. What’s the process of honoring God? What’s the process to be open to the Holy Spirit to touch our lives and to give us that special grace that allows us to preach the Word of God, both in word and in deed, in Spanish, in English, in Swahili, perhaps? There is something greater than those languages. It is the language of love. Love is that universal language because in the Scriptures it reminds us that God is love.”
Bishop Stika and Father Charters congratulated the members on reaching this milestone, and they encouraged them to continue taking up the cross, to continue the process.
The bishop reflected on a particularly fond memory of the Catholic mission, when its members offered him three potential names for the new mission soon after its founding. He reminded them that their first choice was his first choice. And so the name was given.
“St. Michael the Archangel is the great protector of the Church. I think he’s been doing his part now in Erwin for a number of years,” Bishop Stika said. “What a great joy it is for me to be with you. Today, this is no longer a mission. This is a parish, a canonical parish. I signed the documents (Sept. 28). This is a historical moment for every parish in this diocese.”
The bishop told congregants he looks forward to the day when St. Michael parishioners can worship in a permanent church building. He inspired them to think big in a way that will reflect future growth.
“But just as in the early Church, with Peter, and James, and John, and Mary, and Mary Magdalene, they had to start somewhere as they gathered together in small rooms, the Upper Room, and you gather together in this (parish life center) room. Whether Mass is celebrated in the greatest cathedral in the world or on the hood of a Jeep in Afghanistan, there Jesus is present.”
Father Artysiewicz affirmed what Father Charters and Bishop Stika told the St. Michael members — they are the missionaries who will grow the Church in Unicoi County.
“From its beginning here seven years ago, that was the constant theme. The reality of it is the laity will meet people that we will never contact. By their example, by their invitation, and by their warmth, they help to build this up. This parish is a wonderful example of that,” Father Artysiewicz said. “This is exciting and a great joy to see the energy that comes and to see what has sprung up from that little seed. This isn’t the end. This is only the end of the beginning. And there’s so much more to come.”
Kathy O’Brien agrees wholeheartedly. She should know; she’s the pastoral associate at St. Michael.
The Glenmary lay missioner, who since 1974 has assisted Glenmary priests in handing over missions-turned-parishes to dioceses, said it is remarkable that St. Michael has attained parish status in just seven years. She pointed out that the Catholic faith is alive and well in Upper East Tennessee, with parishes in Johnson City, Elizabethton, Kingsport, Mountain City, and Greeneville thriving.
She said that although those churches are a relatively close drive, they really aren’t convenient or accessible to many St. Michael families.
“Some of those parishes are not that far. But when it comes to the families and kids, it is far. You can’t get working families to those parishes,” Ms. O’Brien said. “This has been an amazingly fast growth. Most Glenmary missions struggle for many, many years before they grow. This was ripe and ready with a big Hispanic population and retired people who were ready to become a parish.”
She praised Unicoi County for being so welcoming and generous in supporting St. Michael’s mission. She will miss the basement rancher on Jackson-Love Highway and the five years it served St. Michael, including when the congregation would spill out onto the driveway and yard during some Masses like Easter and Christmas.
But the new Mohawk Drive location represents a new beginning.
Ms. O’Brien said she and Father Charters still have a responsibility to make St. Michael self-sustaining and able to reach the point where the new parish can be turned over to the diocese.
“It may not be called a Catholic mission anymore, but it still has a mission,” she said.
Father Charters thanked Bishop Stika for his leadership in working with the Glenmary Home Missioners to form Catholic missions in Erwin, Rutledge, and Maynardville. St. Teresa of Kolkata in Maynardville was elevated to a parish in 2015 and is currently constructing a permanent church building. St. John Paul II Catholic Mission in Rutledge is working toward parish status.
Father Charters recognized the Catholic Extension Society and the Catholic Foundation of East Tennessee for their generous grants used to get St. Michael the Archangel Parish off the ground.
The Glenmary priest explained that he started the St. Michael mission in 2011 with just 33 people. Today, the new parish has 300 members.
He said through the generosity of the Diocese of Knoxville and its Catholic Foundation of East Tennessee, which purchased the property at 657 N. Mohawk Drive, St. Michael members were able to raise funds locally and from around the country to build the parish life center. Fundraisers included fish fries, tamale sales, and festivals. Donors also included Catholic Extension Society and private individuals from across the United States who read about St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Mission and wanted to help.
He said the cost of the new building is $540,000, for which the parish is in debt. The diocese acquired the land for more than $240,000 and gifted it to St. Michael.
“The people took serious what I’ve been saying since day one. The mission comes first and the church follows. When we say the mission is to go forth and baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and the construction of the church comes later, that is what happened here. The people took serious that mission call and went forth and invited others to come and join them. The high school kids did the same thing. They invited youth as well to join our youth group,” Father Charters said.
He said the youth group has been growing exponentially since the mission was founded, is active in the community, and its members are leaders within the diocese’s youth ministry.
“It’s not just the adults who have been called forth; it’s the kids. And they have taken a leadership role here,” Father Charters noted. “Next is to just keep growing in the sense of people continuing the mission that they have to reach out to others.”
He said there is a need to reach out to people not baptized as well as to Catholics who are inactive.
The new parish life center now serves as the center of St. Michael’s outreach and promises to be a spiritual magnet in the community, especially within the growing Hispanic community.
But Father Charters emphasizes that it’s not just about new buildings.
“It’s not just the physical plant. It’s the spiritual development of the people themselves. That is what the purpose is, to call forth people to know Christ deeper and celebrate Christ around the altar of the Lord and break bread together in the holy Eucharist of the Mass,” he said.
Father Charters has considerable experience in building parishes. He pointed to some of his previous locations that now are thriving Catholic communities. He sees no reason for St. Michael to be any different.
In fact, he speaks with gratitude — and a little surprise — that St. Michael has reached parish status and has a dedicated facility in less than 10 years.
“I knew one day we would get to this point. But I didn’t know we would get to it in seven years. To be honest, I never dreamt that in seven years we would be where we are today,” he said. “One gentleman in town asked me if I thought we made the new parish hall big enough. I said we built what we could afford. He said, ‘I understand that.’ Now, did we build it big enough? Not really. You can see that during religious education on Wednesday nights. It’s just jam packed. We do need more space.”
As Father Charters thinks ahead toward a permanent church building and more space, Bishop Stika vocalized that thought and underlined parishioners’ role as missionaries as he concluded Mass.
“I look forward to dedicating maybe someday a thousand-seat church here. You’ve got to think big, right? You’ve got to think big — and start saving your pennies as well,” the bishop said. “Again, I just want to congratulate you. It was an easy decision to invite the Glenmarys. I’m so grateful to Father Tom and their presence here in the diocese. One of my favorite expressions is intentional discipleship. We have to intend to preach the Word of God. So continue to do that. You know, 33 to 300 is pretty good.”