The parish that was born in the Secret City in the ‘dark, dark hour’ of 1943 celebrates its milestone in style
By Dan McWilliams
In 1943, at the dawn of Oak Ridge, the Secret City of the Manhattan Project in World War II, a parish was born.
Today that parish is 75 years old and going strong.
St. Mary Parish in Oak Ridge celebrated its 75th anniversary in a big way Aug. 22, with Bishop Richard F. Stika as principal celebrant at Mass and Father Chris Michelson — a son of the parish — as the homilist.
“It is a great joy to be here at St. Mary’s in the Secret City. We give thanks because the parish is not secret,” Bishop Stika said in greeting the assembly at Mass. “Under the patronage of the Blessed Mother, this parish has stood for faith and tradition and beauty and prayer. And that’s what we give thanks for this day as we celebrate this feast of the Queenship of Mary and 75 years of service to this community, with my brother priests and former pastors and a son of the parish and all of you.”
Father Michelson was among three former St. Mary pastors who joined the parish for the celebration. Also returning were former pastors Monsignor Bob Hofstetter and Father Bill McKenzie, as well as former associate pastor Father Gilbert Diaz. Ten priests overall attended the Mass, and assisting at the liturgy were deacons John DeClue and Gary Sega.
More than 340 people attended the Mass and dinner that followed, including nine Dominican Sisters. The Dominicans have served at St. Mary since its school was founded in 1950.
“Wow. This is great. It’s great to be home,” Father Michelson said to open his homily.
Father Michelson’s theme for his sermon was “cross-pollination,” as he covered a large swath of parish history, including the events of 1954, the year of his birth.
“The history of St. Mary’s Church affects so many in this community, not just St. Mary’s Church but the entire community, cross-pollinating great things out there throughout the community,” he said. “1943. World War II. At war with Germany, at war with Japan. It was a dark, dark hour. People who walk in darkness have seen a great light. The city of Oak Ridge starts to unfold as a group to come together on the Manhattan Project, to make this new weapon to secure world peace.
“People all started to arrive, and it was successful. And we all know the story of what happened, but it didn’t end there, because then the people of Oak Ridge decided, ‘We’re going to cross-pollinate.’ It’s not going to be just about nuclear war and nuclear weapons, but what about nuclear plants to provide energy? What about nuclear medicine to improve people’s lives, to cross-pollinate and make great things? And thus the history of this city, not just because of atomic bombs, but how it has affected so many others and changed so many other lives in very great and very positive ways.” Father Michelson asked, “How did Oak Ridge and St. Mary’s Church get here?”
“In 1943, Bishop [William L.] Adrian came, and he appointed Father Joseph Siener as the very first pastor. He lived at 204 Tennessee Ave., and he celebrated his very first Mass on this feast day in 1943 at the Oak Ridge Rec Center,” Father Michelson said. “The old-timers will tell you where the Oak Ridge Rec Center is, now called the Oak Ridge Playhouse. But in that day it was the Oak Ridge Rec Center, and there were 20 to 25 people at that very first Mass in 1943.”
By 1945, “Oak Ridge had grown from a city in the low thousands to 75,000 people in just two years,” Father Michelson said. “There were 4,000 Catholics living here, and they were completing 20 new houses a day to live in. Can you imagine? They were completing 20 houses a day to house the influx of people coming to Oak Ridge. So they built one church, the old-timers will tell you, the Chapel on the Hill. Everyone shared that church.
“The Catholics were rather a large population. They were given the hour of 5:30 on Sunday morning. They said, ‘Why?’ ‘Because Catholics are the only ones who’ll get up that early to go to church.’ Pollinating the city, setting an example. Then they would go out and they would have Mass at the Oak Ridge Rec Center — the Playhouse — at the Grove Theater, and then out at the Wheat School out by K-25. Every Sunday they would travel through and around, to be able to celebrate, to grow that burgeoning community that was St. Mary’s Church.”
Five years after the founding, the Atomic Energy Commission began to sell property in Oak Ridge, and St. Mary was among the buyers, Father Michelson said. “Now, St. Mary’s was one of the few places in town that had been saving for that day, because up to that point nobody owned anything. Everything was owned by the government. Houses were owned by the government. Everything was owned by the government. Nobody owned anything. Now they were going to sell some property.
“St. Mary’s had anticipated that. They had saved their money, and they bought 12 acres on which we now are sitting, for $1,812, and they paid in cash. Not a check, they paid with cash to buy their 12 acres.”
Also in 1948, St. Mary started a couple of traditions that lasted for many generations, Father Michelson said. “One which I don’t think is any longer in place, but WATO radio was given the first Christmas Eve Mass. Christmas Eve midnight Mass was so popular and so hard to get into because everyone in town came. It was the place to come.
“So the Catholics couldn’t get into the church because all the non-Catholics had come and filled up the church. So they went and they put it on WATO radio so we could sit at home and listen to midnight Mass. I remember many nights listening to Rand McNally as he would narrate the celebration of midnight Mass here at St. Mary’s.”
The year 1948 was important for another reason because that was when Knights of Columbus Council 3175 at St. Mary came into existence, Father Michelson said.
On March 19, 1950, St. Mary held a groundbreaking for its new church complex.
“School opened Sept. 11, 1950. They built that in five and a half months, and so we began,” Father Michelson said. “We had the Dominican Sisters, who were there from day one and are still with us today, to be able to bring that faith base to the community.”
In 1954, the Brown v. Board of Education decision came down from the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Father [Francis] McRedmond, the second pastor of the parish, announced the day after that decision that St. Mary’s-Oak Ridge will be now and forever an integrated school,” Father Michelson said. “We don’t know if it was the first, but it was the day after that decision that he announced that was an important priority. That’s what Church was.”
In fall 1950, St. Mary School opened its doors.
“Sister Mary Francis was the first principal of St. Mary’s School. It opened with 200 students that fall. At its peak it got up to 387 students,” Father Michelson said. “Also in 1950, that fall, because [the parish] had a debt from the new building that they had built, the Council of Catholic Women started a fall bazaar to raise money for the building fund. As the fall went on, the next year and the next year, it then became the St. Mary’s Fall Festival as others joined in: a great celebration of the entire community as we continued to cross-pollinate.”
The year 1954 “personally was a very good year: I was born,” Father Michelson said. “I was also baptized here by Father John Cain.”
In 1957, the rectory was constructed at St. Mary, according to the homilist. “In 1961 was the groundbreaking for this church, and a year later, 1962, on Aug. 26, this church was dedicated at a cost of $475,000. How times and things change.”
Three diocesan priests and at least three Dominican Sisters have come from St. Mary Parish, Father Michelson noted.
“Again, cross-pollinating,” he said.
Father Michelson shared some of his memories of his early life in Oak Ridge, including the fact that it was a dry city, and how those re-entering Oak Ridge had to check in at one of the guard shacks that stood at each corner of the city.
“I remember when they built the church. I would have been 7 years old,” he said. “It was the best thing that ever happened. When they dug out this, they had this fantastic dirt pile out there, and we got to go play on that every day. It was the best thing ever. We could care less about the church; we had the best dirt pile around.”
Father Michelson’s memories included the fall festival, CYO, May crownings, Boy Scouts, Wednesday afternoon sirens, and Oak Ridge’s “B” houses and “E” houses.
“I remember the janitors, Charlie and Snake. What a great name: Snake. You think that didn’t put fear into the kids at school? You know, ‘stay away from Snake.’”
St. Mary Parish “in so many different ways, showed others what it meant to have a close, personal relationship with God and through the intercession of Mary as the Mother of God,” Father Michelson said. “So many came to understand what it is that we believe as Catholics and how we live our faith.
“What a great example Mary was to this parish community, to be able to reach out and touch so many.”
Just a few ways “of how we’ve touched this community” include the White Elephant Thrift Store, the Holiday Bureau, Brushy Mountain Prison ministry, Scouts, vacation Bible school, and more, Father Michelson said. “And it goes on and on and on over the years.”
As the parish celebrates 75 years, “we look back at accomplishments, but most especially we look forward to future opportunities, opportunities to be able to create and to continue to build His kingdom. ‘Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord,’” Father Michelson said.
He concluded his homily by recalling former pastors and associates at St. Mary, including Father Joseph Julius and Father Michael Woods. “May God continue to bless this community, now and far into the future,” Father Michelson said.
At the end of Mass, Bishop Stika congratulated the parish.
“Seventy-five years! That’s a long time. Just think how the world has changed. Things are so much more complicated these days,” he said. “I just want to thank you for what you do in this neck of the woods. The school is still doing great. Thank you, Dominican Sisters, for being here since day one.
“History celebrates the past, but grace celebrates the present and future, the grace of Jesus being with us. That will continue.”
The bishop urged the congregation to pray for vocations to the priesthood and religious life.
“Continue to celebrate the presence of Jesus,” Bishop Stika said. “He’s much more powerful than any nuclear weapon.”
Sister Marie Blanchette, OP, is the current principal of St. Mary School.
“We love St. Mary’s Parish,” she said. “I think it’s very significant that the Dominican Sisters have been here since its founding. The sisters have a great love for the parishioners. They love their faith. They wanted a school from the beginning. The faith is still alive, and this just feels like home to us.”
Ruth Ellen Martin has been a parishioner of St. Mary since 1964. She calls the church her “second address.”
“I love this church. I love the heartbeat of it. I love the activities, and I feel my Lord very often here in my church,” she said.
When asked how the church has changed over the years, Ms. Martin said, “Our church doesn’t change. The people change, but the Mass is the same as when I went to the first Mass when I was a child. It’s the surroundings that change. The people, they move here and they move away, but mostly the heart of the church is inside right now, celebrating Mass.”
Pat Zanolli, who plays Mrs. Santa Claus for St. Mary School, first arrived at St. Mary in 1954. She said the parish means to her after 64 years “the same as when the first day I came. It’s part of the family. I have six children raised here in this school. Father Chris was a young whippersnapper. He went through school with my children.”
Sister Mary Louis, OP, returned to St. Mary for the celebration. She was principal at the school in the late 1970s and early ’80s.
“Mrs. Helen Kington and Mrs. Marge Snyder were seventh- and eighth-grade teachers,” she said. “It was a wonderful place to be. I was a young principal just starting out in my first principal job. They had a wonderful faculty: Mrs. Regina Banick and Mrs. Mary Colley. I just loved it here. I was here five years. Just wonderful memories. The kids were kids, but they were great. They were smart kids. It was a wonderful experience.”
Sister Mary Louis now works in the business office at the Dominican motherhouse in Nashville.
Former St. Mary teacher Cathy Lewis, now of Pierce City, Mo., also attended the 75th-anniversary celebration. She taught at St. Mary “after 1967,” she said.
“I taught for 15 years in the first grade, and I helped with the CCD program,” she said.
She called serving at St. Mary “a privilege because it’s such an excellent educational atmosphere because it mixes all of the right elements. It’s the Catholic philosophy. It’s the community philosophy. It’s the first place that taught me that when you go into a community that it’s a ‘we.’ It’s all the churches in the community. Then you come back home and you just build foundations. That’s what we’ve been known for here forever is foundations.”
The parish means much to her, she said.
“I was a young kid in those days,” Ms. Lewis said. “In fact, I had just turned 20 when I had first come. I had such wonderful role models. There’s not a person who would forget people like Helen Kington and Marge Snyder and Sister Veronica and Sister Margaret Mary. Just people that had such expertise. It’s a funny way to put this, but people had so much humility, and yet collectively it was a gigantic group of talents, and yet you were made to feel like a part, all the way to Charles and Snake, the janitors.”
Peter Waraksa, older brother of diocesan priest Father Alex Waraksa, reflected on the anniversary. Mr. Waraksa directs the 5:30 p.m. Saturday Mass choir, is involved with the Knights of Columbus, and helps maintain the parish building and grounds.
“It’s just a beautiful way to reminisce on all the great things that were part of St. Mary’s growing up and through the years beyond going to school here,” he said.