Knoxville native, ordained at Sacred Heart, retires as longtime Diocese of Nashville priest
By Andy Telli/Tennessee Register
As a teenager growing up in Knoxville, Father John Kirk worked a variety of jobs to earn money. For a while, he thought his destiny was to be a businessman.
“But I realized that would never be enough for me,” Father Kirk said.
Instead, he felt a call to the priesthood, and for the last 48 years, it’s been all he hoped and more.
“The Lord has given me many great blessings. There’s nothing better I would ever want to do. I’m so glad I did this,” said Father Kirk, the pastor of the Church of the Nativity in Spring Hill for the last 10 years.
“Acting in the person of Jesus in the sacrament, in the Eucharist, the priest gets an opportunity constantly to grow closer to the Lord in ministry,” said Father Kirk. “That’s the great fulfillment for the priest.”
He recently received a letter from a parishioner thanking him. “You challenged my heart in the confessional and your guidance has always stuck with me,” the letter said. “Thank you for letting the Holy Spirit work through you.”
“I love being a priest because of those great events,” said Father Kirk, who officially began his retirement on Nov. 5, less than two weeks after he turned 77 years old.
Father Kirk grew up in Knoxville. “My parents had five boys and three girls,” he said. “I was right in the middle. I have a twin sister, Ann Gallegos.”
He was educated by the Sisters of Mercy at St. Mary’s School and then graduated from Knoxville Catholic High School. His family were parishioners at Immaculate Conception Church in downtown Knoxville and later at Sacred Heart Church in West Knoxville.
His father died of a heart attack in 1955. “He was buried on my 14th birthday,” Father Kirk said. “I think that had an influence on me in a lot of ways. I started to think about life in a lot of ways.”
And in his junior and senior years of high school, he began to seriously consider whether he was being called to the priesthood.
After high school, he attended the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, where he studied Latin before finishing his college studies at St. Pius X Seminary in Erlanger, Kentucky.
With his studies at St. Pius X finished, Father Kirk moved to St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore to complete his four years of theology studies. His younger brother, now Monsignor Thomas Kirk of the Diocese of Memphis, was already a seminarian at St. Mary’s.
“I was glad I went to St. Mary’s,” said Father Kirk. “It was good for me. We had some good teachers.”
Bishop Joseph A. Durick ordained Father Kirk as a priest on May 9, 1970, at his home parish of Sacred Heart in Knoxville.
He served his first five years as a priest as the associate pastor at St. Joseph Church in Madison and then Holy Rosary Church in Donelson.
Bishop James D. Niedergeses gave him his first assignment as a pastor at Sacred Heart Church in Lawrenceburg, the parish where the bishop had grown up.
“That was a wonderful parish. I enjoyed it there,” Father Kirk said. Yet, the assignment had its challenges, he said. “There had been an older priest at that point. I did a few different things.”
One of which was to give more emphasis to the parish’s youth ministry.
“If you don’t have a deep conversion as a teenager,” Father Kirk said, “you might not have one until you are in your 40s.”
Throughout his priesthood, and even before, Father Kirk has made an effort to reach out to Catholics who have left the Church.
“I was always concerned about people who left the Church,” he said. “In grammar school the nuns would talk more about people leaving the Church or not practicing the faith. That sort of opened my consciousness to it.”
Also, his grandmother was always praying for one of her sons who had left the Church and that one of her sons would become a priest, Father Kirk recalled. None of her sons ever became priests, but his grandmother’s prayers were answered in the next generation with three priests: Father Kirk, his brother, and their cousin, Father Albert Kirk.
After four years in Lawrenceburg, Father Kirk served as pastor for three years at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Springfield and St. Michael Mission in Cedar Hill.
Bishop Niedergeses then asked Father Kirk to found St. Luke Parish in Smyrna, which experienced significant growth after the opening of the Nissan Plant there.
“It was a very busy time,” Father Kirk said of his seven years at St. Luke. The parish celebrated Mass in a renovated horse barn before they raised enough money to build a permanent church.
He served at St. Ann Church in Nashville for a year before spending the next three years as pastor of St. Patrick Church in McEwen.
His next stop was as pastor at St. Paul the Apostle Church in Tullahoma. “I was there for 14 years.”
While there, he again was involved in building a church, this time St. Mark Church in Manchester. “They had been meeting in a Protestant church for 17 years,” Father Kirk said.
After leaving St. Paul, Father Kirk served as the associate pastor of St. Philip Church in Franklin for five years as the health of the pastor, Father Edward Arnold, declined.
During that time, “I had been looking around in Spring Hill and Thompson Station because they were building a lot of houses,” Father Kirk said. “I kind of knew there was going to be a need for a church there.”
As part of his ministry to reach out to fallen-away Catholics, Father Kirk sent out a mailing to homes in the Spring Hill and Thompsons Station area. Included was a question about the need for a Catholic parish in the area.
“We had 400 responses,” Father Kirk said. “They were kind of begging for that.”
In 2008, Father Kirk was asked once again to establish a new parish, this time the Church of the Nativity.
“It’s been a good time,” he said of his 10 years at Nativity.
The parish started meeting in a converted storefront before construction of the current church on Buckner Lane was dedicated two-and-a-half years ago.
In establishing new parishes, Father Kirk’s first priority wasn’t the buildings where they met. “My major emphasis always was the priest has to build the people,” he said. “I’ve always focused on building ministry and liturgy.”
He’s always found that the parishioners are eager to help. “I’ve always found the people come forward. They know the needs of the church,” he said. “I like it when they own the parish, when they take charge of different things.”
After his retirement becomes official, Father Kirk will move into the old rectory at the Church of the Assumption in Nashville, which is currently vacant. From there, he will be available to help out by celebrating Mass at other parishes as needed, he said.
“I won’t be a pastor. I won’t have these administrative things,” Father Kirk said. “I can just concentrate on priestly ministry work.”