Diocese of Knoxville seeks state permission to exhume Father Ryan remains

Lawsuit would clarify state law on disinterment for the cause of sainthood

By Daniel Jackson / Courthouse News Service

Faced with no clear statutory procedure in Tennessee to exhume the body of a priest it hopes to canonize, the Catholic Church has asked a court in Chattanooga to cut through ambiguous law.

The Diocese of Knoxville filed a petition in Hamilton County Chancery Court against the Hamilton County Department of Health, asking the court to order the county to issue a permit so it can exhume and move the remains of Father Patrick Ryan, who died during a yellow fever epidemic 140 years ago.

This is the first time the Catholic Church has begun an inquiry into whether to name a Tennessean a saint. In doing so, the Church ran into a legal gray area.

“This petition, on behalf of a Roman Catholic Diocese, for the purpose of disinterring and reinterring the mortal remains of a person in connection with that person’s consideration for sainthood, is believed to be a matter of first impression in Tennessee,” the Nov. 9 complaint states. “With this in mind, application of the Tennessee Code Annotated and the Tennessee Department of Health regulations to this matter is neither straightforward nor intuitively obvious.”

On Sept. 28, 1878, Father Ryan died of yellow fever after he decided to stay in Chattanooga, where 80 percent of the population fled because of the epidemic, and minister to people who had fallen ill. He was 33.

About two years ago, the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Chattanooga started collecting documents to make a case to the Vatican to name Father Ryan a saint.

Father Ryan’s grave lies on Priests’ Mound in Mount Olivet Cemetery in the East Ridge community of Chattanooga. The Church hopes to move his remains to the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul.

“(I)t is appropriate that this Petition be granted which will allow for Father Ryan to be reunited with his flock and the living members of the Body of Christ who still worship at the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul,” the complaint states. “Such a disinterment and reinterment would also be in keeping with Father Ryan’s last recorded wishes to be buried ‘among his people.’”

Tennessee has procedures allowing a person’s next of kin to authorize the removal and reinterment of a person’s remains. But to exhume human remains as part of the process to name a Roman Catholic saint?

“We are trying to claim the right to exhume his body, because he has no next of kin,” said Father David Carter, rector of the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul.

The Catholic Church wants to exhume his body for several reasons, said Father Carter, who also is a canon lawyer for the Diocese of Knoxville.

“One of the big reasons is that we bring the body into the Church for the edification of the faithful,” Father Carter said, “that the servant of God would be brought near to the faithful who are seeking his cause. Second, we want to examine the status of the body. We want to make sure that we have his body.”

Father Carter said a body that is exhumed during a cause for sainthood is examined to see if it is preserved, or uncorrupted. And, following strict rules, the Church possibly collects some relics.

Though Father Ryan died of yellow fever, Father Carter said the Church consulted with experts who said there is little risk of exposure in opening the decades-old casket.

If Father Ryan is beatified, it will be in part because of an apostolic letter Pope Francis issued in July 2017, describing an alternate route to sainthood. In addition to being martyred or displaying heroic virtue, Pope Francis said Catholics can become saints if they “have voluntarily and freely offered their life for others and persevered with this determination unto death.”

Father Carter described this way as a combination of the two other criteria.

“Here we have a man of good morals and good virtue — even if he wasn’t going to be a Mother Teresa or a St. Francis — here he was and he knew that danger was afoot,” Father Carter said. “He knew that it was going to be detrimental to his life to stay and to minister to people with the yellow fever. But he did it anyway. And he did it out of Christian charity.”

Terrance Jones, an associate attorney at the Presley Law Firm in Chattanooga who filed the petition on behalf of the Catholic Church, said the Tennessee General Assembly did not anticipate that the Church might pursue a cause of sainthood in Tennessee when it crafted its exhumation law.

“I don’t think they were intending not to allow for an exhumation for the purposes of a cause for sainthood,” Mr. Jones said. “I just don’t think it was something they thought about, and so they didn’t make any accommodation for it.”

Once the Chancery Court issues its decision, the precedent would have persuasive authority in the other Tennessee courts if a church seeks to exhume another body in search of canonization, Mr. Jones said.

Mr. Jones, who worships at the basilica, said he did not make a First Amendment argument for the exhumation in the complaint because he believed the petition will not be opposed.

“The Church in Rome requires that these causes for sainthood comply with the civil government requirements at all stages through these things,” Mr. Jones said. “And this petition is just what the government in Tennessee requires for us to do to take this next step.”

The Hamilton County Attorney was served with the petition because it represents the county health department.

Mary Neill Southerland, assistant county attorney for Hamilton County, told Courthouse News the office is consulting with the state of Tennessee and Hamilton County Health Department to craft a reply.

Mr. Jones said on Dec. 4 that the Hamilton County Attorney’s Office has asked for additional time to respond to the complaint and that no ruling on the matter is expected until early 2019.

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