St. Mary in Athens celebrates golden anniversary

Bishop Stika calls the active parish in McMinn County ‘a bright star in the history of our diocese’                     

By Dan McWilliams

St. Mary Parish in Athens, which originally celebrated Mass in a funeral-home chapel, marked its 50th anniversary last fall in its modern building on Madison Avenue.

Bishop Richard F. Stika joined Father John Orr and parishioners Nov. 18 for a golden-anniversary Mass in the church and a luncheon in the parish life center. The bishop formally installed Father Orr as pastor of St. Mary during the liturgy.

“As we celebrate 50 years of the existence of this parish, we give thanks to almighty God for the ability to teach the faith,” the bishop said in his opening remarks.

In his homily, Bishop Stika told parishioners to “continue to celebrate.”

“Continue to be an active parish. Continue to honor God. Continue to be of service to your neighbor, because that’s how we build the Church,” he said. “The way we build the Church or rebuild the Church is one person at a time: a person who believes and then who lives that belief, and then another person sees that, and they might say to themselves. . . what brings them closer to God? It’s the Eucharist.”

Father Orr was assigned as St. Mary pastor last July 1.

“Father Orr is here to lead you in prayer and the sacraments and to be one who walks with you,” Bishop Stika said. “He’s a little eccentric at times, but that’s all right. All priests come in all shapes and sizes. Some are tall and some are not so tall. Some are skinny, like me, and others—what are you laughing at?”

In the installation rite, the bishop said “as he formally begins this service, it is right to remind both pastor and people of the mutual commitment that you make to one another in this new relationship.”

He then asked Father Orr a series of questions, beginning with: “Are you willing to proclaim the Word of God in the tradition of the apostles, with compassion and faithfulness to the people now entrusted to your care?” “I am,” Father Orr replied.

Bishop Stika closed the Mass with a “congratulations to you on 50 years. I know how active this parish is. Work with Father Orr, and continue to build the kingdom of God.”

Father Orr enjoyed the celebration of the 50th-anniversary Mass, he said afterward.

“It’s great, the first 50 years: 20 with Nashville and 30 with Knoxville, so we’re growing together,” he said. “Father [Josef] Fiedorowicz had the parish over on Congress Parkway, and he was able to get this new property, so the church is paid for, the rectory is paid for, we’re paying for the hall, so little by little we’re growing the kingdom. People are praying and receiving the sacraments.”

St. Mary has about 200 families and is growing “slow and steady,” Father Orr said.

“They first started prayers in the local funeral-home chapel, and then they got their church on Congress Parkway, and then they got this property some years ago,” he said. “We’ve had 15 priests in 50 years.”

The official anniversary of the parish was May 12, 2018, marking five decades since the day Bishop Joseph A. Durick dedicated the original parish building and gave the Athens Catholic Mission its formal name of St. Mary.

“Over in the church there are two cornerstones, from the first building on Congress Parkway and from the current building,” Father Orr said.

The history of St. Mary Parish dates to April 27, 1965, when Nashville Bishop William L. Adrian wrote a letter in answer to a request he had received concerning the possibility of a Catholic church in Athens, according to a 1993 parish history. His letter indicated that he didn’t have a priest available at that time but perhaps would in a year or two. He suggested those interested should contact Father Paul Hostettler, pastor of St. Thérèse of Lisieux Parish in Cleveland and St. Catherine Labouré Parish in Copperhill.

A survey was conducted through the local newspaper, and the results were disturbing to the bishop and Father Hostettler. Several families were driving many miles on two-lane roads to attend Mass in Cleveland, but many more families were not practicing their faith at all. In February 1967, Bishop Durick of Nashville asked Father Hostettler and Monsignor Francis Pack of Chattanooga to come to Athens and explore possible locations for the celebration of Mass.

At the two priests’ recommendation, Bishop Durick’s decision was to use the Quisenberry-Laycock funeral parlor. At Father Hostettler’s suggestion, he found a replacement priest for his 7:30 a.m. Mass in Cleveland so that he could celebrate a 7:30 a.m. Mass in Copperhill, a 9:30 a.m. in Athens, and an 11 a.m. back in Cleveland. That schedule stayed in effect until fall 1969.

The first Mass ever offered in Athens took place in the funeral home June 11, 1967.

Father Hostettler and Monsignor Pack continued scouting the area for land suitable for building a chapel. Their instructions from the bishop were that the location must be near the U.S. Highway 11 bypass and offer possible access to the future route of Interstate 75.

After several weeks, the two priests spotted an abandoned restaurant hidden on four-and-a-half acres of tall weeds on what was then called the bypass. It was discovered that the lonely little building had three names: the Dixieland Café, Cherokee Den, and lastly the Chow-Now. On Aug. 1, 1967, the Diocese of Nashville purchased the land on what is now known as Congress Parkway for the first Catholic church in the Athens area.

Father Hostettler oversaw the remodeling and conversion of the restaurant into a church, finishing by spring 1968. The fledgling church was given a name: the Athens Catholic Mission, reflecting its status as a mission of St. Thérèse.

On May 12, 1968, Bishop Durick celebrated a Mass of thanksgiving and dedicated the new church. Father Hostettler and then-Monsignor and future Nashville Bishop James D. Niedergeses concelebrated.

Father Hostettler served the new parish until Sept. 1, 1969. The diocese then entrusted the care of the parish to Father Matthew J. Noonan of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. He would serve St. Mary for eight years. During his tenure a chapel was erected next to the restaurant and dedicated Oct. 21, 1973. Four classrooms to accommodate growing CCD numbers and an office were added to the south side and dedicated Nov. 17, 1976.

With continuing growth in the religious-education classes in early 1983, Father Patrick Mangan, OMI, who became pastor in 1977, supervised the construction of an eight-room educational building. It was completed and in use by fall 1983 and dedicated by Bishop Niedergeses on June 30, 1985. The new structure was called the Mangan-Mozur Educational Building after both the former pastor, who was reassigned in September 1983, and building chairman and parish donor Tony Mozur.

During the Tennessee Homecoming ’86 celebration, St. Mary members contributed to a time capsule to be opened in 2086. Father Hostettler later returned as pastor, in time to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the parish in 1993.

The parish outgrew the Congress Parkway site by the 1990s. Pastor Father David Boettner blessed a sign Nov. 3, 2001, marking the parish’s future home on a 17-acre site on Madison Avenue. Ground was broken March 22, 2003. Bishop Joseph E. Kurtz, with pastor Father Michael Cummins and former pastors Father Boettner and Father Fiedorowicz concelebrating, dedicated the new building Aug. 14, 2004. On June 30, 2012, Bishop Stika dedicated a $1.7 million parish life center.

Mary Guthrie is a charter parishioner of St. Mary and recalled the early days.

“Bishop Niedergeses came to my father’s house. He was Lawrence Roussell. He’s the one that the Knights of Columbus chapter here is named after,” she said. “[The bishop] asked if we would come to Athens and help set up a parish, so we did. We were at St. Thérèse.”

Mrs. Guthrie remembers the funeral-home days of St. Mary.

“That was before we got the restaurant—then we went to church in the restaurant. It was very different, especially for me, because I am from South Louisiana, in New Orleans, where there’s nothing but Catholics and big churches,” she said.

She is impressed by the growth of her parish.

“It’s unreal. I love it.”

She definitely enjoys the current St. Mary Church more than the funeral-home location.

“Well, since I’m on the building committee, I like it,” Mrs. Guthrie said.

Bishop Stika called the parish’s 50 years “pretty significant, especially in an area historically that’s not very Catholic in terms of our numbers. Athens has always been a bright star in the history of the diocese, going back to the time of Father Noonan. I’m just grateful that the parish continues to thrive.”

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