Diocese receives Vatican OK to exhume Fr. Ryan’s remains

Servant of God’s body will be relocated to Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul as part of sainthood process

By Bill Brewer

The cause for sainthood for Father Patrick Ryan continues to move forward, with the Vatican giving its approval last month for the exhumation of Father Ryan’s remains and relocation to the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Chattanooga.

Bishop Richard F. Stika announced the approval by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints on March 22. The permission allows Father David Carter, rector of the basilica, and Deacon Gaspar DeGaetano, who serves at the basilica and is the vice postulator for the cause for Father Ryan, to move ahead with plans to exhume Father Ryan’s body, which is interred in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Chattanooga.

“Our diocese, for our short history and small size, we’ve had Sts. Peter and Paul recognized by the Vatican as a basilica. This is very special. Father Ryan’s cause for sainthood is another example of the holiness that can be found here. Why do we canonize somebody? Because this person is now offered by the Church as a role model. We don’t make them a deity. We say this is a guy who took care of Catholics and non-Catholics in an area that wasn’t very Catholic at the time. And he risked his life to pray with people and to give people comfort by extending any kind of health care that he was able to provide, knowing that he would likely catch yellow fever himself,” Bishop Stika said.

“He didn’t bail on people. He stuck around to provide comfort and care. His actions were similar to those first responders and firefighters who risked, and in many cases, lost their lives on 9/11. When people were understandably afraid and running out of the World Trade Center, firefighters were running up into those buildings knowing that they might not come back down. Father Ryan’s actions were heroic in a similar way. He could have left Chattanooga when he was surrounded by illness, but he chose to stay to help people,” the bishop added.

Father Carter said a tomb will now be built and placed inside the basilica to contain the historic priest’s remains according to canon law. He said once relocation is ready, a small group of Catholic clergy and professionals skilled in disinterment, such as a coroner, funeral home staff, and the cemetery superintendent, will guide the exhumation and relocation process.

Exhumation of remains typically is done as part of the cause for sainthood to establish the identity of the sainthood candidate and ascertain the condition of the candidate’s remains. If there is no evidence of corruption of the body, as has been recorded in a number of cases, the incorrupt body adds to the cause of the candidate’s sainthood.

“His body will be exhumed. We have to see what it will look like. He will be re-vested and entombed at the basilica. Moving Father Ryan to the basilica will give people an opportunity to pray with him to God,” Bishop Stika said.

Father Ryan was pastor of Sts. Peter and Paul Parish from 1872 to 1878. He died at the age of 33 in the yellow fever epidemic of 1878 that swept through Chattanooga. As thousands of Chattanooga residents fled the city to escape the contagion, Father Ryan remained to serve those stricken with the illness and contracted it himself.

In 1886, when his remains were reburied in Mount Olivet Cemetery on Priests’ Mound, one of the largest funeral corteges ever witnessed in Chattanooga accompanied Father Ryan’s body to Mount Olivet. He was remembered for his courage and selfless sacrifice in helping others.

Bishop Stika on June 14, 2016, signed a decree officially establishing the Diocese of Knoxville as the petitioner in the Cause of Beatification and Canonization of Rev. Patrick J. Ryan. The bishop requested and received endorsement for advancing Father Ryan’s cause for sainthood from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops during the USCCB’s 2016 fall general assembly.

To further the cause, Father Carter is serving as the episcopal delegate and Deacon DeGaetano is the vice postulator. Father John Orr, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Athens, has been named the cause’s promoter of the faith as required by the Vatican and will act as “devil’s advocate” in reviewing the cause and any reasons Father Ryan shouldn’t be canonized. The basilica has appointed a historical commission to document a history of Father Ryan that must be submitted as part of the sainthood cause.

Once Father Ryan’s remains have been moved to the basilica and the historical report is submitted, a diocesan tribunal must gather testimony about the life and virtues of Servant of God Patrick Ryan. This documentary, or diocesan, phase of the process culminates with the ultimate decision by Bishop Stika as to whether heroic virtues of Servant of God Patrick Ryan have been demonstrated.

This documentation is presented to the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints, which begins the Roman phase of the process. A Vatican official is appointed to shepherd the cause through the Roman phase. The official brings the report on Servant of God Patrick Ryan to a theological commission, which votes for or against the cause for sainthood based on the documentation. If their vote is yes, a recommendation of a Decree of Heroic Virtues is sent to the pope, whose decision is final.

“When the diocesan inquiry concludes, the Vatican will determine if the cause is meritorious and then hopefully declare Father Ryan venerable,” Father Carter said. “Everything we’re doing is going through diplomatic channels, the diplomatic pouch from the papal nuncio to Bishop Stika.”

Once the person’s heroic virtues have been recognized by the Holy Father, he or she is declared venerable. The remaining step before beatification is the approval of a miracle.

In the meantime, Father Carter said work can now move ahead on completing Father Ryan’s tomb, which will be placed in the basilica nave underneath the 14th Station of the Cross, where Jesus is laid in the tomb.

He and Deacon DeGaetano hope the exhumation of Father Ryan’s remains can take place in late June, but an official date has not been set.

“When he died, he left Chattanooga as a hero and he should come back as a hero. There was a procession a mile long with 100 carriages or more at his death,” Deacon DeGaetano said. “This is really good news we have to share. He was a local hero, not just for the Catholic community, but for the entire Chattanooga community.”

The cause for sainthood for Father Ryan has so far been an interesting journey.

Before the Vatican’s approval, a Hamilton County Chancery Court had to give the Diocese of Knoxville permission to exhume Father Ryan’s remains. Chancellor Jeffrey Atherton on Jan. 14 granted a petition by the diocese for permission to have the remains disinterred.

The sainthood cause raised a few legal eyebrows because there was no clear statutory procedure in Tennessee to exhume the body of a priest a diocese hopes to canonize.

Typically in probate cases, only a decedent’s next of kin can petition a court or government agency for permission to exhume remains.

But since Father Ryan has no living relatives and there were no clear legal guidelines in Tennessee for requests to exhume a body for possible sainthood by unrelated individuals or religious organizations, the Hamilton County Department of Health sought legal clarification.

In a lawsuit filed Nov. 9, the Diocese of Knoxville petitioned Hamilton County Chancery Court for an order requiring the health department to issue the exhumation permit.

In an unusual move and to apparently add levity to the precedent-setting decision, Chancellor Atherton took the bench Jan. 14 and promptly played the old song “Dem Bones Dem Bones Dem Dry Bones” over the courtroom speakers before hearing the diocese’s petition.

“He said, ‘far be it from me to stop the cause for sainthood,’” said Deacon DeGaetano, who attended the hearing. “Much of what he (Chancellor Atherton) does is routine, but he was looking forward to hearing this first-of-its-kind case.”

Terrance Jones, a basilica parishioner and Chattanooga lawyer who is assisting the church and diocese in legal matters pertaining to the cause, explained that the Hamilton County Department of Health wasn’t fighting the diocese’s petition, it was only seeking answers to questions and concerns that state law didn’t address.

“What is so unique about Father Ryan is that he was part of the parish of Sts. Peter and Paul and started what is now known as Notre Dame High School.

“He is already a Servant of God, recognized for his holiness by the diocese, and there is now an investigation into other aspects of his life, which hopefully, at some point, the pope will declare him venerable. The next stage is with a miracle — to be beatified, which according to local custom now is done in the diocese, so it will likely be celebrated in Chattanooga, if he is eventually beatified. A cardinal from Rome would visit our diocese for the beatification. This would bring much national and world attention. Then, perhaps one day, he will be canonized,” Bishop Stika said.

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