Morristown parishioners turn out in full to fete church’s history, pastor’s silver jubilee
By Dan McWilliams
A double celebration took place at St. Patrick Church in Morristown on May 19.
The parish turned 60 years old in May, and its pastor of six years, Father Patrick Brownell, marked the 25th anniversary of his priestly ordination in the same month.
Father Brownell celebrated the anniversary Mass with three priests concelebrating: Monsignor Patrick Garrity, former pastor of St. Patrick for 13 years and the priest in charge when the parish built its current spacious church in 2002; Father Alex Waraksa, assisting priest for Hispanic Ministry at several Five Rivers Deanery parishes; and Father Stephen Krugel, a friend of Father Brownell. Deacon Jim Fage assisted, and Rita Nagy proclaimed the readings.
Father Brownell preached the homily, while long-time parishioner Richard Hidalgo and Monsignor Garrity spoke at the end of Mass on the history of the parish.
When Father Brownell looked into the assembly at Mass, he saw his father, Paul, many friends, and hundreds of parishioners.
“One of the things that has been important to me is friends and family,” he said. “I think with the exception of Father David Boettner, who is pastor of the cathedral in Knoxville—you can understand why he’s not able to be here this morning; he’s got lots of Masses at the Cathedral of Sacred Heart in Knoxville— all my friends are here today.”
Love is a main ingredient
Those friends included one of his predecessors as pastor of St. Patrick.
“Monsignor Garrity, who I met 29 years ago, the very first priest I ever met when I visited this diocese. I’m not from here—so when I came to kick the tires, as it were, to see whether I really wanted to make this my home, the very first priest I met was Monsignor Garrity, and I still came!” Father Brownell said.
“He was principal of Knoxville Catholic High School, and that’s been now 29 years. Probably within months after I was ordained, another friend entered my life, and that is Father Stephen Krugel. Father Krugel is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of Hartford, Conn. We’ve been in contact now for 25 years. And of more recent note, my good friend Arthur Collins is visiting here today from Chattanooga. Arthur has been good at giving me often a lay perspective on things.”
Father Brownell has been to five parishes, three of them as pastor.
“Two things I’ve come to learn as a priest: there is no bad parish,” he said. “A parish is made up of people and buildings, some of them in better repair than others, some of them with more financial resources than others, some of them with larger staff than others, but a parish is made of people, and people are people. So I have come to learn in 25 years there is no such thing as a bad parish.
“The other thing that I think I have learned in my priesthood is bloom where you’re planted. Take whatever the parish gives you, whatever the circumstances, and bloom—make something out of it. And so that has been my philosophy: no matter where I’ve been, I have tried to bloom where I’ve been planted. One of the very first things that I do, and I think every pastor should do, is get to know his people and for the people to get to know him.”
St. Patrick now has 1,100 families, many of them arriving during Father Brownell’s tenure.
“I believe that this parish has done a lot of blooming in the past six years,” he said. “From the early days, when you were renting a room I believe downtown near the courthouse, to when in 1959 you built the first new church there and a teeny tiny rectory for the first pastor.
“To all of this that Monsignor Garrity was able to do and more recently the completion of the basement underneath us. The parish has grown not only physically but in the sheer number of people, and it seems like every week I am welcoming new people, new parishioners who have moved here. I tell people, get involved. This is a vibrant parish. If a ministry doesn’t exist that you would like to be a part of, then make it part of your mission to begin that ministry, and you will find the support from me.”
Father Brownell said he looked at how groups of the parish, such as the English choir, the Hispanic choir, children, and RCIA, all coexist.
“That is the hope of a pastor: that a multicultural congregation is coming together as one family. There are multiple cultures here, but there is only one parish,” he said.
The Diocese of Knoxville’s priestly ranks grew considerably in 1994.
“The year I was ordained, which was 1994, was somewhat of a bumper year for priest ordinations,” Father Brownell said. “At that time we probably had about 30 priests, maybe 35, in the entire diocese, and the bishop ordained five new priests: Father Gilbert [Diaz] in January, me May 21, Father David Boettner on May 28, and then Father Tom Moser and Father Sean Poland.
“Five priests were ordained for this little bitty diocese. Four of us 25 years later are still in active ministry, and I think those are very good odds. One of the things that contributes to that is the support brother priests give each other and the support and generosity of people such as yourselves in supporting their pastors.”
Another ingredient is important, too, Father Brownell noted.
“And it is the love, which is mentioned in the Gospel today, when Jesus says, ‘Love one another, and that is how people will know who you are.’ I think it is that love that you have shown me, and the other pastors who have been here, that has kept me a healthy and a happy priest. And I want to continue to be a healthy and happy priest, and so I will need you and my brother priests and my family and my friends, to continue to help me and maybe one day, it might be possible, I can stand somewhere and celebrate my 50th anniversary as a priest,” he said.
City Hall confessions, VW rifle
St. Patrick Parish’s early days, dating well back into the 20th century, saw Masses celebrated in private homes and then later in the dining room of the Kingmyer Hotel, the Coca-Cola Bottling Co., and eventually City Hall. Mass was celebrated there until 1958, and first pastor Father Albert Siener heard confessions in the hallway of City Hall.
Dreams of a church building took flight Feb. 13, 1956, when a five-acre tract of land on Knoxville Highway (later Andrew Johnson Highway) was purchased from Mary Graves Baker of Knoxville for $12,000.
Father Bernard Niedergeses became pastor, and fundraising and construction meetings were held in the home of Dr. Stephen Bencho, the first parish-council president, in Jefferson City. By then there were 107 Catholics in Morristown.
Ground was broken Aug. 25, 1958, and on St. Patrick’s Day in 1959 the first Mass was celebrated in the new church. St. Patrick Church was dedicated May 27, 1959, by Monsignor George J. Flanigen.
Bishop Joseph A. Durick installed Father Luzerne Schnupp as the first resident pastor in September 1965.
Mr. Hidalgo, in recalling the early days of the parish when he and wife Valerie arrived in the city, said Morristown “looked like Mayberry to us when we first got here.”
St. Patrick has had 13 pastors, Mr. Hidalgo said.
“The first two I did not know: Father Siener and Father Niedergeses,” he said, adding that Father Schnupp was the parish shepherd when he first came.
“Father Schnupp had a wonderful custom,” Mr. Hidalgo said. “We’d have daily Mass, and [at the end of Mass] he’d have the blessing and he’d look at us and say, ‘OK, the coffeepot’s on,’ and we’d go in the rectory and have a cup of coffee with the few people who would come, and then we were on our way to work.”
Mr. Hidalgo was part of “a very small men’s club, about four or five members. I went to the first meeting, and they were in the process of planning the Mardi Gras, which was a big fundraiser. That was a big casino that they put downstairs in Madonna Hall, which was rather tiny, and somehow we’d fit 250 people down there.” Father Schnupp moved on, and St. Patrick received a new pastor.
“Father Schnupp was succeeded by Father Fidelis Ryan, called Frank Ryan, who came from Memphis,” Mr. Hidalgo said. “He really liked coming to your home and having dinner and falling asleep because he didn’t like staying in the rectory too much.
“He had two cars. He had a Volkswagen Beetle, and it was outfitted with snow tires and chains. He had a .22 rifle in there. He had kindling wood in the backseat. He had pork and beans. I said, ‘Why that?’ He said, ‘It’s wintertime. It snows too much. I have to go to Newport. I swore I would give my life to the Lord—I just don’t want it to be in Newport.’”
Father Bill Nolan followed Father Ryan.
“Father Nolan had been a Trappist monk at the monastery in Conyers, Ga.,” Mr. Hidalgo said. “His claim to fame: he believed in five-minute homilies. He believed in five-minute homilies,” Mr. Hidalgo repeated, with a meaningful glance at Father Brownell, to the delight of his audience.
In 1973 “we welcomed Father Sterling McGuire,” Mr. Hidalgo said. “Father McGuire was instrumental in getting the Knights of Columbus started. We inaugurated our council with 35 charter members.”
Father Louis Junod succeeded Father McGuire.
“Father Junod is responsible for our parish center,” Mr. Hidalgo said. “Now, Valerie and some of her girlfriends did not like Father Junod. One day he told them there were no dogs in heaven, and they just did not approve of that; they did not like him at all after that.”
Canada native Father Greg Boisvert, AA, came next to St. Patrick.
“He had been a physics teacher. He is responsible for all these stained-glass windows,” Mr. Hidalgo said.
A baseball enthusiast took the parish reins next.
“In 1987, Father Joe Brando came here. He was a Brooklyn Dodger fan,” Mr. Hidalgo pointed out. “He always talked about the Dodgers in all his homilies. He said he learned to really fervently pray when the Dodgers were in the World Series.”
Father Philip Thoni, an Army chaplain like Father Brownell, served as the next St. Patrick pastor.
“Father Thoni had been an athlete as a young man,” Mr. Hidalgo said. “He would take on all the kids in ping pong. He’d put one hand behind his back, and he’d kill ’em all.”
Mr. Hidalgo paused to salute one of his listeners: longtime parish housekeeper Mary Wilson, who for a quarter of a century served most of St. Patrick’s pastors. Mrs. Wilson, also a former Knoxville Diocesan Council of Catholic Women president, received a round of applause from the assembly.
“She did everything for the priests,” Mr. Hidalgo said. “She became Catholic as a result of being here all this time. Whenever priests come from out of town, they always make a point to go by and see her.”
Father Thoni was followed by Father Michael Sweeney.
“Father Sweeney used to have the evening Masses on Wednesdays during Lent,” Mr. Hidalgo said. “He would have extended homilies. He did not know Father Bill Nolan. He would also have Q-and-A’s. They were really interesting. There were wonderful homilies. It was wonderful to pass through Lent with him there.
“One of the big things he had to do was, he was tasked with building a church in Jefferson City. When he finished building Holy Trinity Catholic Church, we lost 134 parishioners who are now at Holy Trinity. They’re a growing parish, and of course so are we.”
Then-Father Garrity arrived in 1997.
“One of the greatest things Father Garrity did was bring his mom to live with us here in Morristown after his dad passed away,” Mr. Hidalgo said. “We all fell in love with Sylvia Garrity.”
During Father Garrity’s tenure “we saw Deacon Bob Smearing become a deacon,” Mr. Hidalgo said. “Father Junod was responsible for another deacon who is with us this morning, Deacon Jim Fage, who at age 32 1/2 became the youngest deacon in the Diocese of Knoxville.”
Father Brownell “came to lead us in our faith journey” in 2013, Mr. Hidalgo said. “He’s been an Army chaplain for 13 1/2 years. He was deployed to Iraq in the summer of 2007 to the summer of 2008, and then he was deployed to Kuwait in 2011.
“He was born in Germany. He’s a vegan. That’s how he lost all his hair. You notice Paul, his father, is in the front row—he is not a vegan. He has all his hair. He goes once a week to the barbershop.”
That prompted a hearty laugh from the congregation.
Father Brownell’s mother passed away earlier this year.
“We were all saddened by the loss of Father’s mother—we called her Wally Brownell,” Mr. Hidalgo said. “She was from Germany. Father Patrick speaks fluent German. When Father Patrick was a teenager, he would ask his mom for money in German, and then he’d go ask his dad for money in English. Now he’s asking all of us for money.”
Tending to a growing parish
One of the “great things Father Patrick has done is our wonderful basement offices that were much needed—expanded the area, a lot of meeting rooms for lots of groups, including our teenagers. There’s a nursery downstairs,” Mr. Hidalgo said.
He added that “we’re very happy that Father Patrick is here. He along with all the other pastors who have preceded him had one mission: to guide us all on the right way to salvation. . . . They’ve just loved us, and we’ve loved them in return. . . we’re very, very glad that Father Patrick Brownell is our pastor,” he concluded, leading to a round of applause for the silver jubilarian.
Monsignor Garrity arrived at St. Patrick when the parish was in its original church, whose nave survives in the form of the daily Mass chapel in the new church, and he guided the transition to the current building.
“Five days ago I celebrated my 43rd anniversary as a priest, on May 14, and I realized I spent over 25 percent of my priesthood here in Morristown at St. Patrick,” Monsignor Garrity said.
He said, “I remember exactly” how his St. Patrick experience began, when Father Boisvert asked him to fill in for a weekend.
Nobody came for confession when Father Garrity was there that weekend, and that led him to test out a loudspeaker by the windows, with disastrous results.
“I got bored sitting in there, and I thought, ‘Well, I’ll get out and walk around a little bit,’” Monsignor Garrity said. “They’d just put the windows in a few years before . . . to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the parish. There was a little box on the wall, kind of like you’d find in Europe, that said, ‘The Story of the Windows,’ and you had to push the button. I thought, ‘Well, maybe I’ll hear a little bit about the windows.’
“So I pushed the button, and it started: ‘Window one,’ and it went on and on and on. ‘Window two.’ People were arriving for Mass. ‘Window three.’ I go, 1-2-3-4-5-6-7—there were like 14 windows. I’m like, ‘Oh, God.’ I’d end up having to turn the PA system off and scream the whole Mass because no one knew how to turn the thing off. That was my first experience at St. Patrick.”
Mr. Hidalgo told the future monsignor that he will “baptize, marry, and bury us.”
“It’s that kind of experience that a pastor has that helps make a parish his family,” Monsignor Garrity said.
As St. Patrick’s old church was bursting at the seams with overflow crowds, Monsignor Garrity consulted Johnson Architecture, which had designed the new Knoxville Catholic High School.
“I asked them to come up with an idea of what we could do to expand our worship facility. We presented this, if I remember right, at the fall fest of ’99,” Monsignor Garrity recalled. “We had a picture of what we thought we might want to build. We started raising funds.
“When Bishop [Joseph E.] Kurtz came as the second bishop of Knoxville, I got to him before he was ever ordained a bishop and I said, ‘You have to come to Morristown and help me raise money.’ He said, ‘OK.’ At our very first meeting to solicit gifts for the new parish, Bishop Kurtz came and spoke, and that kicked off the Vision 2000 campaign.”
One of those overflow gatherings attended Monsignor Garrity’s silver jubilee.
“My 25th ordination anniversary was May of 2001, and we celebrated in the old church,” he said. “That same weekend on Sunday afternoon, we broke ground for the new church. Shortly thereafter we had a big procession after Mass one Sunday and took everything out of the old church and took it down to the parish life center, which for 18 months became our church.
“I never thought we’d be there that long, until we finally dedicated this church in October of 2002. And it’s been a great ride for St. Patrick ever since, under the guidance of Father Joseph [Hammond] and Father Patrick. It continues to grow. The Hispanic community continues to grow, and I’m happy to see that the communities are beginning to merge together and become one, more and more.”
Monsignor Garrity, like the current pastor did with him, also recalled their first meeting.
“I remember very clearly the day that he came as a prospective seminarian for the Diocese of Knoxville and sat across from me in my office at Catholic High,” the former St. Patrick pastor said, referring to the original high school on Magnolia Avenue in Knoxville. “Do you remember the first rectory you lived in in the diocese? We met that spring, and that summer you came to live with me in a little bitty house of about 900 square feet behind Catholic High. We got to know each other really well.”
Monsignor Garrity said “one of the things I learned about him very early on: he has a very eclectic taste in music. He had some woman on a disc …. He’d have his bedroom door closed, and I’d hear this”—and Monsignor Garrity emitted a long wail—“I thought he was killing a cat in there.”
The monsignor also shared a memory of Mrs. Wilson, the housekeeper.
“I had a fish named Father Fred. I went on a vacation. He used to sit on the dining-room table. She killed it. She bought another one just like it and didn’t think I’d know the difference. I could tell.”
Monsignor Garrity’s parents gave him a Celtic cross ring for his 25th anniversary, and he returned the gesture for his successor.
“As a pastor of St. Patrick celebrating your 25th anniversary just like I did, I’m going to give you a Celtic cross gold ring, just like me,” Monsignor Garrity said.
“It fits,” Father Brownell said after trying it on.
After Monsignor Garrity spoke, Mr. Hidalgo announced that the Hispanic community had given Father Brownell a Logan’s Steakhouse gift card, and the parish at large gave him a silver anniversary clock, which he unwrapped before the congregation.
Following Mass, Mrs. Wilson thought back on the pastors she worked under.
“I always think of all these priests I’ve served, and I think of them as disciples of Jesus. I feel like that has made a pathway to heaven for me,” she said.
The 60th-anniversary celebration meant a great deal to her, she said.
“I can’t even tell you. It’s just great, because I have been handicapped by a stroke . . . and I’ve missed a lot of Masses. To be here today, I can’t explain it.”
Father Waraksa was pleased with the anniversary gathering.
“It’s a great joy to be here and to celebrate with the people and all that God does among them and to see their talents develop, see them receive sacraments, and see them grow together as a multicultural community,” he said.
St. Patrick is an anchor for the Morristown-area Catholic community, Father Waraksa said.
“It’s very important for the Lakeway area,” he said. “It’s the largest parish and has the most ministries in it. Other people come here for certain retreats we host, especially things like marriage preparation and Search retreats for the youth.”
The church, which has an active Hispanic ministry, became a ministry center following an ICE raid in April 2018 that saw 97 area immigrant workers detained and their families left in limbo.
“That helped to bring the parish together, too, to see people in their time of need and to see them more as people rather than maybe their legal status or their race or where they’re from,” Father Waraksa said.