The Rogersville community marks its 55th anniversary and burns a mortgage at the same Mass
By Dan McWilliams
St. Henry Parish found itself with two things to celebrate July 28.
The Rogersville Catholic community marked its 55th anniversary during the Sunday morning Mass, and it concluded the liturgy with a burning of the mortgage on its 2013 church addition.
Bishop Richard F. Stika, getting through Mass with a cane following a recent ankle injury, presided at the celebration. With him were St. Henry pastor Father Bart Okere and Monsignor Theophilus Okere, a mentor to Father Okere (no relation) from his native Nigeria. Deacon Don Griffith assisted.
“It’s a great joy for me to be with all of you here at St. Henry,” Bishop Stika said in his greeting. “This might be my third visit in the last year, and it’s a joy. It’s a beautiful drive from Knoxville, and it’s also a beautiful thing to see all of you, especially as we celebrate the 55th anniversary of this parish and the burning of the mortgage. It doesn’t seem Catholic not to have a debt.”
In his homily, the bishop asked “what is a parish?”
“Here at St. Henry’s in this beautiful area of East Tennessee, so many have done so much, to build a church building that speaks proudly in a Christian sense and loudly of what it means to be Catholic in an area in which we all know we’re not the largest faith community in Tennessee. It’s a physical thing to see,” he said. “It’s like when you come into a Catholic church, for the most part if you see that red candle burning; it’s a physical remembrance that the Lord himself is contained in the building in the Blessed Sacrament.
“But also a church, a community of faith, is the way the people come together to worship God. That’s the whole purpose of the Eucharist of the Mass. As Vatican II tells us, it’s the greatest way that we can pray, to hear the words, ‘Take this all of you and eat of it. Take this all of you and drink of it, for this is my body. This is my blood.’ That’s the core of who we are as a sacramental entity in the world in which we live.”
Bishop Stika added that there’s much more that goes on in a parish.
“If you look at the environment of a parish, there’s so much that goes on from Sunday to Sunday. The building of community, of praying together, of celebrating together, of mourning together, of praying together and praying for each other. The strength of a community of faith, and that’s what we celebrate, in this historic place called Rogersville, Tenn.”
The bishop said his GPS could not locate St. Henry Church.
“But by your effort, by your witness, by your desire to be Catholic, you don’t need a GPS to know about St. Henry’s,” he said.
“I want to commend all of you here in the parish. You who are here today represent 55 years of tradition, that those who founded this community gave you a gift. They struggled, as we struggle, but thank God that he is merciful.”
Hawkins County was among the mission field of circuit-riding Father Emmanuel F. Callahan at the turn of the 20th century. Father Callahan served 34 counties from his home base in Johnson City. A boon to Rogersville-area Catholics came in 1910 when the International Printing and Pressmen and Assistants’ Union of North America established Pressmen’s Home in Rogersville, a headquarters that included a sanatorium, hotel, and trade school.
Mrs. George L. Berry, wife of the union’s president, was a devout Catholic and arranged to have a priest celebrate Mass at Pressmen’s Home as often as possible. An ecumenical chapel was erected at Pressmen’s Home in 1926 and was used for monthly liturgies in 1935 and weekly Masses in later years.
St. Mary Parish in Johnson City and 13 surrounding counties were placed under the care of the Dominican Fathers in 1916. That was the same year Ellen Wilson Rogan and her family came to Rogersville and became extremely active in the local church, attending the Masses at Pressmen’s Home or having Mass celebrated in their own home. Mrs. Rogan’s sons, Lance and Tom, and Father James Enright, OP, began a building fund for a church in 1950.
Bishop William L. Adrian of Nashville established the Greeneville Missions in 1954, a nine-county parish that included Hawkins County and Rogersville. Father Bernard Niedergeses succeeded Greeneville Missions founding pastor Father Albert Siener in 1956. More Catholic families moved to the area and swelled the ranks attending the Masses in the Pressmen’s Home chapel.
In 1962, Father Niedergeses and Lance and Tom Rogan began searching for land for a new church. W.M. Wickham of Bloomfield, Ky., donated two and a half acres of land for the church at the intersection of Tennessee Highway 70 and U.S. 11W.
A $10,000 grant from Catholic Extension and a $5,000 gift from Bishop Adrian helped make the new church—to be named for St. Henry—a reality. Architect Milton Robelot of Kingsport, a future deacon, designed the church. A Mass of thanksgiving, with Father Niedergeses presiding, celebrating the completion of St. Henry Church took place July 5, 1964.
St. Henry Parish was 55 families strong in 1981 when the Greeneville mission was declared a parish by Nashville Bishop James D. Niedergeses. St. James the Apostle Parish in Sneedville, then a mission of St. Patrick in Morristown, became a mission of St. Henry at that time.
The late Father Michael Jennings, who came to St. Henry in 1997, would go on to become its longest-serving pastor by the time of his retirement in 2013.
“I congratulate all of you for 55 years of existence here in this parish,” Bishop Stika said. “And following this, if you saw the barbecue pit outside, we’re not having a barbecue; we’re burning the mortgage. A parish without debt is pretty spectacular in this day and age. I know there was a very generous donor who completed the payments on the mortgage, and I’m grateful to that person.”
Mike Rogan, chair of the parish finance council, spoke at the end of Mass.
“Today is a special day in the history of our church,” he said. “Several years ago we made a commitment to build a new addition, and we made a commitment to pay for it. That we did, and I’d like to thank each and every one of you who gave a contribution to the monthly building fund. It was very few months that it did not equal the payment that we owed, and for that I thank you very much.”
Father Okere introduced Monsignor Okere.
“He was my mentor,” Father Okere said. “Monsignor Theophilus came from Nigeria. He’s on vacation. He’s been in California. He told me, ‘Father Bart, I want to visit with you. Since you’ve been here I have not seen you.’ I said, ‘Please come up.’ I told him about this ceremony. ‘Oh, I’m going to be here to witness this, representing my archdiocese in Nigeria and my bishop in Nigeria, Anthony Obinna.’”
Father Okere also introduced Michael McCusker, newly appointed state deputy of the Knights of Columbus, as well as Fourth Degree Knight John Sopko of Chattanooga and other dignitaries attending.
“My parishioners, beloved parishioners of St. Henry, you people are really great and full of love and hospitality,” Father Okere said. “A small parish, but with a light heart. We appreciate your dedication. We appreciate your availability of service in all things we do here in the parish since I’ve been here, two and a half years. May God continue to bless and reward you abundantly.”
Bishop Stika gave the closing remarks at Mass.
“It’s a great joy to be here with all of you. I always treasure these moments, visiting any parish, as we do together what we can’t do by ourselves. We’re co-workers in Christ—all of us are.”
Mr. McCusker presented two checks to Bishop Stika during the mortgage-burning ceremony.
“I’m here, Your Excellency, on behalf of the Tennessee Knights of Columbus,” he said. “We are proud to present to you this year’s bishop’s burse, in the amount of $8,000. And as you know, at our state convention we hold the annual seminarian golf tournament, and the proceeds for the Diocese of Knoxville for our seminarians were $2,800.”
The mortgage burning was a unique experience for Father Okere, he said afterward.
“I’m very highly excited, because it’s the first time I’ve celebrated a mortgage burning anywhere, even in Nigeria or here in America,” he said. “I’m highly excited to be the one to celebrate the mortgage burning and the 55th anniversary of our parish.”
He remarked that St. Henry, which has about 150 families, is the only Catholic church in the Hawkins County area.
“Our church is really an ecumenical church. Our church is open to everybody who comes through here,” he said. “The Lutheran church uses our church for their celebration from 4 to 5 p.m. every Sunday. Our church is open. We welcome everybody. We’re a very inclusive church. We welcome all visitors. In this church, everybody here ‘comes from somewhere,’ from Michigan or from New York or from North Carolina.”