Father Emmanuel Callahan – The original circuit-riding priest of East Tennessee

By Dan McWilliams
Photos Courtesy of Diocese of Knoxville Archives

Brother Craig Digmann has a spiritual ancestor in the faith: Father Emmanuel Callahan.

Father Callahan and his family

While the  Glenmary brother brings the Church to the lost and forgotten areas of Hancock County, Father Callahan did the same for 34 counties in East Tennessee and parts of Southwest Virginia and western North Carolina in the early 1900s. Father Callahan would ride the circuit aboard his horse, Rebel, or go by car or train.

“With these circuit riders years ago on horseback and whatnot, it’s amazing what they did,” Brother Craig said. “When I was serving Union and Grainger [counties], I tried to reach out to every person in the county — in Glenmary we consider every person in the county our parishioner, more or less. And so that means covering a lot of turf and a lot of people. I’ve found just here in Hancock County, I’ve got my hands full here just with this one county, but I do try to go as far and wide as I can here.”

Emmanuel Francis Callahan was born in 1871 on his family’s farm in the Dante community of northern Knox County. He studied for the priesthood at St. Bernard’s Seminary in Cullman, Ala., and completed his theology studies at St. Mary’s Seminary in Ohio. He was ordained a priest by Bishop Thomas S. Byrne in 1897 in Nashville.

In 1899, Bishop Byrne assigned Father Callahan to be an associate pastor at Immaculate Conception Parish in Knoxville, with a secondary charge of overseeing missions in the area. In 1903-04, he was transferred to Johnson City, where he would be the full-time missionary priest to bring the Church to believers in 34 of the current 36 counties of the Diocese of Knoxville. He would serve in that role until 1916.

He loved mission work, the hills and mountains of East Tennessee, and especially the mountain people.

In his booklet “Lonesome Coves,” Father Callahan wrote: “After an early rise and early Mass, Rebel hits the trail for the top of the Blue Ridge … Mass is said on a 100-year-old bureau. All are converts here. Again, what a pleasure to see, morning after morning, Catholics approach Holy Communion. On seeing Rebel, children run for their catechisms.”

In 1911, Father Callahan traveled to Chicago to meet with the leaders of the Catholic Extension Society, a U.S. organization established in 1905 to raise money to help bring the Catholic Church to isolated faith communities such as those in East Tennessee at the time.

Father Callahan delivered an impassioned presentation to the Catholic Extension Society leaders and persuaded them to financially support his ministry.

In a June 1910 article for the Catholic Extension Society, Janet Muir Gray wrote, “When Bishop Byrne, of Nashville, who had long realized the need of mountain missions, appointed the Rev. E.F. Callahan to that missionary field in 1903, he knew that fellow creatures, in direst need of the light of faith, were in those mountain fastnesses — in direst poverty and darkest ignorance.

“He fully comprehended the untold patience, the God-like faith, and Christian charity, necessary to save the souls imprisoned there. In turning the charge over to the young priest, who had volunteered to undertake the work, the bishop put the mission before him in its true colors, telling of the hardships, the untold sacrifices, that the work meant.

“But the brave heart of Father Callahan never quailed. He was all the more anxious to take it up, and during long, hot summer days, as well as when the snows of winter draped the cabin window, and cold winds rocked the cabins, he has been in the saddle, carrying on the mission work. When he began, fully 70 percent of the population were not affiliated with any church.”

Father Callahan and his brother

From Father Callahan’s assignment to the Johnson City missions “until his death, he was happiest when tending to the poor and the forgotten,” his obituary read.

“He traveled all through the Smokies, in the hills along the border of Kentucky and Tennessee … dotting his trail with tiny wilderness chapels, often built with his own hands. His Mass kit strapped to the saddle of Old Rebel, his beloved sorrel, or in the back of his Ford, which was equipped with a camping outfit in case darkness overtook him on the road, he searched out Catholics who had not seen a priest in years, gave the sacraments to the very old and the very young, blessed marriages, and distributed Communion.

“For him, it was not a penance to work among these people; he loved them, and they sensed it,” his obituary stated.

The circuit-riding priest carried Catholicism to a region rife with anti-Catholic prejudice.

“Father Callahan taught by his gentleness and friendliness the real meaning of the Church,” his obituary read. “The Roman collar ceased to be something fearful when the man who wore the collar would dismount from Rebel and help to hoe the corn or chop the firewood.”

Churches erected in the era of Father Callahan’s service in East Tennessee included Our Lady of Lourdes in South Pittsburg in 1899, Our Lady of Perpetual Help in LaFollette in 1905, St. Mary in Johnson City in 1906, Blessed Sacrament in Harriman in 1907, the Church of the Resurrection in Cleveland (later St. Thérèse of Lisieux) in 1914, and St. Elizabeth in Elizabethton in 1916.

In 1906, Father Callahan assumed charge of the Deer Lodge mission in Morgan County. He broke three buggies trying to locate families in the Deer Lodge section.

Father Callahan wrote volumes of poetry, including “Smokey Mountain Idylls — Sunny Hours on the Mission Trails.”

He later served as pastor of the Cleveland missions from 1918 to 1920, and served as pastor of several Middle and West Tennessee parishes. In his later years, he was intimately associated with the missionary work of the Benedictine Fathers at Belmont Abbey, N.C., and at the Benedictine Priory, Nassau, Bahamas.

At the time of his death in 1944, he was the senior priest of the Diocese of Nashville.



“The Man from Tennessee”

He comes from far-off Tennessee,
Where mountain ranges high
Obstruct the view on every hand
And pierce the clouds and sky.
He rides a horse upon the trail;
Likewise a classic mule;
He preaches sometimes in a church,
But oftener in a “skule.”

He’s not afraid to tell his tale
To bishop, clerk or kid.
His hair is long, his flanks are lean,
The dust is on his “lid.”
His clothes were new so long ago
That now the threads you see;
But the heart is right, the eye is bright—
Of this man from Tennessee.

Unstring your wad, uncork your store,
And give him what you’ve got.
Make up your mind the least to give
Is your lone and last ten-spot.
He’ll spend it well and quickly, too;
He’ll spend it joyfull-ee –
The mountain priest of bony length,
Who comes from Tennessee.

Catholic Extension Service poet

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.