Debt of gratitude

Norris parishioners welcome Bishop Stika, who celebrates Mass at newly unencumbered St. Joseph

By Bill Brewer

Debt. Many parishes have it, yet can’t wait to be rid of it. Others without it are grateful on one hand, but on the other wonder what funds from a 30-year note could build.

St. Joseph Parish in Norris won’t have to worry about principal and interest for a while after Bishop Richard F. Stika joined Father Richard Armstrong on Jan. 26 to “burn the mortgage” and retire the parish’s debt—nearly six years early.

Bishop Stika celebrated Mass at the Anderson County church and delivered the homily, preaching the light of Christ, accomplishment through God, ownership, gratitude, faith in the face of division, and some papal current events.

On a recent visit to the Vatican to meet with Pope Francis, Bishop Stika told the congregation he shared with the Holy Father the many good things happening in the Diocese of Knoxville.

“We’re a small diocese, but we’re very much alive,” Bishop Stika told the Holy Father.

After his Sunday sermon, something similar could be said of St. Joseph—“We’re a small parish, but we’re very much alive.”

The bishop highlighted St. Joseph Parish as a faith community that joins hands in service to God, a strong sign of unity in a world increasingly divided. There are 140 families in the parish.

Bishop Stika praises St. Joseph parishioners for their volunteer spirit during his homily on Jan. 26.

“There are so many issues that divide our nation right now. If you look at it, there’s 50 percent this and 50 percent that. So, if you look at it logically, it’s probably in your families and in this parish,” Bishop Stika said. “I love history. My hobby is presidential history. And when I look at the United States, we’re probably more divided now than we have been since, well, I was going to say the Civil War, but I know in this part of the country it’s the War Between the States, or the War of Northern Aggression.”

The bishop said he’s concerned that youth are not learning from history, citing a British poll that found most people under age 25 in Great Britain thought Winston Churchill was a fictional character. By ignoring history, could the divisions that led to great strife through the centuries resurface?

“The same thing happens, I think, in our Church today. At the beginning of December I had this extraordinary experience. Every five to eight years, every bishop in the world goes to Rome to visit the tomb of St. Peter and St. Paul. And then they give a report on their diocese as well as meet with the Holy Father,” Bishop Stika said.

“The highlight of this ad limina meeting was to meet with Pope Francis. About 35 of us met with him for three hours. When it started, we went into this big room, his library, and it was the pope, his translator, and us. He said, ‘I have no agenda. I want to talk to you as a brother.’ It was so extraordinary,” he added. “When I fi rst met the pope, as I entered, I said, ‘Holy Father, the Diocese of Knoxville is praying for you.’ And we do that at every Mass. He pulled me into himself a bit, smiled, and said, ‘For? Or against?’”

As the bishop smiled, the St. Joseph congregation laughed. But Bishop Stika underscored the anecdote to illustrate his point. Division is spreading.

Nowhere is the divide greater than on social media. The bishop recounted his own experiences— as a parish priest and as bishop—with the divide. He recalled a church in his home Archdiocese of St. Louis, where people in the congregation would nod in agreement on some issues he would address in his homilies, like the sanctity of life, while shaking their heads in disagreement over other issues, like the death penalty.

“There are so many issues in the world in which we live that actually are dividing us. Have you been defriended on Facebook or unfollowed on Twitter? I’m there on Facebook and Instagram, and I’m nice. On Twitter, I commit sin because I like to engage people and throw pieces of meat out there and see how they respond,” he said.

Bishop Richard F. Stika greets a young gift bearer during Mass Jan. 26 at St. Joseph Church in Norris. Bishop Stika celebrated the Mass and took part in a mortgage-burning ceremony afterward.

For or against notwithstanding, Bishop Stika appealed to the St. Joseph members to closely follow the Scripture readings from the weekend of Jan. 25-26. In Isaiah 8:23-9:3, people in darkness have seen a great light, and the Scripture asks: “For is not everything dark as night for a country in distress?” But there was rejoicing for people who saw the light of Christ. In the Gospel, Matthew 4:12-23, Jesus fulfilled the words spoken by the prophet Isaiah and began proclaiming the Good News as he began choosing his apostles, and urging people to repent, “for the kingdom of Heaven is close at hand.”

And in the second reading, 1 Corinthians 1:1-13, 17, Paul implored the Corinthians to not have factions among them and to be in agreement, united in their beliefs and judgments.

“I think the readings we have today are profound in terms of refl ecting. The fi rst reading is a beautiful reading from Isaiah, and it talks about a light in the darkness that attracts us. It’s Christ. Jesus lights up a dark world. In the second reading there is Paul, who said, ‘I hear there is division among you. Some say I belong to this, and some say I belong to that,’” Bishop Stika said.

He recalled a story from Cardinal Justin Rigali about St. Paul VI, who was known as a gentle man. However, in a meeting on Church affairs amid division among those attending, Pope Paul VI suddenly slammed his hand loudly on a table and with raised voice said, “Enough! This Church is not your Church. This Church is not my Church. This Church belongs to Jesus, to God.’ And the Holy Father quoted the second reading.

The bishop then complimented St. Joseph parishioners for working in the spirit of agreement and cooperation to fulfill the Good News and show that Jesus is alive in the St. Joseph community.

“One of the reasons I’m so overjoyed to be with you today is, and Father Armstrong was just telling me this, the unity of this parish. You have much to be proud of,” Bishop Stika said. “When I look at this parish, I see all kinds of involvement. There are people in each parish who are much more out front, but a majority of people in all parishes are behind the scenes.”

Father Armstrong offered a chronology of St. Joseph’s development through the years.

  • In 1991, the parish moved from its original location on West Norris Road in Norris to its present site at 3425 Andersonville Highway. At this time, the parish established its first mortgage with the diocese for the church sanctuary and site work. In 1991, the original mortgage with the diocese was $400,000, with monthly mortgage payments of $3,138.
  • In 1996, St. Joseph added the parish hall, which is the rest of the church beyond the second set of pews in the rear of the church.
  • In 2002, the rectory on Dairypond Road was acquired.
  • In 2008, the choir area was added in the church nave in addition to removing a wall that separated the nave from the parish hall. A moveable wall was installed to separate the sanctuary and nave from the parish hall.
  • In 2010, the home and property to the east of the church were purchased and developed into a building for religious education and meetings.

“In each case, the parish had significantly paid down the mortgage balance before making the next investment.

Working with staff from the diocese, St. Joseph was able to roll the balance of our prior loan into a revised mortgage that helped the parish fund each acquisition and the associated improvements,” Father Armstrong said. “As a result, the parish has had a mortgage since 1991 until it was recently paid off. Now, for the first time in 28 years, the parish is debt free. This is 70 months ahead of the original scheduled payoff date of May 2025.”

Bishop Stika congratulated the parish for its efforts to become debt-free, and then he wondered how long that will last.

“You’ve paid off the debt. And you finally got a dishwasher. You have one part-time employee, with all these volunteers,” the bishop said. “I said to Father Richard, so now you’re out of debt. How are you going to get back in debt? He said maybe someday you will enlarge the church, maybe add on a kitchen or some classrooms.”

Following Mass, Bishop Stika and Father Armstrong led the parishioners outside, where a facsimile of the mortgage was burned in a small fire pit. Bishop Stika gave thanks to God for the people who had made that moment possible, then the congregation clapped as the faux mortgage document burned.

Afterward, Bishop Stika remarked how he has celebrated Mass with mortgage-burning ceremonies several times recently, including at St. Mary Parish in Johnson City and Holy Family Parish in Seymour. And he said Notre Dame Parish in Greeneville is talking about adding on to a hall that he broke ground on just a few years ago.

“St. Joseph, a parish with about 140 families, paid off its debt five years ahead of time. It has one part-time employee and that’s it. Everyone else volunteers. The church looks good; it’s immaculate. Father Armstrong is providing great leadership,” the bishop said. “It’s about ownership. And people are very faithful to that. And they’re already talking about possibly expanding, so they’ll go back into debt and it will come back again.”

Members of St. Joseph Parish in Norris participate in a Jan. 26 Mass celebrated by Bishop Stika.

He noted that so many diocesan parishes, when they were established, didn’t have enough money but scraped together enough resources to build a nice building, but a small building, whether it was a church or a parish hall—a situation that resonates with most priests, including Father Armstrong, who establish parishes.

In addition to pastoring St. Joseph, Father Armstrong leads St. Therese in Clinton, where he is parish administrator, and St. Thomas the Apostle Eastern Catholic Mission in Knoxville.

“This would not have been possible but for the tremendous amount of time volunteered by the members of this parish to perform functions that many parishes pay staff to handle. In addition, the generous contributions from parishioners were absolutely essential to make this happen,” Father Armstrong said about the St. Joseph debt retirement.

Bishop Stika called St. Joseph and its members the light of Christ, just as the readings described. He sees that same light in Catholic communities throughout the Diocese of Knoxville, and he appreciates the unity of parishioners throughout the diocese.

“I want you to know from the depths of my heart how much of a joy it is for me to visit parishes like this, especially for celebrations. I have a great love and affection for all of you. I’m so honored to be the bishop here now coming up on 11 years,” the bishop said. “We have much to be proud of, but also we have much work to do. And we focus on Jesus on this great day of thanksgiving for this church of St. Joseph in beautiful Norris, Tenn. And please know how grateful I am for you,” he said.

“One of the great things about being a bishop here is I know this parish and I know so many of you as I travel throughout the diocese. Just as in the Gospel reading, I’m sure there are things I have decided that you may disagree with or wonder about. That’s all right. If I don’t please you always, know that I pray over all decisions, just like I hope all the priests and leaders of this diocese do. But I’m not perfect, and you aren’t perfect. But we’re striving for holiness,” he added.

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