St. Mary Parish breaks ground on parish life center

Gatlinburg church will have more room for CCD classes, other youth and adult programs

By Dan McWilliams

St. Mary Church in Gatlinburg is bursting at the seams, and the 85-year-old community just recently broke ground on a new parish life center that will help provide space for a growing number of CCD students and for parish meetings, office space, and other needs.

Bishop Richard F. Stika presided Oct. 19 at the groundbreaking and blessings of the site and cornerstone for the new facility. St. Mary pastor Father Antony Punnackal, CMI, was present, as were diocesan chancellor Deacon Sean Smith, Gatlinburg mayor Mike Werner, city manager Cindy Ogle, and many parishioners.

The parish’s CCD (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine) program was dormant, with some youth receiving instruction in other parishes, until Father Punnackal and director of religious education Stacy Champagne restarted it in recent years. Two small basement classrooms and the daily chapel are currently being used for meeting space, with the St. Mary’s Grotto outdoors as a warm-weather meeting site.

Bishop Richard F. Stika blesses the cornerstone for the new parish life center for St. Mary Church in Gatlinburg on Oct. 19. Also taking part were, from left, Deacon Sean Smith, Joe Barthol, and Father Antony Punnackal, CMI, pastor of St. Mary.

“We’re a unique place up here. There are not a lot of local people living up here, so the majority of our parishioners are tourists,” said parish  council chair Steve Champagne. “But we realized that there was a need for CCD programs and Catholic faith formation and different classes for our youth. Under Father Antony’s lead along with my wife, Stacy, they started the CCD program back up. They went from having 20 kids the first year to having over 90 the next year. With that kind of explosive growth, we had nowhere to put these kids. We were using wall dividers to put them on one side of the church or the other.

“The CCD program is thriving. It’s doing very well, even in spite of COVID,” he added.

That situation helped lead to 2016 conversations within the parish as to what to do, Mr. Champagne said. The parish rolls had grown to 125 permanent families, with tremendous growth in Hispanic family numbers, for a Catholic community that welcomes hundreds of tourists every spring and summer. The parish office is currently housed in the rectory, which is not a suitable location.

“Our CCD program was growing rapidly. Through the success of many volunteers, Father Antony did a great job of really pushing the youth in our programs,” Mr. Champagne said.

“We realized we were running out of space. We needed a parish office. We needed a larger gathering space for church functions. It was decided by the parish council way back in 2016 to explore available options for the parish to obtain the additional space that was needed. After looking at possibilities, it was placed on hold due to the devastating fires that reached our community [in November 2016].

“On May 10, 2017, the parish received the bishop’s approval to form the building committee. From there we determined feasibility studies to decide what was best and could we move forward. Later that summer in July of ’17, the very first town-hall meetings were held to inform parishioners and garner their opinions and ideas, and overwhelming approval was given to the parish council to have the building committee proceed. Later we received the bishop’s approval to hire an architect in September of 2017.

“The architect did a great job, helped us put all of our ideas on paper, and get us to where we are today. Bishop Stika traveled here in October of 2018 for the Saturday vigil Mass to address the congregation and express his support for the new parish life center. Now, a little over three years later, and after many town-hall meetings, the results of this intense and complex procedure are provided here today, and we’re glad you’re here to celebrate with us,” he added.

The parish life center’s architect is Dan Brewer of Knoxville, and the contractors are Jenkins & Stiles, also of Knoxville.

“St. Mary’s has played a very important role in the community itself as well as in welcoming visitors. It’s a real parish of hospitality, but the parish is continually seeing growth,” Bishop Stika said. “Father Antony has done a great job. He has built upon the foundation of previous pastors—I’m remembering Monsignor Phil Thoni, who just loved this place. It’s a mark of the growth of the Catholic Church in East Tennessee but especially in this Gatlinburg area. Just like the church was built a number of years ago, this is another component that reflects growth and beauty. And I look forward to coming back—hopefully we won’t have to wear masks—when we dedicate it, maybe the end of next year sometime.”

Under Monsignor Thoni’s leadership, with the help of its large tourist base and the financial support the tourists provide, St. Mary Parish became known for its generous contributions to diocesan parishes and schools.

Mr. Champagne stood at the microphone in front of the parish life center site, where the St. Mary’s Grotto now stands, to the left of the church.

Bishop Richard F. Stika, center, and project leaders break ground on the new parish life center for St. Mary Church in Gatlinburg on Oct. 19.

“Today is a very important day in the history of St. Mary’s here in Gatlinburg. As Bishop Stika explained, this has been years in the making,” Mr. Champagne said. “What you will see behind me is a single-story, 3,200-square-foot center that will consist of a large meeting area, capable of supporting three enclosed classroom spaces, a business office, and a separate pastor’s office, along with additional conference rooms and a much larger improved kitchen space for parishioners.

“An important aspect of this plan is the fact that the new center will be where St. Mary’s Grotto now sits. Therefore, as the project begins, St. Mary’s Grotto will be moving. It will be moving to the front-right side of the church, if you’re looking at it from the street. We’ll be building a new rosary garden and moving Mary to the front. The cost of the project is expected to be $1.3 million.”

Bishop Stika spoke of an interview he held with Father Punnackal.

“He has energy and commitment and a sense of holiness, and he comes to serve his people,” the bishop said.

Following the bishop’s turn at the podium, he blessed the ground for the site of the parish life center as well as the cornerstone for the new building.

“Father, we ask your blessing upon this cornerstone, for it reminds us that Jesus is the cornerstone, and upon him and the foundation we build this building,” Bishop Stika prayed.

Father Punnackal said the parish life center is “for St. Mary’s parishioners and visiting parishioners.”

“We didn’t have a parish life center, so this is going to be a multipurpose center with a parish hall and dividers for the classrooms, a parish office, a larger kitchen, meeting room, restrooms, and everything,” he said.

“That’s going to fulfill the needs of the parish. We were lacking these. We are fortunate, with the help of so many parishioners and visiting parishioners and well-wishers. Still we are collecting money for the completion of the work.”

The sources of funds for the project are not only contributions from parishioners and visitors but also matching grants and the parish’s Home Campaign. Two well-wishers contributed five-figure amounts, Father Punnackal said.

Mayor Werner spoke at the groundbreaking and offered a prayer.

“Bishop Stika, Father Antony, congratulations. This is a great day for Gatlinburg, a great day for the parishioners of St. Mary’s,” he said. “Just think of the thousands of different people who come here every year—this is part of their Gatlinburg experience: going to Mass at St. Mary’s. And a new parish life center—this is amazing. This is great.”

Mr. Champagne said there are several people to thank.

“We’d like to thank our architect, Dan Brewer, and the Jenkins & Stiles team, for working with us. We’d also like to thank our bishop for your guidance and support, your blessings—we’ve received more than one phone call,” he said. “Two people who we’d especially like to thank: Bob Bentz and Joe Lelonek. Their expertise is unfounded. They’re great. These guys are amazing. They’re the backbone of this project. They’ve put so much sweat-equity into this and personal knowledge and experience. It’s been amazing.

“People say to me, ‘When will it be ready?’ Six months, seven months, eight months—we’ve heard all different things, but as you know it’s a building project, and things under construction seem to take time, but we’re estimating seven to eight months as of now, depending on the severity of the weather. With God’s blessing and your continued support and generosity, we will have our new parish life center completed and ready for the 2021-2022 school year.”

Mr. Bentz, the building committee chair, and his business partner, Mr. Lelonek, are “two people who really put a ton of tremendous work in this,” Mr. Champagne said. “They do a lot of projects here in town. They’re parishioners. They also do some work with[theme park] Anakeesta in Gatlinburg, but they’ve really been a backbone of working with our architects and working with people. They have a tremendous construction background. They’re also assisting us with the new rosary garden, as the St. Mary’s Grotto gets moved from its current location right behind where the groundbreaking took place. It’ll be moved up to the front, right side of the church, and that’ll be the rosary garden and grotto.”

Mr. Lelonek and building committee member Steve Reilly were among those joining the bishop in wielding shovels at the groundbreaking.

“The building committee was formed in 2016, and they’ve been working on this all this time,” Mr. Champagne said.

“Of course, we had tremendous delays with the fires in Gatlinburg and some other things that came through.”

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