Recently completed project fulfills 5-year plan
By Dan McWilliams
Bishop Richard F. Stika dedicated the new parish life center at St. Mary Church in Gatlinburg on Aug. 22, blessing a building that will give the growing parish space for CCD classes, offices, and more.
The dedication followed the 11 a.m. Mass, during which Bishop Stika addressed a church full of parishioners and tourists.
“This is a very historic moment for this parish of St. Mary’s in Gatlinburg,” he said. “It’s a small parish, but it welcomes tourists probably from around the world. Today we’re going to dedicate their new parish center, which is great—they need it because of the growth of this parish, especially in CCD and functions. . . . This is a very special moment.”
The new parish life center is a 3,200-square-foot single-story building that cost about $1 million.
The bishop also blessed the St. Mary grotto, which was moved when the parish life center was built to a new location at the right-front of the property, and a rosary garden by the grotto.
St. Mary pastor Father Antony Punnackal, CMI, concelebrated the Mass, as did Father David Boettner, vicar general and rector of the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, and Father Moisés Moreno, associate pastor of St. Mary and of Holy Cross in Pigeon Forge and leader of the Hispanic communities at those parishes. Diocesan chancellor Deacon Sean Smith assisted at the Mass and dedication of the parish life center.
Bishop Stika began his homily by referring to the story of the wedding at Cana, where Mary told the wedding workers to ‘do as He tells you,’ referring to her son, Jesus.
“For many decades now, this parish of St. Mary’s in Gatlinburg has been doing just that,” the bishop said.
He said the Diocese of Knoxville is “growing at a wonderful pace, but with many of our parishes, the churches were small because of the small Catholic population. This is a smaller church, but, you know, it’s in the right location. Even though we’re landlocked, this parish made the decision a few years ago to ‘do as He tells you.’
“For, after all, didn’t Jesus say, ‘go therefore and baptize all people,’ to teach the faith, to share the faith? And part of our ministry here at St. Mary’s and the ministry of all parishes, I think, is the ministry of welcome and hospitality, for we’re all invited by our Lord Jesus to celebrate the Eucharist, to be nourished with His most precious body and blood, the soul and divinity.”
Bishop Stika congratulated the parish and its members.
“This parish has had a long history and a beautiful history, especially in an area many times that has been very anti-Catholic,” he said. “I’ve got tons of stories about that because people just didn’t understand who we are and what we believe in and how we celebrate. St. Mary’s has inherited the long tradition, and it continues on.”
The bishop asked Father Punnackal to stand up, after which the St. Mary pastor received a hearty round of applause from the assembly.
“He’s done a lovely job, and so have all the people who have been involved in your parish, because they’re making a statement of faith [with the new building],” Bishop Stika said. “They wish to educate the children and welcome people with a tremendous gift of hospitality, especially for those of you who are tourists so that you have a place to come and once again witness the miracle of the Eucharist.”
The bishop repeated one of his favorite sayings.
“One of my mantras for 13 years now has been to be the face of Jesus, to be His smile, to be His hands, to be His person because that is what attracts other people to the faith,” he said.
Bishop Stika told the story of a dying Hindu woman who met Mother Teresa and was afraid the future saint was going to convert her to Christianity.
The woman said, “What is the name of your God?” the bishop said. “Mother Teresa’s answer was, ‘One name is love,’ as simple as that. This parish has been doing that in a variety of different ways: outreaches to the community, to the poor, to the immigrants, to the tourists. And it has done so many wonderful things over these decades and will continue to do so, and that’s why we’re here today.”
The new parish life center made the best of the land available at St. Mary, Bishop Stika noted.
“As you can tell, land is not plentiful at this parish, but the [building] committee did a great job in terms of trying to fit in some space,” he said. “In the course of that they had to move a beautiful grotto, which is now in front of the church, which I’m going to bless and dedicate today.”
Following the Gospel reading, the bishop gave one of the shortest homilies on record.
“I’m supposed to give a homily here, so my homily is, congratulations. Continue to be good disciples and be intentional in your discipleship,” he said.
After Mass, the assembly followed Bishop Stika to the left-hand rear side of the property for the blessing of the parish life center. The bishop was given the keys to the front door, which he unlocked for the procession to enter the new building.
St. Mary office manager Mike Sweeney stepped to the microphone and thanked a number of people for their efforts leading to the dedication of the parish life center and the rosary garden, including Bishop Stika and his staff; architects Brewer Ingram Fuller of Knoxville; Jenkins & Stiles General Contractors of Knoxville; parish committees; St. Mary parishioners and visitors; “and the very loving friends of Father Antony, who without their support, the completion of our new center would not have been possible.”
The bishop then led the worshipers back outside to the rosary garden, which is next to a pro-life garden. The bishop blessed the rosary garden and grotto but said he will return to St. Mary to bless the pro-life garden.
“I’ve decided to come back when we get the pro-life statue up, hopefully in October because that’s the month of pro-life. You all will have to come back and stand in the very same places,” he said. “Thanks to you all, thanks to my brother Knights of Columbus and to everyone who was involved in the planning, the building, and the donations. This is truly a statement of faith here in beautiful downtown Gatlinburg.”
Father Punnackal said the dedication day marked “a long-cherished dream, hard work, contributions, prayer, fasting—all accomplished today, and we are so happy as a parish, and I am personally so happy that Bishop came and all these people came. It is a wonderful day, it’s a wonderful celebration, and it’s God’s blessings.”
Parishioner Kevin Tierney, who was chairman of the St. Mary Church council when the project began, said the first meeting with Bishop Stika to get the project off the ground took place in November 2016, two weeks before wildfires devastated much of Gatlinburg.
“This is great,” he said of the dedication. “What it means is that we have a growing CCD program. That’s always how I look at it, and we always tell the tourists when we ask for their money is that this is a good thing in our town because not only does it give us some offices and take the offices out of our rectory, but it also gives us three new classrooms because we have a growing CCD program.”
The rosary garden is a passion of parishioner Karen Bentz and husband Bob. The family did the landscape design and made a donation to the project, Mrs. Bentz said.
“I think [the garden] offers an opportunity to help other people who are not Catholic understand our faith and the way that we honor the Blessed Virgin Mary,” she said. “For me it’s the culmination of a lifelong spirituality and depending on the rosary for my growth spiritually. To bring this to our parish and our community is an incredible honor for myself and our family.”
Mrs. Bentz also credited parishioner Joe Lelonek for his help with the project.
“He was also very instrumental. He’s one of our business partners, and he’s also Catholic and worked very hard to develop and build the parish life center,” she said.
Madeline Samec, who said she may be “possibly a new member” of St. Mary Parish soon, was the horticulturalist for the rosary garden.
“It was a lot of hard work from a lot of people. They did a wonderful job. Plant selection was easy. It was a lot of fun doing the work,” she said.
The basic work of the planting did not take long, she said.
“We went down and got it one day, got it in the ground another day. That’s two, but we had to do the foundation of it, bringing mulch, mushroom compost, and all the other elements to make this work,” Ms. Samec said. “It took two or three weeks to get it all garden-wise correct. There was a lot of work before then: the laying of the brick, the electrical work, all the people who were involved.”